Thursday, June 9, 2016

Appalachian Trail Symphony: Pre-departure

Just about ready to go!

In just a couple of days, I will begin on a journey I have dreamed about for a long time.  Since I was probably a teenager, I've thought about how cool it would be to hike the entire Appalachian Trail which covers over 2,100 miles of wilderness from Georgia all the way up to Maine stretching nearly the entire east coast of the United States.  I grew up in central Massachusetts, and it seemed like nearly every weekend my parents were taking my siblings and I to a different small town or state park to go camping or hiking in New Hampshire or Vermont.  I remember listening to Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods" on tape (which is now a film) while on these trips and also playing a dice game called "Blisters" about hiking the Appalachian Trail with my siblings.  My parents also lived in Hanover, NH when my older brother was born and the AT almost literally went through their backyard.  So the idea of taking a few months to hike the trail and spend a lot of time in the woods has been with me for a while.

Later when I started getting serious about composing music, the idea occurred to me that it would be really cool to hike the trail and then write a piece about the experience.  I'd always dreamed about writing a symphony as well, but it is very hard to get orchestra to play new works by living composers, especially a work longer than the typical 8-10 concert opener.  This idea stayed just a dream without any hope for realization until after I finished graduate school at the University of Colorado.  While there, I was fortunate that the College of Music has a wonderful Entrepreneurship Center for Music led by a wonderful composer named Jeffrey Nytch, who taught me both composition and about how to create my own opportunities in my musical career.  But I've been most directly inspired by a project he created a couple years after I left Colorado.  In addition to music, Jeff loves geology and majored in both subjects as an undergraduate, and wanted to find a way to combine both of his passions.  So he approached the Geological Society of America, which is based in Boulder, CO, and the Boulder Philharmonic with an idea to have them both commission him to write his first symphony which would be about the geology of the Rocky Mountains and to have it performed as part of the society's 125th anniversary celebrations in 2013, and it worked!  (Listen to the work here, called Symphony No. 1 "Formations").  So then I thought, "Hey, that sounds a lot like my Appalachian Trail idea.  Maybe I should stop dreaming about it and try to make it happen like he did."

So I'll try to condense the next 2 years of developing this project into just a paragraph or two.  I came up with a more specific idea: deciding to hike just the New England portion (about 1/3 of the entire trail, about 730 miles) because I could only plan for about a 3 month window to do the hike (whereas the entire trail usually takes about 6 months to hike), I wanted to focus on my home region, and I've never done a hike anywhere near the length of these proportions.  I also decided to have the work be in 5 movements with one for each New England state that the trail passes through (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine) so that the work would follow the progression of the hike.  I also decided I wanted to find at least one orchestra from each of these states to help co-commission and premiere the work, so that the work would receive multiple performances (which is very rare for new orchestral works) throughout the region the work is focused on and celebrating.

With this refined idea, I contacted the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, stressing how this symphony could help bring their message to more audiences who are fans of classical music, and they were very supportive of the idea, and even now are planning to have the work performed at their Biennial Conference in 2017 in Maine as their main entertainment feature.  At the same time, I took the idea to orchestras throughout New England, emphasizing that this work can help connect their music to environmentalists and outdoors enthusiasts in their local areas, and currently we have four orchestras as part of the commissioning consortium, including the Claflin Hill Symphony Orchestra from Milford, MA, the Wellesley Symphony Orchestra from Wellesley, MA, the Sage City Symphony Orchestra from Bennington, VT, and the Wesleyan University Orchestra from Middletown, CT, and orchestras from both New Hampshire and Maine are interested as well and we expect them to join within the next year.  Funding has been pledged by the commissioning orchestras, applied for through grants, and crowdsourced through Indiegogo.  (And it is still possible to donate to via my website for those who would like to.)

Now I'm just a few days away from heading out on the trail, after 2 years of pulling this project together and months of preparation for the hike itself.  I am so excited for this journey to begin where all I will have to focus on is hiking everyday, exploring and enjoying the wilderness, getting away from everything and unplugging, and thinking about what kind of music will come out of this experience.  I read a very interesting book a few months ago called The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places by Bernie Krause who records natural soundscapes around the world, which has primed me to really listen to the sounds and environments that I will pass through on this hike.  I am looking forward not only to witness the beauty of this region, but also to have a kind of spiritual journey within myself.

At the same time, I'm quite nervous and daunted at how immense this trek is and worried that I may somehow not be able to complete it, especially as I now have spent so much time developing this project and have orchestras and supporters counting on me.  I worry that I may sprain an ankle or get Lyme disease and have to abandon the hike, that a hurricane might hit or I might get lost in the Bennington Triangle, or even perish like a recent AT hiker did in Maine (although I am bringing an emergency beacon in case I do get lost).  But I just have to remind myself that I literally have to take things one step at a time (but still, take approximately 1.7 million of them!) I will have a small notebook with staff paper which will double as both my journal and a place where I can write down any musical ideas that come to me during the hike.  I also am going to take a small Zoom mic so that I can record any soundscapes that I find particularly inspiring to me (although I might abandon this later if I find my pack is too heavy).

While I'm looking forward to being unplugged, I still want to keep you all informed about my adventures, so I plan on blogging here whenever I am able to make it into a town and find a computer.  So follow this space for updates and wish me luck as I set off to create an Appalachian Trail Symphony!

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