Image credit: Courtesy of Stephen Lias

Fall 2011

The Movement

By Stephen Lias

A composer’s ascent of Longs Peak, and the sonata it inspired.

When I woke up in the dark, the clock read 5:00 a.m. I stuck my head out of my tent, and was so amazed at what I saw that I froze for a moment. Silently, in the dark, dozens of bobbing headlamps were magically forming a meandering line up across boulders to the rock face. Just above them, framed perfectly in the jagged opening called “The Keyhole,” the full moon was setting. I sat motionless for a long time. Seeing it so soon after waking, the whole scene had an impossibly dream-like quality and I was afraid I might shatter it. I was reminded of the magical silences in a great piece of music that are often the most dramatic and compelling.

Unlike the more hard-core hikers who tackle Colorado’s Longs Peak in a single day (requiring start times around 3:00 a.m.), I had chosen the more leisurely two-day approach thanks to a campsite at Boulderfield, just over a mile and a half of climbing and scrambling from the summit. I hit the trail right around dawn (more to secure a parking space than to beat the afternoon storms) and was thrilled to see that the day was shaping up to be perfect for a trip to the top—blue sky, moderate temperatures, and low winds. I kept humming to myself and thinking how lucky I was to be here.


The Artist-in-Residence program at “RoMo” provides an opportunity for six selected artists from various disciplines to draw inspiration from the stunning scenery, wildlife, forests, trails, lakes, and experiences available at one of the nation’s premier national parks. Artists are housed for two-week stays in the historic cabin of Pulitzer prize-winning author William Allen White. In return, artists provide donated works that celebrate the park and give two presentations in the Beaver Meadows Visitors Center to help educate the public on the artist’s discipline, as well as the legacy that artists hold in the creation and ongoing support of the parks. National parks throughout the country host about 30 similar residency programs, which vary widely in scope, discipline, duration, and accommodations. The list is constantly changing as new programs are added or (more often) existing programs are cut from lack of funding, lack of support, or both. There is no central repository of artist-in-residence programs right now, but type “artist in residence” and “national park” into any search engine and you’ll find a sampling of programs nationwide.

The details of the situation would be familiar to any hiker—the gear, the preparations, the peace and natural high of the trail, and the “call” of the wild. But my reason for being here was unique. Although I have visited Rocky Mountain National Park numerous times over the last decade, this was a special trip in more ways than one. I am a composer and was staying in the park as part of the 2010 Artist-in-Residence program.

In the Shadow of the Mountain

Anyone familiar with Rocky Mountain National Park knows the power and presence that Longs Peak holds over the entire area. No matter where you go, the peak always seems to show its unmistakable, angular profile above the surrounding peaks. It dominates the park, daring you to climb. It is not an arduous ascent, as fourteeners go, but it still gets the best of many—especially those who jump in too quickly without acclimating. Each year, thousands of people attempt it. Many turn back along the way, bested by altitude or intimidated by the catwalks, and one or two perish in the attempt.

None of my previous visits had provided sufficient time to tackle the peak, but this trip was different. I had been in the park for a week already and had taken progressive training hikes every couple of days—first the popular Loch Vale trail up to Timberline Falls (eight miles round trip with a 1,300-foot elevation gain), then the longer and less-traveled route past Lawn Lake to Crystal Lake (13 miles round trip with a 2,960-foot elevation gain). With these safely under my belt, I felt reasonably confident that I was ready for the 15 miles and 4,850-foot gain that Longs Peak would require.

Between these explorations, I rested and tried to compose music in my cabin. My plan was to write a sonata for trumpet and piano that focused on experiences and locations unique to Rocky Mountain National Park. I had brought along just enough technology to meet my needs: a portable keyboard and a laptop running some notation software. Although this was my fourth in a series of compositions focusing on national parks (following pieces about Big Bend, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon), my primary struggle was just what you might suspect. What does the experience of the park sound like? While mimicking the sounds of nature is one possibility, the results can sometimes trivialize the subject matter by sounding a bit “cartoony.” Vivaldi and Mendelssohn were able to get away with imitating bird sounds and donkeys braying, but they didn’t have to contend with the legacy of Tom and Jerry, the Roadrunner, and their ilk. Pieces like Carnival of the Animals and Peter and the Wolf are effective and popular but inevitably assumed to be children’s pieces, largely for this reason. An equally precarious approach is to recreate the disorganization and complexity of natural sounds in a way that comes across as random or experimental. This tends to alienate contemporary audiences, who are already distrustful of serious music by living composers. I’ve learned that today’s concert-goers tend to prefer their composers dead.

