“I can talk forever about this,” Nate Saunders said when we called the Fairfield resident to ask about the classical music he’d written as a tribute to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. Which was convenient, because we had a lot of questions. How did he translate this place into music? How did the Registered Maine Guide even know how to start composing? And are there moose in the music? (Yes, loons too.) The Augusta Symphony, of which Saunders is a member, is staging the world premiere of his music this Saturday at the South Parish Congregational Church in Augusta. It’s a double bill: the Allagash of Saunders followed by some Beethoven. And it’s free.

SWEET SUITE: Although Saunders’ piece will be performed by the Augusta Symphony, he wants to make sure people understand it is not technically a symphony. “Symphonies have a certain structure to them. This is a collection of six pieces. It’s the Allagash Suite.” He took some inspiration from the Grand Canyon Suite, composed in the late 1920s by Ferde Grofé and later used as the musical score for the 1958 Academy Award-winning Walt Disney short “Grand Canyon.” Both Saunders’ tribute to the Allagash and Grofé’s to the Grand Canyon are about 30 minutes long. Saunders’ includes helpful narration, guiding the listener through the various phases of the 92-mile waterway.

MUSIC LOVER: Saunders works in the water safety division of the Department of Health and Human Services. His training is as a mechanical engineer. How did he turn into a composer? Love of music and place. A long time ago he’d thought he’d make violins for a living, until he realized it wasn’t a lucrative business (he does it now as a hobby). He got the idea for the suite in June of 2017. He’d been a violinist in the symphony for nearly 10 years then. “I am not one of their star performers. But I love music.” He also loves the outdoors. He’d written a few “small pieces” in the past and was contemplating the Grand Canyon Suite. “I wondered if anybody had written anything for the Allagash. And what would a piece of music for the Allagash be like?”

WATER WORLD: The waterway has six distinct phases, as he sees it. The first 50 miles being river as lake, when wind is enough of a factor that early morning paddling is key. So loons factor heavily in the opening piece. So does rain, arriving late in the day. The musicians snap their fingers and then stamp their feet. With their instruments they conjure up “the sound of rain on tarps and Coleman stoves.” A storm rages. “Then rain fades off, and then the evening comes in and you hear the loons again.” Waltzes are built into the suite, suggesting the steady flow of the river, and a lively section is meant to evoke the excitement of hitting white water after those 50 miles of half lake, half river.

LISTENING TO LANDMARKS: Saunders has stacked his composition with tributes to the oddities of the area, like whistles to represent the two ancient locomotives still sitting up there on the waterway, vestiges of lumbering and an old way of moving logs. There’s a fiddle section tribute to the sound of an ax chopping, a piccolo imitating the sound of a winter wren (as well the songs of peepers) and contrabassoons channeling bullfrogs. Maine’s iconic woodland creature – “The moose is played by a bass fiddle, although Saunders may use a “real moose call,” i.e., coffee can and wet cotton shoe string, and play it himself.

SUMMER OF ’76: His first trip to the Allagash was as a 15-year-old from Portland. He’d just finished a session as a camper at Camp Winona, and two counselors took a group of about a dozen young people on the trip. It was August of 1976. His older brothers had already been down the river, so he’d heard a lot about it. Which is one reason why he remembers that first trip so well, down to what it sounded like when he broke his paddle. “That one was easy to remember. That was kind of the pinnacle trip to do.”


A LITTLE ROMANCE: He calls one section of the piece a campfire lullaby. With a romantic twist. Saunders is recalling that feeling of being a teenager looking across a campfire at another teenager. “It’s a nice dialogue between a clarinet and an oboe.”

MAINE GUIDE: When Saunders’ own children (three boys) were growing up, Camp Winona was out of financial reach. But he wanted them to know the wilderness well, and enjoy time with friends in faraway places, so when they were teenagers, he trained to become a Maine Guide. “To have confidence we weren’t going to get in trouble.” His family and friends appreciated his achievement, and he’s organized trips all over the North Woods, from Lobster Lake to the West Branch of the Penobscot, and countless others. His Maine is filled with outdoor opportunities, especially for those who are willing to sleep on the ground. “Camping is different from regular living.” As for the Allagash Wilderness Waterway? “It’s a national treasure.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

Correction: This story was updated at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018 to correct the name of the church where the performance will take place.

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