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Stephen F. Austin State University

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Composing Alaska: Professor's music pays homage to national parks

Dr. Stephen Lias, music professor and 1991 graduate of SFA, backpacks near the headwaters of the Killik River in Gates of the Arctic National Park. Photo courtesy of Zachary Richter.

Alone in a tiny floating cabin in Alaska's pristine Glacier Bay is perhaps the last place one would expect to find an SFA music professor composing a symphony. But that's exactly how Dr. Stephen Lias spent part of last summer while serving as artist-in-residence at Glacier Bay, Wrangell-St. Elias and Gates of the Arctic national parks.

Lias' two-month immersion in the Alaskan wilderness served as inspiration for three planned large concert works, one for band and two for orchestra, to be completed within the coming year. The compositions are the latest in a series of chamber and concert works by Lias evoking the wildlife, scenery, danger and cultural history of America's national parks.

The project also includes music inspired by Lias' visits to Big Bend, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Rocky Mountain, Denali and Carlsbad Caverns national parks during the past four years. Earlier works from the series have been performed nationally and internationally, often by his fellow faculty members in the SFA School of Music. His 2011 work "Denali" for string orchestra was premiered in Texas by the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin from Moscow and later performed inside the national park by the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival Orchestra. The performance represented the first time an orchestra had been invited to perform within the boundaries of the national park.

A self-described "adventurer-composer," Lias said he hopes the project will culminate in a compilation of the works to be released in 2016, coinciding with the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service. Toward this end, the professor has logged all manner of wilderness adventures, from climbing Colorado's 14,000-foot Long's Peak to kayaking Santa Elena Canyon on the U.S.-Mexico border to following 1,000 migrating caribou in Gates of Alaska National Park.

"My process is to immerse myself in the iconic experience of a particular park - backpacking, kayaking, rafting or whatever it may be," explained Lias, who earned his Master of Arts in music from SFA in 1991. "Mostly, I want to capture the experience of that unfolding adventure, writing music that really reveals what happened and how it felt to be out in the wilderness."

Lias' artist-in-residence experience in Alaska last summer was made possible through a faculty research grant awarded by the SFA Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. He also has been granted a faculty-development leave for the spring semester to work on the compositions, which he says will take up to a year to complete.

Dr. Carrie Brown, director of research and sponsored programs at SFA, said research grants like the one Lias received serve both to develop faculty members and positively impact student learning.

"It is essential that the faculty of a teaching institution such as SFA remain active in research and creative work, and Dr. Lias and many other members of our faculty have an extraordinary record of achievement in this area," she said. "Not only does this work inform and strengthen our teaching, but it also raises the national and international profile of the university."

While visiting the national parks, Lias says he rarely spends time actually composing, focusing more on getting the most of his wilderness experience. Once back in Nacogdoches, he relies on his journal notes, poetry and thousands of digital photos to keep his memories fresh while working on the pieces at home or in his SFA office.

"Sometimes musical ideas do start to form in my head while I am there, but that is the exception to the rule," he said. "Sometimes I'm journaling what my thought process is, sometimes it's simply what I did that day and other times it's little sketches of musical melodies or just shapes on a page to show I want a big splash of brass instruments playing something staccato followed by percussion going boom, boom, boom, boom. And I'll just scribble things on the page to try and capture those ideas so I don't lose them."

Rarely do the actual sounds of the park experience find their way directly into Lias' compositions. For example, he said, he would more likely attempt to musically recreate his own feelings at seeing a migrating herd of caribou than try to replicate with instruments the noises the caribou make.

"I know that when my pieces are performed, most people in the audience will not have the opportunity to visit Gates of the Arctic or Denali or Big Bend," he said. "But through my music, I hope they get to experience the park vicariously."

DaleLynn Gardner, coordinator of the artist-in-residence program at Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Alaska, said artists have been helping Americans connect with the country's wildest and most remote places for generations.

"Early artists are some of the reasons why the parks were created," she said. "Some of the paintings done in Yellowstone and Yosemite were brought into the lives of people who never would have visited these places. It inspired an awe in people that helped to foster a national appreciation for the parks. Art has the power to move people in a way that just telling them about a place doesn't do."

Lias was the first musical artist-in-residence to serve at Denali National Park. According to Denali arts coordinator Tim Rains, composers challenge listeners to experience the national parks in a unique way.

"The neat thing about musical artists-in-residence is that when someone creates a painting, they do it by themselves. But when someone composes a piece of music, other people get to play it. The music lives on as it is played by different musicians, and people listening to it in Texas or Indiana or Virginia get to feel what it's like to be in Alaska.

"For so many people, Alaska is not accessible. It is a land of mythos. We, of course, encourage people to visit, but the artist-in-residence program helps people recognize its value, even if they never have the opportunity to come here."

While in Alaska last summer, Lias also spent a week serving as instructor to nine other composers from around the world in the first-ever "Composing in the Wilderness" field seminar sponsored by Alaska Geographic, Denali National Park and the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. Guided by Lias, the composers spent four days in the Denali wilderness composing music that was performed live by professional musicians just a few days later.

"The places we were and the music that was created just took my breath away," said Lias, who will return to Denali to lead the seminar again this summer. "It was simply magic and totally unforgettable."