Alaska News

Nature meets culture

If symphonic work aims for an aural whole, then melding it with indigenous culture, ambient sound, whaling narratives and contemporary images aspires to pageantry.

The Anchorage Symphony Orchestra's premiere of conductor Randall Craig Fleischer's "Echoes" next weekend promises a culturally and historically rich piece of theatrical classical music. Structured in six scenes, the piece integrates sea chanteys and multimedia imagery with indigenous song and dance from Alaska, Hawaii and New England.

"My mission was to make an utterly mind-blowing musical, theatrical, cultural experience," Fleischer said, "so that people would be so stirred by the human power of this Native music with all the expressive capabilities of the symphony."

Commissioned by ECHO (Education Through Cultural and Historical Organizations), "Echoes" centers on the ties between cultures during the 19th century, when traders and whalers sailed from Massachusetts around Cape Horn in South America to Hawaii and Alaska.

ECHO sought the orchestral piece as part of its mission to reach children, teachers and other adults through art and other curriculums. As such, the piece reflects ECHO partners in Alaska, Hawaii and Massachusetts.

"The commission was to include video, sounds and images from natural settings, and Native music and dance while telling a story about being on a whaling ship," said Fleischer, the symphony's music director. "It was very challenging to rope all of that into one piece because there are really no models for anything like this."

He blended Native American song and dance before in "Triumph," which the symphony performed in Anchorage in 2007, but that composition involved a collaboration with the Jones Benally Family dance group, which helped choose the Navajo songs for the piece and decided on the dances.


This time, Fleischer chose all the material after traveling to each of the cultural areas -- including Anchorage, Barrow, Hawaii and Martha's Vineyard -- and then developed the concept in whole, from how to make the orchestra work with indigenous songs to staging the performance and co-producing the video.

The way he described it, he relied on his memory of the sights and sounds and feelings he experienced in each region to imagine a film in his mind. He wrote a score to go with that imagined film and then made the video to go with it.

He uses everything from a song he recorded at Martha's Vineyard to a chant he heard while on a hike in Hawaii, plus ambient sound from waves, birds, ice and wind. Every journey from the hike into a Hawaiian forest to a snowmachine ride to Point Barrow affected him profoundly, he said.

" 'Triumph' was dramatic," he said, "but this is really about the beauty of nature and the joy of cultures meeting."


It took years for the idea behind "Echoes" to germinate and bloom.

The composition "And God Created Great Whales" by American Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) planted the seed in 2002 or 2003, when the Anchorage Symphony performed it with Steven Alvarez on percussion. The piece stuck in Alvarez's mind, along with the urge to hear classical music and indigenous music entwined.

About the same time, he participated in a group called New Trade Wind, which sought culturally diverse but historically linked connections between the regions represented by the Alaska Native Heritage Center, the Bishop Museum of Hawaii and the Peabody Essex Museum of Massachusetts.

As director of cultural education and strategic initiative for the Alaska Native Heritage Center, Alvarez participated in lobbying for funds to develop collaborations. Somewhere along the way, someone brought up the idea of a New Trade Wind symphony.

Again, the idea stuck.

Trade Wind morphed into ECHO after getting funding from the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, in turn bringing three new entities into the fold -- the North Slope Borough, the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

Commissioning an orchestral piece fits with the organization's mission in multiple ways, said Daniel Elias, the director of the ECHO Project at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

"The different styles and traditions of music and dance blend together in the piece, representing the breadth of folk tradition across the country and integrating that into this symphonic piece," Elias said. "That is really what ECHO does. It's about cross-cultural education between and among Native groups, and between Native and non-Native groups."

It also expands its audience, said Alvarez, by getting "ECHO in front of people who wouldn't normally go to the museum or heritage center."

Beyond the performance, "Echoes" presents all kinds of educational opportunities online and through hands-on curriculum, said Elias, whether through the study of pitch and tone in classical music or history through culturally relevant examples.

"If we can use the symphony orchestra or a song from the North Slope of Alaska to teach math, then so much the better," he said.

In the end, he said, the piece "is talking about weaving together the stories and the traditions of many different parts of the U.S., Native and non-Native traditions, into a whole that is hopefully greater than the sum of the parts, which I think is a good metaphor of what this country is or what it should be and can be."



When an orchestral piece weaves together a sea chantey, a Hawaiian chant, a Wampanoag "sneak-up" song, Yup'ik and Inupiat tunes, multiple dances, transition choreography, video projection and all kinds of staging, a whole lot can go wrong.

The first rehearsal will likely go downhill fast, Fleischer said, and the second might hurt too. Egos will flare, but by the third meeting, things will begin to coalesce. The process mimics his theme.

No matter how often Fleischer does this kind of thing, he never gets used to it.

"The task of getting every single person to execute their tasks, every element to come into place -- 80 musicians, 30 performers, costumes, lights, sound effects, video -- well, there's 150 people you need to do their jobs to pull this whole thing off," he said.

With performers coming on and off stage, still and moving images onscreen, the concert involves a lot of logistics. Alvarez has taken on a lot of that work.

"The challenge is going to be for all these cultural performers to put it together in a week," he said. "They've had the music and have CDs, but not all of them read music, so it's up to me to get them to perform with an orchestra that's locked into the music."

What happens onstage will look organized and planned, while backstage "looks like controlled chaos, and that's how it feels," Alvarez added.


However chaos leads to calm, Fleischer wants the piece to convey his personal awe and joy at having gotten the chance to compose such a multifaceted, multi-concept piece. He said the commission has only invigorated his interest in doing orchestral work centered on indigenous cultures.

"For me, this has been one of the most positive and joyous experiences of my career," Fleischer said, "and as a composer, I'm blessed with a joyous life."

Find Dawnell Smith online at or call 257-4587.

RANDALL CRAIG FLEISCHER will conduct and play piano in an ensemble performance of "Echoes" at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 8.

FIND CONCERT DETAILS at anchorage and learn more about the "Echoes" commissioning group, Education Through Cultural and Historical Organizations, or ECHO, at

THE ANCHORAGE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA will premiere "Echoes" in a nature-themed program that includes the "Appalachian Spring" Suite by Copland, "Forest Murmurs" by Wagner, "Fingal's Cave" by Mendelssohn and "The Birds" by Respighi, 8 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Oct. 26 in Atwood Concert Hall. Tickets: $15-$42; some discounts apply. (, 263-2787)