Texas composer celebrates Parks Centennial in Fairbanks
“Well, I’m sort of an adventurer-composer. I guess that’s the best I can offer,” Stephen Lias said, when asked to define his professional title.
Lias composed two of the three works in the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert for their 2016-2017 season, titled “Celebrating the Centennial of the National Parks Service,” which was held last Sunday. The Orchestra performed works inspired by the grandeur and beauty of 3 national parks: Denali, Gates of the Arctic and Grand Canyon National Parks.
“One of our park service goals in the centennial year is to… bring the parks to people who might not always get to go there.” Dave Schirokauer, chief of resources at Denali National Park, said. “[This concert] is one derivative product of the parks that we can bring to the urban area, and hope to inspire people to know what we’re about.”
Lias, who composed the pieces inspired by the Denali and Gates of the Arctic National Parks, has spent the past 6 summers in Alaska.
“I had been to Alaska once before in 2009 when I took a kayak adventure tour out of Valdez, and with each passing year, my fascination with this vast and inspiring wilderness increases,” Lias said.
Lias served as artist-in-residence at Denali National Park in 2011. Since then, he’s led the “Composing in the Wilderness” workshop offered each summer in collaboration between the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival and Alaska Geographic.
Both of Lias’ pieces were composed as the result of Artist-in-Residency programs offered by the parks. One of the requirements of the residencies is that participants produce artwork based on their experiences. Lias said that he likes to “get dirty”— he tries to focus on what is going on around him while he’s in residence, and doesn’t try to compose anything while he’s there. Instead, he takes thousands of photographs and make extensive notes in a journal, both of which he returns to once his experience is over and it is time to begin writing the piece.
“For the last 7 or 8 years, I have discovered that my adventure activities (particularly in national parks) have served as my most fertile sources of inspiration,” Lias said via email. “It has also (to my surprise) given me a unique identity as a composer. It allows me the opportunity to combine a variety of my strongest interests, and produces (I hope) music that seems to be reaching people.”
In a lecture offered before the concert on Sunday, an audience member asked Lias how long it typically takes him to finish a piece.
“It really depends,” Lias said. “I was working on the Gates of the Arctic piece and a piece about Glacier Bay at the same time, but the Glacier Bay piece would be performed earlier. So I had to put the Gate piece on hold. It took about six months. The group who premiered the Denali piece was scheduled to perform it very soon after my return [from the residency], so I finished that one in about a month.”
The concert featured not only the sounds of the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra, but also a projected multimedia presentation for each piece performed. Lias’ own photos were featured in all three pieces, combined with other stills and video clips produced by Park Service photographers. The Gates of the Arctic piece was written with this type of presentation in mind, Lias said, although this was the first time that the piece had been played in the state of Alaska. The photographs and videos were timed to the beat and movements in the music, with Lias operating the projection. Photographs of bear and wolves appeared alongside thrumming notes from the double bass, while videos of bees alighting on flower petals matched the droning of violins.
Alaska is home to fifteen national parks, preserves, monuments and national historic parks. The state also claims thirteen national wild areas, forty-nine National Historic Landmarks and a host of National Park Service offices. Alaskan land makes up over 60 percent of all of the land administered by the National Park Service. It is no surprise that an Alaskan locale would play host to a concert honoring the National Park Service Centennial.
“I have been working closely with the parks in Alaska and the Fairbanks community since 2011, but back in May of 2015, Greg Dudgeon, Superintendent of Gates of the Arctic National Park, met with Maestro Zilberkant and the symphony board in the hopes that they would consider … planning a park-themed concert,” Lias said. “Since I had written pieces about Denali and Gates, it made sense to have the Fairbanks Symphony include these pieces.”
The third piece performed by the Orchestra, the famous Grand Canyon Suite, was composed by Ferde Grofé between 1929-1931, and consists of five distinct movements all illustrating different elements of the park. Although the Grand Canyon Suite was written before most people owned a television, this was not the first time that suite had been accompanied by moving pictures. In 1958, Walt Disney produced a short film, featuring color film footage of the park set to the Grand Canyon Suite. The movie won an Academy Award in 1959 for Best Short Subject.
Lias has also been an Artist-in-Residence at Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Glacier Bay and Bering Land Bridge National Parks, and has written more than 10 pieces inspired by his experiences in National Parks. There are over 400 sites administered by the National Parks Service, but Lias said that, due in part to his schedule as a professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, he tends to lean towards the parks that offer summer programs.
“[I think about] how fragile and insignificant I am,” Lias said, about what he takes away from his experiences in the parks. “I find that the single most common line of thought that I end up with is one having to do with humility, and smallness, and fragility. It’s a big world out there.“