U-M music professor directing project to compose songs for every one of state's 129 lighthouses
ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Fort Gratiot survived the great white hurricane of 1913 and is the oldest in Michigan - it's majestic.
Point Betsie is where all the kids from Interlochen go to make out - Betsie likes to party.
Then there's Alpena Light - an isolated red beacon at the mouth of the Thunder Bay River.
"It's this little dorky think sitting out there."
If lighthouses could sing, what would they sound like? If they could assign their own themes that best mirror their storied history, how might it play? The answers to those questions are beginning to materialize in the form of three and four-minute musical blurbs.
"When you actually go to these things, you climb to the top and you're looking out over the lake - the stories of heroism are just insane."
That's Bill Lucas, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. Since 2014, he has embarked on a mission to absorb the sights, sounds, and smells of these historic pillars, and infuse their textured personalities into fanfares. By immersing himself in the environment that surrounds each lighthouse, he hopes to transmit all of the tangibles and intangibles that come with these fabled structures into musical tributes.
For the seasoned trumpet player, there's no better way to compose music.
"I've always spent time in the woods, camping, kayaking, cycling because as a musician, spending time in nature is a good way to find inspiration," said Lucas.
Lucas himself is not a composer, although he has been authoring musical pieces for decades. With 31 years of experience at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Lucas splits his time between there and teaching in Ann Arbor. That much work leaves little downtime in September through April - but in the summer all he has is time.
After a calendar showing off some of the state's lighthouses came in the mail, he saw another use for his expertise. During one of those summers, he toured lighthouses all around the lower peninsula. After getting hired as an assistant professor, he got the idea of pair his love of writing fanfares for the DSO with his appreciation for the historic towers. Once he found out faculty could classify that work as research and he could receive grant money to help him - he set out on his musical journey.
"If you were to say to me, 'I want to write a paragraph describing what it's like sitting on a beach looking at the water,' you'd take 100 words or so and do just that," Lucas said. "With fanfares, we do the same thing."
"It's a flourish, an honor, a eulogy, a short statement or synopsis in tribute or in honor of something," he added.
Each honor or eulogy or synopsis is distinct to the lighthouse it pays tribute to. Ludington Light features slow somber echoes from the brass quintet, while the brooding hums of tubas lead the way for Manistee Light. Point Betsie features trumpets blaring big sounds as Ford Gratiot Light oscillates between crescendos as a poem authored uniquely for the tune is narrated in between the musical pauses.
Lucas's pet project has evolved into the Michigan Lighthouse Landmark Legacy. Encompassing 15 composers made up of professors, students, and alumni, the project has been split up into three phases. The music professor wants phase one to include pieces for lighthouses in the lower peninsula, fanfares celebrating the state's physical landscapes like Isle Royal and Beaver Island for phase two, and then phase three will do the offshore lights further north.
Lucas envisioned this passion as a means to raise money for lighthouse restoration across the state. Boasting the country's highest number of lighthouses, if he placed every composition on CD's and gave them to the lighthouses, maybe their associations could raise money to rebuild and salvage the structures. While the sentiment remains true, those working to fix up these structures see more value in bringing awareness to the lighthouses instead.
"It's really an interesting part of our culture in the state. If more people knew about them, it would be an easier job to not let these fall apart," said Lucas.
Jack Nissen is a reporter with Fox 2 Detroit. You can reach him at (248) 552-5269 or at Jack.Nissen@foxtv.com