Among musicians, a corny old joke goes like this: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.” This August, a group of young string musicians made their own concert venue, the majestic setting of Grewingk Glacier in Kachemak Bay State Park. So how does one get there?
“Walk, walk, walk,” said Clyde Clemens, 8.
On one fine summer day, Clemens, his sister Sylvia, and other musicians from the Homer Youth String Orchestra did just that when they tromped along the Saddle Trail to the lake and glacier on the south shore of Kachemak Bay. Tourists who came upon them playing against a backdrop of a towering glacier might have been surprised to hear string music in the wilderness. A video shoot and a later studio recording has resulted in “Blue Ice,” the name of the video as well as an original composition by Homer musician John Bushell, also known as Johnny B.
Last week, Bushell released the video on YouTube. Next month, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 14, at the Homer Public Library, the Homer Youth String Orchestra, or HYSOC, performs the live premiere of “Blue Ice.” A piano player who got his start in Alaska playing around the state on his piano from the back of a truck, Bushell also appeared on Tom Bodett’s radio show. For years he has entertained tourists with his “Rhythm of the North,” a multimedia concert.
“I keep advertising it as a celebration of the glacier, the Grewingk Glacier, and a celebration of young kids music, youth performing,” Bushell said.
“It was really exciting. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something other musicians might not do,” said Rosy Kauffman, first violin for HYSOC. “It was really awesome.”
Bushell got the idea for “Blue Ice” after he had done a show in Washington and a woman asked him if Alaskans can see the effects of climate change.
“I was stunned. It made me think down in the Lower 48 with all the news going on, there are still people who don’t know,” Bushell said.
He had seen HYSOC perform at the Homer High School Commons and decided he would write a song about glaciers to be played by the orchestra. Bushell talked to Daniel Perry, the musical director of HYSOC.
“He got excited, That’s exactly what he wanted to do with his group — fun projects like that to inspire kids to get into more serious music,” Bushell said.
“The kids were really excited about this project,” said Kara Clemens, mother of Clyde and Sylvia and parent coordinator for HYSOC. “When Johnny B. brought it up, it was a no-brainer. Johnny is the enthusiast for all things music and youth, and it turns out he’s an environmental activist.”
In the summer, Perry works as a naturalist guide at Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge in China Poot Bay.
“He’s got a wonderful lifestyle. He really has mastered combining his love and passion for music and love and passion for the outdoors,” Clemens said. “He’s really into building a group cohesion. He’s a wonderful leader for our group.”
Perry said he jumped at the chance to take music outdoors.
“We’re always stuck as musicians, stuck inside doing these things,” he said.
Bushell applied for and got a grant from the Homer Foundation to pay for production expenses, including having sewers at NOMAR make backpack straps for the musical instrument cases. The video starts out with the musicians walking down the ramp at the Homer Harbor and to a Mako’s Water Taxi boat. They go across the bay and hike over tree roots and along the trail to Grewingk Glacier Lake. While the musicians played at the glacier as Bushell videotaped them, they later recorded the music individually and as a group in Bushell’s studio.
Perry helped arranged Bushell’s original music for strings, but the musicians also developed the music.
“What was amazing about this project was the kids took ownership of it,” Perry said. “They would say, ‘Let’s try a crescendo here. … It was really their project as well, not just hiking their basses over the Saddle Trail.”
Bushell shot the video with an iPhone. He also uses drone camera footage to show the immensity of the glacier and the small dots of the musicians on the shore. One take not used in the final video had the musicians in wetsuits standing in the cold lake playing their instruments, with Clyde Clemens sitting on a sturdy iceberg playing his cello. The video includes recordings of water trickling off the ice.
“It’s a celebration of all glaciers. That’s the whole climate-change theme. The glacier stands alone. It’s so beautiful. This video really shows off the Grewingk with its blue ice,” Bushell said.
The video also shows the recession of the glacier, using archival footage to show its retreat from near the shore in 1900 to when the lake formed in 1926 to the glacier pulling back a mile from the shore and now 3 miles.
A final scene shows the musicians turning around and bowing to the glacier. Bushell said he had done a scene of them performing with their backs to the glacier, and then suggested they turn around and bow.
“It made sense. That was what we were there for,” he said.
Bushell composed and Perry arranged “Blue Ice” before the video session, and throughout June and July HYSOC practiced and refined the piece. For HYSOC, the studio recording marked the first time the musicians had done a recording.
“I think it’s cool to have that experience,” Clyde Clemens said.
“He feels like, wow, this is what real musicians do,” his mom said. “He’s 8 years old and already has this experience.”
“I learned you have to have a lot of patience with yourself to do things over and over,” Kauffman said. “It’s worth it. It’s a team building thing.”
Kauffman said she likes the feel of “Blue Ice.”
“It was very well done. It so fits the glacier. You can hear parts that are emulating the glacier, how majestic it is,” she said.
Clyde Clemens said he thought the music might help people understand climate change.
“It seems pretty clear. You can get the whole idea from the video. I think they’ll know it’s happening,” he said.
HYSOC was the brainchild of the late Homer musician Sally Kabisch, who wanted to place for her students to play. Lisa Whip and conductor Tia Pietsch founded HYSCO in the fall of 2004 after Kabisch died. Starting with five students, it has grown to 13, with students ages 8 to 16. Students have to be able to read music and usually need to take private lessons to join, Clemens said. A new music group at Paul Banks Elementary School, Preludes, now in first and second grades, is building a generation of string musicians that Perry said he hopes will make the Homer classical music community stronger.
Clyde Clemens has some advice for those new musicians.
“Keep practicing,” he said. “You should just keep playing.”
Reach Michael Armstrong at email@example.com.
“Blue Ice” Video
Music by Johnny B.
Producer and director, John Bushell
Daniel Perry, Conductor
Clyde Clemens, Avram Salzmann, cello
Lawson Alexson-Walls, Iris Downey, bass
Rosy Kauffman, Sylvia Clemens, Neviya Reed, Morgan Whiteside, violins
Theodore Hanley, viola
Drone images by John Bushell, Ash Churchill and Biyi Akinlude
Video editing by Biyi Akinlude
Audio editing assistance by Kevin Duff
Visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIM8mt8VChM to watch the video.