Composing in the wilderness

Trent Hanna of Snow joins composers in Alaska

Trent Hanna (seen here, crouching) poses with a group of other musical composers participating in the Composing in the Wilderness program; the group spent two weeks finding inspiration for their music in the great outdoors of Alaska.

A Snow College music professor sought inspiration from an Alaskan wilderness experience and allowed Mother Nature to become his muse.

Trent William Hanna, associate music professor, and head of Snow College’s theory and composition department, spent two weeks participating in the Composing in the Wilderness program put on by the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival

The program sends a select group of accomplished musicians into a wilderness experience for two weeks, where they reflect on their surroundings in Denali National Park, and afterwards compose and record music drawn from the inspiration they felt while in the wild.

“Every day we would drive to a different location and go on different hikes,” Hanna said. “It was unbelievable. The first day it was crystal clear sky and it was like nothing I’ve ever seen. It was amazing. I can’t speak for other composers, but just the feeling I have of being in those places is incredible.”

The Composing in the Wilderness program has been offered by the Fairbanks Summer Art Festival for about a decade now, and Hanna first heard about it after meeting the organizer, who was also originally from Texas. Hanna signed up for the program last year, but the pandemic delayed it over to this year. 

The program works with guides, naturalists and scientists to take composers into the Alaskan backcountry, after which they compose original chamber music that is performed at the festival.

The musical outcome of Hanna’s experience in Alaska was a series of miniature numbers Hanna titled “Glimpses,” which will be available to listen to on the ComposingintheWilderness.com website in the not-too-distant future, along with the work of the other composers who participated.

Hanna has long seen the value in drawing on nature for artistic inspiration. Years ago, he completed an artist’s residency in Isle Royale National Park, one of the most remote and least visited national parks in the county. 

Isle Royale, a 40 mile long island in the middle of Lake Superior, is so remote, it served as the perfect study location for wolf population growth after a male and female wolf walked across the lake to the island after it froze one night, kicking off a new colony of wolves in the island that were unable to leave after the lake thawed.

“Music in the outdoors is absolutely something that is fascinating for me,” Hanna told the Messenger. “Even when I first moved here, I started a little backpacking trip with my music students. We would go out for three nights with small instruments and write pieces. We had a concert on the last night, and this program [Composing in the Wilderness] is like that, but on steroids.”

But what is it about the wilderness that makes it a good muse for musicians?

“A simple answer would be bird sounds, and composers have been doing this for centuries, being inspired by nature and what they are surrounded by,” Hanna said. “I’ve written a few pieces about being high above Maple Canyon, or snowfall in Utah, and they all have a different sound.”

Hanna says he still maintains connections to the other composers he met on his trip.

“You’re around these people for two weeks and they become your family essentially,” he says. “Everyone is respectful when it’s composing time, and after being around the quiet beauty of Alaska, coming back to my kids, I thought ‘it’s really loud here.’ But seeing my kids, I missed them so much, it was so wonderful to see them.”

Hanna, who moved to Utah from Texas with his family for the music teaching job at Snow College, added, “Just moving to Utah gave me a lot of inspiration from the outdoors, especially because we get all four seasons here.”

Hanna’s transplant to Utah came eight years ago.

“I applied for 40 jobs,” he said. “I put an asterisk on this one. The music department is incredible and so are the mountains.”

After moving to Sanpete to teach at Snow, Hanna also founded the Trent Hanna Community, a musical ensemble composed of himself and a selection of Snow College music students.