And yet, here I was, very much alive—alive in the way you feel only when you’re in the midst of one of your life-list trips. How could I make music speak about this feeling, this scenery, the drive that pushes us to test our boundaries and explore? As I wandered the park, I turned this issue over in my head. I tested the quality of the experience like deliberately tasting a new food. What were its elements? How might those elements become sounds?

These thoughts occupied my mind as I continued up toward Granite Pass and then onward to a late-morning arrival at Boulderfield campsite. As with most hikes, a big part of the pleasure was the remarkable variety of people I encountered along the way. Trail-runners in wispy, neon running shorts and arm-band radios floated blithely past me up the mountain while through-hikers shuffled down to the parking lot with backcountry beards smudged on their beaming faces. I wondered what music was playing in their minds. Are we all composers, providing our own imagined score to the epic film the trail is showing us? Or are we audience members, listening to nature’s great symphony and responding differently—according to our peculiar sensibilities—to the tunes, chords, and rhythms that the mountains are drumming? As I looked up toward the immense rock faces that surround Chasm Lake, I remembered the movie “Patton” and imagined trumpet calls with echoes that summoned up the spirits of all who had ever hiked these trails.

Through the Keyhole

Full of the hubris of my long-planned attempt, I was quickly cut down to size when I encountered a blind woman who was making her second trip to the summit (with the help of a couple of friends). We leapfrogged each other along the trail for a few hours and ended up camping near one another when we got to Boulderfield. I wondered what the music of the ascent would sound like to her. The quality of my experience is almost entirely visual; hers must have focused much more on sounds, smells, textures, and air currents. I imagined woodwinds creating a vast soundscape of hard edges and sudden gusts, like something by Lutoslawski. I thought about the strength of character and degree of trust necessary for her trip and suddenly felt a little silly about having left an “If I don’t make it back…” note on the table in my cabin.

Boulderfield is a funny place to camp. The view of The Keyhole and the peak above is stunning, but the tent tops dotting this vast plain of car-sized rocks give the area an incongruous and somewhat comic appearance. This is only amplified by the daring antics of the local pikas and marmots, which will steal food out of your pocket if you aren’t careful.

Arriving shortly before noon, I could see some clouds moving in. I hastily set up camp next to some loud-talkers who had come in from Flattop Mountain and were announcing to everyone in earshot that they were planning to summit before dawn. I slipped into my tent just as the first few drops started to fall. Within minutes, the gentle rain turned stronger, then became a light hail with distant thunder. Percussion motives danced around in my head as I drifted off to sleep.

When I finally roused myself into action the next morning, I began assembling the summit bag I would take for the last two miles to the top. Most of my weight, including pack, trekking poles, and tent, would be left behind at the campsite to be retrieved on the descent. The morning was getting gray and I was about to set off up to The Keyhole when the loud-talkers returned from their ill-fated nighttime attempt. Although rangers and fellow campers had advised them not to attempt the “backside” of the mountain before sunrise, they had tried anyway and then lost their nerve when they got to a tight spot and couldn’t see well enough to continue safely. Although they were foolish for trying, at least they had the sense to reassess their situation before making a critical error. A hiker had fallen to his death just a week earlier on the very spot where they turned around.

As I made my way up toward The Keyhole, the first rays of the morning caught the cliffs around me with a fiery glow. By now, the crowd that had assembled in the predawn hours was starting to move through and traverse across the ledges and scree slopes that constitute the remainder of the route. Inevitably, as the path’s danger and difficulty grew, everyone became best friends. People who had never met were holding out their hands to steady one another, pointing out loose stones, and sharing water bottles. I buddied up with a veteran hiker from Tucson who was taking her newly married daughter and son-in-law up for the first time. Although I didn’t learn their names, a number of others who passed us on their way down assumed we were a family unit.

