Story last updated at 8/5/2009 - 12:30 pm
JUNEAU - Mary Amanda Fairchild composed most of her album "Alaxsxaq" in one intense weekend. As she worked around the clock, track after track came to her.
"I didn't know what I was after. It was after me," she said. "I couldn't have created that CD if I had put my mind to it."
Fairchild, 52, has spent 15 summers as a musician on cruise ships traversing the Inside Passage. The idea for "Alaxsxaq" originated in a request from her husband, an onboard naturalist, who wanted music to introduce his programs on the ships. Fairchild set out to create songs evoking various Southeast Alaskan communities, beginning with Sitka one Friday evening.
"I could hear this unbelievable, flowing orchestral piece," Fairchild said. "I could hear the entire thing, completely scored out. (Then) I played it back and I thought, 'That's not Sitka. That's a whale!'"
So instead of "Sitka," she had "Whale." No matter - she moved on try to create "Ketchikan."
"I'm hearing instruments I don't even play very well," Fairchild remembered. "I couldn't get it out of my head."
Then it became clear to her: "What I'd just played was 'Otter,'" she said.
She kept hearing and writing new and different compositions. After two days of intense work, the CD was not what she expected, but she knew she had her album.
"None of (the tracks) were the same," she said. "There was no similarity between any of them in style. By Sunday morning, it finally stopped. I had 10, 12 tracks that had made themselves, labeled themselves."
Instead of tracks evoking different Southeast communities, the resulting tracks have titles such as "Bear," "Aurora," and "Glacier."
"If you listen to it without looking at the titles, you'll know exactly what you're listening to," Fairchild said.
Fairchild plays every instrument in the album, from drums to the piccolo. This is not unusual for her: In both her music and in the rest of her life, Fairchild is known for her versatility.
She was a self-described "prodigy" who began to play the piano at age two and performed with a symphony at age seven. But what she really loved was ballet, and she put herself through ballet school by playing the piano for the school's rehearsals and performances.
As a young woman, she moved to England, shaved her head and played bass in a punk band. She then took up the harp. Her last albums prior to "Alaxsxaq" were jazz piano with vocals, a pop album on the harp, and a history of sea songs.
"You're only as limited as you allow yourself to be," Fairchild said.
Aside from music, one of her great passions is diving. She also has a master's in Byzantine mosaic preservation, and is working on her doctorate in music therapy.
As with the composition of "Alaxsxaq," Fairchild has always been open to moving in new and unexpected directions. She attributes some of this spirit to her mother, who died last year of Alzheimer's. Fairchild said her mother became her "Zen master" of sorts, teaching her to live in the moment, and she experienced a creative spurt after her mother passed away.
"I learned that the most important thing is to be present," Mary Amanda said. "If the next thing that comes of that is I want to wire walk and join the circus, so be it."
And at one point in her life she did just that, she added. But she has always returned to music, in one of the many forms in her repertoire.
"I just feel so lucky to do what I love and share it with as many people as I get to share it with," she said. "Music is communication. Music is my way of saying 'hello' to people who are walking down the street."