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What Does Red River Gorge Sound Like? Ask Composer Stephen Wood

Red River Gorge

When you talk to Stephen Wood, you realize he’s a seriously outdoorsy kind of guy. For example, on his last trip to Red River Gorge -- a canyon system in east-central Kentucky -- he had a meticulously planned itinerary that included “travel, adventuring and education.”

He spent time learning about the area’s cultural and environmental history, as well as ongoing preservation efforts. Like most environmental enthusiasts, Wood took his findings and transcribed them.

But here’s where things are a little different: Wood’s version of a field journal is a full orchestral composition.

Wood is an environmental composer and the 2016 artist-in-residence for the Gorge. He draws inspiration for his music from nature.

For this project, Wood worked for two weeks with U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Wayna Adams, Living Archaeology committee member and archaeologist Christy Pritchard, and the Gladie Visitors Center.

The result is the “Red River Gorge Symphony” with will be performed in Lexington by the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra in March 2017, as well as a work for string quartet called “The Gladie Suite,” which premieres this weekend.

Wood says by deeply engaging and researching geographic areas, he can create meaningful works.

“That allows me to write a piece of music that is more than just kind of my personal perception of [an area],” Wood says. “It really allows me to be connected with the environment on all levels.”

Wood says he begins the composition process while out in the wild (or back at the provided cabin, in this case).

“You know, I’ll make musical sketches, but it's really all about the experience and allowing that to really settle in with me and have that time with the larger space,” Wood says.

“The Gladie Suite” is named after the Red River Gorge visitors center. Wood says he was inspired by this location because -- unlike many visitors centers located at park entrances -- the Gladie Visitors Center is a restored farm found in the heart of the canyon system.

“You immediately, when you go there, are transported back in time,” Wood says. “It really speaks to what the Red River Gorge is about, as well as why I do my work. I do my work not just to present music, but to help people become more aware of the environmental areas that are part of the National Parks and Forest Service, and develop a connection."

There are four movements of “The Gladie Suite,” which explores the history of the area, as well as its defining natural assets like sandstone. It will be performed live at the Visitors Center’s “Living Archaeology Weekend” Sept. 16 and 17.