From the trailhead to The Keyhole is a hike. From The Keyhole to the summit is more of an experience. In spite of the fact that it is classified as “non-technical” for a few weeks in the summer when the route is ice-free, it still involves a full array of scrambling, balancing, sliding, and crab-legging maneuvers. It is not the highest nor the hardest peak in the Rockies, but now that I’ve done it, I understand why so many climbers count this among the most satisfying peaks to conquer. It is an immersive experience that combines adrenaline, exertion, and reward in exactly the right proportions. A blow-by-blow account would only minimize what is, unquestionably, best experienced in person. Instead, imagine music that is unpredictable—tentative, then bold, high, precarious melodic lines peppered with sudden stops, culminating in a slow crescendo that explodes unexpectedly into exhilaration and triumph.

As we all stood on the summit swapping cameras and drinking in the views, I knew that my new composition must include a movement on the ascent of Longs Peak. To visit the park is to be lured by this mountain. To start up the trail is to face its challenge, and to stand on its summit is to know something new about yourself and your place in the world.

From Trail to Concert Hall

It is a surprise to me that the symbiotic relationship between artist and the parks has lost its relevance to many. It was, after all, largely due to the efforts of writers, poets, painters, and photographers that Congress was persuaded to establish these wild spaces to begin with. Albert Bierstadt’s painting of Longs Peak hung for many years in the Capitol rotunda in Washington. Few musical works have so eloquently captured the spirit of the parks as well as Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite; the theme from the third movement (“On the Trail”) has become inseparable from the image of trail rides down into the canyon.

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To me, the connection is obvious. Artists and the national parks are deeply connected in aesthetic ways. We routinely use phrases like “picture-perfect” or “poetry in motion” and talk about “birdsong” and “a sunset like a painting.” We understand the connection between the love of the wilderness we feel and that expressed by writers and poets such as Jack London, Robert Service, Enos Mills, and John Muir. But artists and parks are connected in other ways, too. In these belt-tightening times, they can support each another like two orphaned children. They share a desperate need for funding, infrastructure, growth, and lasting support. They both feed the soul and bring meaning to life in ways that are fundamentally necessary but impossible to quantify.

All trails come to an end eventually, and life inexorably drags us back to work and obligations. Although I composed most of the first movement during my two-week residency, the remainder was slowly constructed back home, during evenings and weekends over the succeeding few months. Almost a year has now passed since my residency, and the finished piece (titled “The Timberline Sonata”) has been followed by another about Mt. Rainier, and one about Denali just under way. Seeing this project gain momentum has given my creative life a focus and intensity that it never had before, and allowed me the rare privilege of merging work and play in a manner usually reserved for food critics and testers of wilderness gear.

In February 2011, I was fortunate to see the first performance of “The Timberline Sonata” as part of the Estes Park Music Festival. I was delighted to present this gift to the community in which the piece was inspired and thrilled to introduce my performers—trumpeter Gary Wurtz and pianist Ron Petti—to the wonders of the park. Perhaps the most meaningful compliment I’ve ever gotten came in a follow-up letter from Artist-in-Residence Coordinator Jean Muenchrath, who said, “Mr. Lias’ musical compositions create music that captures and translates a sense of place—both the physical qualities of a landscape and the emotional feelings evoked from experiences in wild places. His compositions are also complex, rich, and inspiring.” I’d rather hear those words from a park ranger than from a dozen music critics.

A year later, the experience of climbing Longs Peak is still very real to me—perhaps kept alive by the music I have written. Have I captured the magnificence of the park? Will those who know the park well hear the piece and recognize an old friend? I hope so. Nothing would be more satisfying to me than to have lured some of those concert-goers out of their velvet seats and into the wild.

Listen Lias’s composition

About the author

  • Stephen Lias

    Stephen Lias teaches composition at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he is busily gearing up for 2012 residencies in Alaska.

This article appeared in the Fall 2011 issue

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