PENDLETON, Ore. — As the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge unfolded in early 2016, Jay Bowerman watched with growing incredulity. The feeling escalated as the armed militants protested federal regulations regarding public lands by squatting for 41 days inside the headquarters of the federal bird refuge.
The occupation, he felt, had tainted one of Oregon’s most beautiful spots.
“It was disturbing,” Bowerman said. “Malheur deserves to be remembered not for its armed occupation, but for its natural beauty, wildlife diversity and rich cultural heritage.”
After the court verdict in which seven occupiers were acquitted, Bowerman found comfort in listening to a haunting orchestral work called “Cantus Arcticus” (subtitled “Concerto for Birds”) by Finnish composer Einojunhani Rautavaara. The work has birds sounds layered in with the music
“I listened to the music over and over and over,” he said. “It was so soothing.” He wondered if music could help the people who love the refuge to heal from the occupation. Bowerman isn’t a guy who thinks thoughts and lets them float away.
The son of legendary University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman, Jay Bowerman was U.S. champion in the biathlon in 1969. He served as executive director of the Sunriver Nature Center and Observatory for 30 years and now researches and writes about such things as amphibians, spotted frogs, fungi and leeches.
He pitched the idea of the musical tribute to his wife, Teresa, and to Michael Gesme, music director and conductor with the Central Oregon Symphony. Intrigued, Gesme suggested composer Chris Thomas for the job.
Thomas, a Pendleton native who now lives in Bend, composes and orchestrates for television and movies.
Thomas, 36, was nominated for Best Orchestrator by the Film and TV Music Academy in 2007 and Best Film & TV Music at the eWorld Music Awards in Hollywood in 2011. Bowerman met with Thomas and bonded immediately over the project.
“Chris jumped in with both feet,” Bowerman said.
Thomas and the Bowermans toured the refuge with members of the Friends of Malheur Wildlife Refuge. While Bowerman had spent plenty of time there, Thomas got his first look. Like Bowerman, he was blown away by the wildlife, the big sky and the color and texture of the hills.
“Between April and June, there’s a cacophony of bird sounds that washes over you,” Bowerman said. “It’s like the way the waves make a continuous sound.”
Thomas recorded some of those calls to insert into the symphony along with other sounds collected from the refuge.
The soundtrack would join images meant to complement the music and make it a more full-body experience. The sound tech person becomes another player in the orchestra. Future orchestras that perform the symphony are expected to use the recordings.
“They are written right into the score,” Bowerman said.
Thomas said he did most of his composing walking around in nature. Ideas don’t come when he sits down at his computer, but when he walks a trail, they often “hit like lightning.” When they strike, he sings them into his phone’s recorder.
“It’s important to be by myself,” he said, laughing.
In the beginning, the two men envisioned a 12-to-20-minute piece. After speaking with various groups of people who care about the refuge, things expanded. Each of the groups — tribal members, birders, Friends of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and geologists — gave different input about what they thought the symphony should say.
Thomas realized he had full symphony on his hands with five different movements. The first is “Dawning Light,” the sound of life beginning. The second, “Sacred Basin,” tells the story of the thousands of years the Paiute people lived freely in the basin. The third, “Thunder,” came after Thomas witnessed a thunderstorm on one of his trips to the refuge. It’s the shortest, darkest movement. The fourth, Thomas’ favorite, “Curlew Scherzo,” showcases one of the refuge’s residents, the long-billed curlew, and its operatic call. The final movement is a big, brass fanfare called “Awakening.”
The Central Oregon Symphony will perform the work at a world premiere in Burns in May and later in Bend. Thomas said the orchestra is considering doing a multi-city tour in the Pacific Northwest. He hopes his hometown is one of the destinations.
“It would mean the world to me to go to Pendleton,” he said.
Bowerman couldn’t be happier with the result.
“My hope is that this music will help with the healing process, including the communities affected as well as the land itself, and remind people about the special place that is the Malheur Refuge,” he said. “It is pretty exciting stuff.”