All those people scribbling furiously on pads near the Teklanika Field Camp in Denali National Park and Preserve next week won't be biologists jotting down scientific data. They'll be composers, writing music as part of a unique course offered by the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival.
Their assignment is to absorb the mood of the park and write a new piece of music at lightning speed.
"Part of the experiment is that this is a whirlwind of activity," said Stephen Lias, an instructor at Stephen F. Austin State College in Nacogdoches, Texas, and the course leader.
"Starting Sunday (July 22), they'll have four days in the park. Then we'll go back to Fairbanks for two or three days of workshopping the new pieces with the performers."
On July 28, the compositions will be premiered by the Festival Orchestra in a concert in Fairbanks.
Lias, whose website describes him as an "adventurer-composer," has been making visits to America's national parks and writing about his experiences for the past three years, writing about park lands from Big Bend to Mount Rainier to Carlsbad Caverns. His goal is to have as many related works as possible in time for the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016.
In June, he kayaked in Glacier Bay National Monument. At the beginning of July, he hiked in the Wrangell Mountains. At the end of this month, he'll head to the Gates of the Arctic.
Lias' Denali-inspired piece -- appropriately titled "Denali" -- will receive its Alaska debut at the Denali Visitor Center on Saturday in what officials say is the first orchestral concert ever in the park.
String players from the Fairbanks Festival will perform under the direction of Robert Franz, associate conductor of the Houston Symphony and music director for the Boise Philharmonic. The concert will include Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings and Mark O'Connor's Fiddle Concerto. It's part of the inaugural Denali Music Festival now under way.
Having musicians as guests of the park is something new, said Tim Rains, a media specialist for the park. "We don't currently accept composers in the Artists in the Park program," he said.
So Lias framed his request in the form of a project proposal.
"Basically, it put me in the same category as a researcher studying the mating habits of Dall sheep," Lias said.
And it worked.
Lias was allowed to stay in the cabin reserved for Artists in the Park in May 2011, before the regular park artists were scheduled to use it.
Word reached Franz in Fairbanks. He worked with park officials to arrange the performance at the Visitor Center.
"I love this idea of having a composer in residence in the park," Franz said. "It's awesome. And the center is the perfect little venue." (It seats about 250 people.)
Franz will also lead players and a choir of Denali Borough school students in a separate performance at the Eielson Visitor Center on Sunday.
"Denali" is about six minutes long. "The broad gestures of the piece try to capture the essence of flying over the snow-capped mountains," Lias said. "The grace and delicacy of the ecosystem, the danger and fear of predator and prey, the grandeur of the mountains and valleys, and then once again flying over it all toward the summit of Denali."
"Our goal is in coming year to invite other composers to come here and write more pieces," said Rains. "In fact we already have our next piece."
That will be "Songs of Winter," written by Erik DeLuca, who often works with recorded sound or "soundscapes." Born in Florida, living in Virginia, DeLuca skied to the Savage River cabin in the dead of winter.
"It was like minus-40," Rains told the Fairbanks News-Miner.
The two composers may have started a trend. Lias said that almost as soon as he announced the course, all nine slots filled up and he started a waiting list. Participants in this month's excursion include professionals and students from the Lower 48 and as far away as Australia.
"My visit to Denali was a pebble that started an avalanche," Lias said.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
Denali Music Festival events
• Sweet Plantain, 7:30 p.m., July 20, 49th State Brewing Co., Healy.
• Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival Ensemble, 7:30 p.m., July 20, McKinley Chalet Resort.
• Sweet Plantain, 1 p.m., July 21, Black Diamond Resort, 1 mile Otto Lake Road, Healy.
• Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival string orchestra, 7 p.m., July 21, Denali Visitor Center in Denali National Park and Preserve. Program will include the Alaska premiere of Stephen Lias' "Denali," Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings and the Fiddle Concerto of Mark O'Connor, with soloist Caitlin Warbelow. Robert Franz conducts.
• Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival string orchestra and Tri-Valley High School Choir, "around noon," July 22, Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park and Preserve.
• Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival Orchestra, 1 p.m., July 28, Davis Concert Hall, University of Alaska Fairbanks. The program will include new pieces by composers now working in Denali National Park, Faure's "Pavanne" with dancers from the Festival, opera excerpts and, tentatively, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5. Robert Franz conducts.