Simon Eastwood's 'Composing in the Wilderness' Adventure

DMA Composition student Simon Eastwood travelled to Alaska earlier this year to be part of the 'Composing in the Wilderness' course, involving canoeing, continuous daylight, and communicating with wolves on the Koyukuk River. We asked Simon about his trip and his other upcoming projects.

Artic wilderness
Composing in the Wilderness sends group of composers far out into the wilderness in order to write a piece directly inspired by their surroundings

Can you tell us what 'Composing in the Wilderness' is and what it involved?

Composing in the Wilderness is a really exciting field course held in Alaska. The project is a collaboration between the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, Alaskan Geographic, the US National Park Service, US Forest Service and also Arctic Wild, who provided us with guides and equipment. The idea behind the project was to bring a group of composers far out into the wilderness in order to write a piece directly inspired by their surroundings. This year was the first year they offered the Arctic Adventure, which saw us fly in a small plane deep into the Gates of the Arctic National Park. We landed literally on the Koyukuk River, in between the mountains which give the park its name. We then spent a week canoeing down the river with all of our equipment, camping on the riverbank each night, until we floated into Bettles, a small fly-in only town of around 20 inhabitants. We spent three days in a bunkhouse there where we sketched our initial ideas for our pieces, before returning to Fairbanks. We then had a few months to finish the pieces, during which I also pursued other collaborative projects in Europe. I'll be flying to New York on my way home in a few weeks to hear the final piece performed by CORVUS, a New York-based new music ensemble.

What was the experience like, and what were some of the highlights?

It's really hard to describe what it was like. We were above the Arctic Circle the entire time, so the most surreal thing was experiencing basically continuous daylight the entire time. Also, despite being in the Arctic it was quite warm most of the time apart from a couple of days where temperature dropped. There was an extreme feeling of isolation. The flight in took a couple of hours to get to a trucking stop called Coldfoot, and then another hour or so to the landing site on the river. Looking out the window during those flights you could really see how far into the wild we were, as there were no roads, hospitals, or significant settlements of any kind to be seen at all. I'm pretty experienced with boats, but had never really been in a canoe on a river. So the learning experience there was certainly nerve-wrecking at times, and there were a few mishaps! One particular highlight was encountering wolves on the river. The guides would call to them and they would respond, getting closer and closer in a kind of conversation. Unfortunately we never actually saw the animals, but it was a magical moment nonetheless.

How did the experience shape your composing at the time?

During the river trip my mind was constantly drawn to the recent court case involving Whanganui, where the river had been granted the rights of a person. So I was really drawn into the idea of trying to listen to the 'voice' of the river, and to find some way to evoke that in a piece of music. From that point of view I tried not to think too much about discrete pitch or rhythm, but tried to create a sort of free-flowing texture. I'm not sure if I succeeded, but I guess I'll find out in New York!

What are you currently doing at NZSM?

I'm currently working towards a DMA in Composition. My work focuses on the way in which external influences affect the creative process. I'm looking at both our surrounding environments and the way in which that changes the creative process, and also the way in which creative communities interact to foster new work. To that end, I'm also pursuing a number of collaborative projects with artists of different backgrounds working in a variety of disciplines.

What other things do you have on the horizon coming up?

I've been working with a few artists to create different versions of a piece I wrote last year called Triptych for Two. Each artist re-imagines my piece in some way and then sends it back to me to create something new. It's a sort of meta-level project which explores the way in which creativity arises out of a community of people, as opposed to being the act of some solitary genius. Here's an example of what Munich-based Ukranian artist Oleksiy Koval has been doing with my piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UaISjiD5XdY. Eventually I'd like to present all of the results in a exhibition next year.