Stephen Lias, composer, photographer, professor, and adventurer, will be providing the projected imagery for Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite for the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s November 12-14 concerts, Grand Panorama.
When did you first start composing?
I’ve been composing all my life… in fact some of my early memories are of my mother showing me how to notate things I made up at the piano, but didn’t really specialize in it until I was in graduate school.
What stories come to mind that led to your choice to make music your career?
All careers in music are risky, and that is particularly true of composing. Will people want to play what I write? Will audiences want to hear it? With hundreds of years of brilliant music already out there, it takes a real leap of faith to believe that you can find your own place within the crowded landscape.
I didn’t have one transformative experience that pushed me towards choosing composition, but there were certainly lots of small nudges. I wasn’t particularly good at many other things, so when a piece of mine got played by our high school band, or sung by our choir, it was a real boost to my morale. The first time a publisher accepted a piece… the first time I got a “real” commission… these were further confirmations. Eventually, it became clear to me that fully committing to being a composer was really the only viable path for me to follow.
Who was most influential in shaping your talent and inspiring your passion for music?
Like most musicians, a lot of credit goes to terrific, supportive parents and great music teachers. My piano teachers and high school music teachers all encouraged my experiments in composing, and then I had some great teachers in college who helped me blossom more fully. I also had a curious connection with the composer Samuel Barber (although I never met him). I went to the same high school he had gone to, and an endowment from his family enabled us to attend concerts by the Philadelphia Orchestra. And I went to the same church he was organist at when he was 12 (before he was dismissed over a disagreement about a fermata),… and then I was eventually hired to work for Samuel Barber’s nephew (who was a vocal coach in Texas). I have no clear idea of how this may have influenced me, but it served as a constant reminder that being a composer was a possibility.
You have been working closely with the National Park Service for over ten years to create a body of music inspired by the history, geography, wildlife, scenery, and people of America’s national parks. How was this partnership formed?
About a dozen years ago, I first came up with the idea of writing chamber and concert music inspired by some of the amazing adventures I’ve had in national parks. At first, I just did it as a collaboration with performers and commissioners (leading to a trombone sonata about Big Bend, a trumpet ensemble piece about Kings Canyon, and a few others). Then I started applying to some of the wonderful Artist-in-Residence programs that various national parks offer. Within a short span of years, I had the amazing privilege of having residencies at Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Denali, and other national parks. I also started tackling larger works for band and orchestra, which led to performances by professional symphonies in Boulder, Fairbanks, Rochester, Shreveport, Anchorage, and others. With each new park, I developed more and more friendships with rangers, scientists, and administrators, and that has continued to lead to really exciting collaborations of all sorts. The whole project had a logical culmination in 2016 (the centennial of the National Park Service) when my NEA-funded commission “All the Songs that Nature Sings” was performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. I continue to work closely with many parks, lead wilderness workshops in Alaska for other composers, and look for more opportunities to find inspiration in wild places.
Can you tell us more about your process of composing pieces for your national park series?
Each place dictates a new process for me. In each case, I want to have a very immersive and personal experience in the place, and then see where that leads me. In “Gates of the Arctic,” the music follows a programmatic series of backpacking highlights with lots of “hiking” music in between (a little like “Pictures at an Exhibition”). With “The Ghosts of Mesa Verde”, I focused on the cultural history and archaeological discoveries about the cliff-dwellers who lived in the region. With “…into the blue” I focused on three famous sculptures by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Sometimes the work is about my own experience or emotions (like “River Runner”) and sometimes it is about the experiences of others (Like “Kennecott” or “Mount Rainier Search and Rescue”). In every case, I begin with an experience, lots of research, and thousands of pictures. Eventually, the musical ideas start to come into focus.
What has your experience as the Artist-in-Residence at several national parks been like?
Life changing! Spending extended time alone in these parks – particularly the remote and wild ones – has fed my imagination and provided me with some of the most potent experiences of my life. When I was at Glacier Bay, they dropped me off alone with a kayak to live for a week in a tiny floating cabin. It was anchored in the middle of South Sandy Cove because there were too many bears for the shore to be safe. The solitude was astonishing, and the daily paddles out to watch sea lions and and otters was right out of a nature documentary. What a stark contrast that makes to my experience exploring the haunting granite tors on the opposite side of Alaska a few years later. My residency at Bering Land Bridge National Preserve consisted of a bush-plane flight out to a remote hot spring where I spent a week hiking and soaking in the natural hot-tub with the band director from the Nome high school. There are so many amazing places to explore in the national park system, and I still have a long bucket-list of residencies I hope to do in the future.
Which national park is currently inspiring you? Are you working on any new pieces for your national park series?
The commission I’m currently working on is not related to a national park, but the next one will be about Great Basin National Park. I made a brief visit there this summer and am still thinking about the experience to decide what music it will become. I’m also leading a composers’ backpacking trip into Wrangel-St. Elias National Park (AK) this summer, so I’m very excited about getting a little dirty and scared in a new place!
You will be providing the projected imagery for Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite at our November concerts. Tell us about your process of taking these photographs at the Grand Canyon. What makes these images so special, especially when they’re accompanying Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite?
Right off the bat, I should be clear that only a small number of the photos I use with the Grofé are my own. Most of them are by other professional photographers or film-makers who worked for the National Park Service over the years. I am a passable nature photographer and have used my own images as projected material for a few other pieces, but one of the great advantages of being connected with the National Park Service is that I get access to their own (often huge) repository of images and movies taken in the park.
My reasons for creating accompanying imagery for Grofé’s suite were twofold. The first reason was entirely pragmatic. The Fairbanks Symphony was planning a national-park-themed concert, and they were proposing to include TWO of my pieces on it. Living composers just don’t get two pieces played on the same concert! I was so honored and excited that I would have done just about anything to make it a success… and (as it turned out), the other piece on the program was the Grofé. Since my works had projections with them, the conductor asked if I could create synchronized projections for the Grofé as well. Of course, I said yes! But the second reason it was special was that my parents had the LP of Bernstein conducting this piece in our home when I was a child, and the haunting music was part of the soundtrack of my childhood. What a fulfilling thrill it was to get to bring this familiar music to life through images by working with the media team at Grand Canyon National Park! I’m fortunate that other symphonies have started using more projections with live performance as well, so the work I did for Fairbanks is continuing to bear fruit.
How does your music inspire your photography and vice versa?
The photography definitely inspires the composing. There is not one specific way this happens, but every photograph has compositional elements in it (color, line, shape, texture, juxtaposition of elements, density, motion, etc.). And since much of my music attempts to express my own emotions and memories, nothing brings those back to the surface as well as the photos.
What do you enjoy doing outside of your career?
This is a bit hard to answer since I slowly keep working more of my hobbies into my career. I am ostensibly a university professor and composer. Photography used to be my hobby, but now it plays a role in my compositions. Travel and adventure sports used to be my hobbies, but now I write music about those things and lead wilderness workshops for other composers. Even things like reading and skiing have worked their way into my composing (I have pieces called “Five Characters from David Copperfield” and “Wide Blue Run”). Perhaps that is what makes my professional work very authentic… the fact that my work and my play are inextricably intertwined.
Experience Stephen Lias’s projected imagery for Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite at Grand Panorama, on Friday, November 12 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, November 13 at 8:00 p.m., or Sunday, November 14 at 2:30 p.m.