Composing Music about the National Parks of the USA
Writing place-inspired compositions is something I've been doing for most of my career. Examples include pieces like Central Park Suite, Boggy Slough, and Prince William Sound. Likewise, I've written plenty of music that attempts to capture the spirit of adventure (Songs of a Sourdough, Sea Dreams, White Water, etc.). I have always been predisposed to allow my interest in these things to inform my creative work. I even wrote one piece (Lechuguilla) that was about a national park, although I didn't know it at the time.
It wasn't until 2009, though, that I began an organized process of focusing on the national parks of the United States and creating a body of chamber and concert music that might help celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act (2014), and the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service (2016). Toward that end, I have undertaken the projects and adventures chronicled below.
It has been a surprise and delight to me that so many others have joined in this pursuit - either by creating their own wilderness-inspired music, or through performance or concert attendance. One of the most conspicuous outgrowths of this is the Composing in the Wilderness field seminar offered jointly by Alaska Geographic and the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival.
I sincerely hope that this project continues to grow and, as it does, I'll add events and pieces to the list here.
Inspired by a winter trip through Big Bend National Park's Santa Elena Canyon, I composed a three-movement sonata for trombone and piano titled River Runner. This piece was premiered by Deb Scott and Ron Petti at the 2009 conference of the National Association of Composers, USA in San Marcos, TX, and has subsequently been performed widely on recitals and conferences throughout the US. In 2014 it was published in the UK by Warwick Music.
In quick succession, I was asked to write pieces for trombone choir, and trumpet ensemble. Building on the momentum of River Runner, I chose to write these two pieces about Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, both of which are managed jointly and showcase some of California's most stunning scenery and wildlife.
Kings Canyon was premiered in Sydney, Australia at the 2010 Conference of the International Trumpet Guild.
In February of 2011, The Timberline Sonata was premiered at the Estes Park Music Festival in Colorado by Gary Wurtz (trumpet) and Ron Petti, piano. This sonata (in four movements) was the result of my 2010 residency at Rocky Mountain National Park and attempts to capture the most iconic experiences of the park. I wrote an article about the experience and it was published in the Fall 2011 issue of National Parks Magazine.
Early in 2011 I was commissioned by the Oasis Quartet to write a new piece for saxophone quartet and percussion ensemble to be premiered in July in Chiayi City, Taiwan. For my subject matter, I chose a dramatic search and rescue incident that occurred at Mount Rainier National Park in 2004. The resulting piece has subsequently been performed in Texas and at the 2012 North American Saxophone Alliance Conference in Arizona.
In May of 2011, I was the first composer ever to serve as an Artist-in-Residence at Denali National Park in Alaska. My visit there led to the subsequent establishment of the Denali Music Festival, and the Composing in the Wilderness field seminar offered jointly by the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival and Alaska Geographic. The resulting composition was premiered in Texas by the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin, and received its Alaska premiere in the Denali Visitors Center the following summer.
Percussionist Brad Meyer approached me in 2012 about the possibility of commissioning a new piece for marimba. As has become my habit, I asked "Can it be about a national park?" He agreed, and I chose Carlsbad Caverns as my subject. With only a limited time window available to me, I drove to the park and took the immersive guided spelunking trip to the "Hall of the White Giant." The piece was premiered in Danville, Kentucky.
Also in 2012, I had the rare opportunity to travel in Alaska for the entire summer on a research grant and gather inspiration and research for three large-scale compositions (all of which had their premiere in 2014).
In February of 2013, I drove to Mesa Verde National Park (my second visit there) and had the rare opportunity to have a private tour of some of the Puebloan Dwellings with a park ranger. The silence and tranquility of the locale, magnified by the many inches of fresh snow, made the "ghosts" of this remarkable place all the more palpable. I composed a duo for two flute players which was premiered by Christina Guenther and Mariana Gariazzo in August at the annual convention of the National Flute Association.
