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12 September 2013

Bringing home a piece of Alaska

Krissie Karpinski at Denali National Park Image: Krissie Karpinski at Denali National Park  

1:30am? Surely not...

After living in airports and planes for 35 hours, lost baggage, and the most prestigious of coach class seats, I stepped outside the Fairbanks International Airport at an unholy hour of the morning only to find the sky was as bright as if it had been midday. Despite being so far north, it was a beautiful 25 degrees Celsius, and I was completely comfortable wearing a t-shirt. All my assumptions of Alaska had all of a sudden been thrown out the window.

After a four-hour train ride from Fairbanks Train Depot to Denali National Park, I met my fellow composers at the Murie Science and Learning Centre and we all got a debrief of the adventure that we were about to embark on. Of the nine composers participating in the trip, seven represented various parts of America, one made the trip from Sweden, and I was the resident Australian. We were each allocated different combinations of instruments to write for, introduced to our guides, then we piled into a van to leave civilisation, technology and showers behind.

Upon arrival at our field camp, we got a run-down of basic bear safety, then set off for our first hike through boreal forest and lowlands. We arrived back at camp with wet boots, wet socks, and wet pants. Over the next four days we would hike up to dizzying summits, down through creek beds, and even to a subarctic lake to cool off one warm day. Each evening we let our ideas loose on paper and in discussions in our communal yurt; exhausted, in awe of our surroundings, and most likely a little smelly.

During each day, we would stop at different locations and take about an hour or so to sit and write, using our trusty pencils and manuscript books, and the inspiration from around us. From day one what struck me was the mist covering the mountain tops and how two opposing forces of nature could connect, and seem so very within my reach. I decided to represent this through my instrumentation; two violins, viola and bassoon. I had the violins adopt the role of the mist and sky, using harmonics to create an ethereal feel. The viola became everything we can reach and the level we live on day to day. The bassoon was the deep in the earth, and everything moving and changing constantly (In fact, moving at the rate that our fingernails grow). By connecting my motifs through all the parts I tried to recreate the connections in my surroundings. There was one moment I also wrote into my piece, and that was our close encounter of a huge Golden Eagle soaring about a metre above us. I could not help but manifest this musically in a second violin solo, including slides and harmonic accompaniment.

Some of the things that inspired the other composers included the constant movement, force, and vitality of water in the environment, the many bird songs heard day to day, and the space and isolation we experienced. There was even a piece based on the very confronting and sad thought that, though we live on this planet, most of us could not survive out in nature. This was another type of isolation we explored: isolating ourselves from the earth itself and living in technology.

We were, in a way, each other's teachers, as well as leaning a lot from the scientists that spent time with us out in the park: Davyd our physicist and sounds specialist, Denny our geologist, and Timmy our guide and botanist. We shared our ideas, listened to one another's pieces and workshopped among ourselves, discussing techniques such as horn multiphonics, string harmonics, and blending our unique combinations of instruments successfully.

During our stay at our next locations (Coal Creek mining camp in the Yukon-Charley and University of Fairbanks Alaska campus respectively), we reacquainted ourselves with technology to notate and work on our scores. Available to us at this time were MIDI keyboards, our own laptops, and many books on notation, instruments and techniques. We had four more days to compile all our ideas and create our pieces until heading back to Fairbanks, where we would spend the last five days.

We each had three rehearsals with our performers from the Fairbanks Orchestra and the group Redshift. These took place on both of the two days leading up to our concert, where we were able to sort out what worked, what needed tweaking, and get some feedback from our performers. The experience we all shared came to a head the night of the concert, which went great and left us all feeling proud of ourselves and each other.

We each found something out there, or rather it found us, but either way we have each taken a part of Alaska with us to the places we call home. I have learned so much on both a musical and personal level, and would not trade it for the world.

AMC resources

'Composing in the wilderness - Denali National Park, summer 2012' - an article on Resonate by Scott McIntyre

Krissie Karpinski is a composition student and participant in the 2013 Composing in the Wilderness field seminar.


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