This year marked the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act in the US and, as such, it was full of activity. I completed the scores for Glacier Bay, Gates of the Arctic, and Kennecott, and also composed a new sonata (Range of Light) for saxophone and piano based on Ansel Adams' iconic photographs of Yosemite National Park.
During the month of June, I served as the Artist-in-Residence for Glacier National Park in Montana. I spent four weeks living in a cabin on Lake MacDonald, exploring the park, and giving presentations in the park visitors centers. This residency resulted in a new orchestral work called Crown of the Continent.
September saw the world premiere of Gates of the Arctic by the Boulder Philharmonic (Colorado) under the direction of Maestro Michael Butterman.
Following a successful Kickstarter campaign in early 2015, I released Encounters: Music Inspired By Our National Parks. This CD of chamber music features River Runner (about Big Bend), The Ghosts of Mesa Verde, Range of Light (about Yosemite), Hall of the White Giant (about Carlsbad Caverns), and Denali. The CD bears the official NPS centennial logo and a portion of all proceeds goes to the National Park Foundation. Range of Light was also released on a second CD featuring only my saxophone compositions performed by saxophonist Nathan Nabb.
In May I finished the score and parts to Crown of the Continent - a short celebratory piece for orchestra written as a result of my residency at Glacier National Park in 2014. This piece was recorded in October, and is scheduled to be released on a CD by Parma Records in 2016.
In June, I spent time exploring the parks of the Pacific Northwest including a weeklong backpack of the Olympic Coast, and visits to San Juan Islands National Historic Site, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades national parks.
In July I was honored to be able to make a multimedia presentation at the Regional Headquarters of the National Park Service in Anchorage, and then make other presentations about music and the parks at Denali, Fairbanks, and Kantishna. Before returning home, I made a stop in Colorado to attend a performance of The Ghosts of Mesa Verde in Greeley.
Rounding out the year with fantastic news, we learned in December that the Boulder Philharmonic received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to commission me for a new orchestral piece about Rocky Mountain National Park. The piece will be premiered both in Colorado, and also at Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as part of the SHIFT Festival of American Orchestras.
The centennial year of the National Park Service! This year is packed with activity. Here's a summary:
In January I spent a week meeting with park officials and orchestra staff of the Boulder Philharmonic in Rocky Mountain National Park (as well as doing a little snowshoeing. I collected photographs from the park archives for the upcoming piece I'll be writing, and arranged to come back for a 2-week residency in June.
In February, I teamed up with my colleagues at SFA to present a full recital of park-inspired pieces, including the premiere public presentation of a new "Art and Inspiration" film from Denali National Park.
In March, saxophonist Nathan Nabb performed Range of Light at the North American Saxophone Alliance convention in Lubbock, TX. In April, the Shreveport Symphony presented Gates of the Arctic as part of its season finale concert. In May I spent two weeks in residence at St. Gaudens National Historic Site where I began the process of composing a new commission titled ...into the blue that was eventually premiered by the Arianna String Quartet in August. June involved a two-week visit to Rocky Mountain National Park for an inspirational time and to start composing All the Songs that Nature Sings for the Boulder Philharmonic.
In July I returned for the fifth year of Composing in the Wilderness and also served as the special emphasis speaker at Camp Denali/North Face Lodge in Kantishna, AK.
The first week of August saw me flying to the very western part of Alaska to serve as Artist-in-Residence at Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. Following that, I headed down to Homer, AK for the 2016 Wild Shore Festival for New Music in August. Their entire program this year focused on the national parks, and include my piece Jeffrey Pine. Following their performances in Alaska, this amazing group of performers presented the same concert at Federal Hall in New York City, and then once more on the National Mall in Washington DC on the exact day that the National Park Service turned 100.
In September, percussionist Sean Statser played my Hall of the White Giant in the Hamptons of New York, and then the year was rounded out by symphonic performances of my park-inspired pieces by the Fairbanks and Anchorage symphonies in October and November.
What a wonderful, rewarding, and exhausting year!