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Locally composed: Laguna Beach’s Artist in Resident premieres site-specific piece


Summer may be over, but the premiere of Laguna Beach Suite: From the Canyons to the Sea brought the Festival of the Arts facility to life on September 24. In fact, the music seemed to resonate off the canyon walls which inspired part of the suite by composer Pamela Madsen.

“I love site-specific work,” she said, and as the Laguna Beach 2020 Artist in Residence, she was thrilled to bring her nationally recognized talent to fruition in her own hometown, albeit two years later than originally planned.

“I go into a place and listen carefully. I listen to all the sounds in the environment and bring them into my music.” And during 2020, as COVID changed everything, the sounds of Laguna Beach were no exception. 

locally composed show

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Photo by Theresa Keegan

Composer Pamela Madsen introduced her work during its world premiere at the Festival of Arts on September 24. As the Laguna Beach Artist in Resident, she composed “Laguna Beach Suite: From the Canyons to the Sea” in 2020.

Finding the sounds in silence 

Madsen wandered about a town that was largely vacant and, to an untrained ear, seemingly quiet. There were no throngs of tourists laughing, shouting or talking. Crashing ocean waves were not offset by car engines racing past.

“The quiet of the town was really amazing for me as a composer,” she said. “That just washed over me. The streets were empty. I could wander through the streets – I didn’t have to worry about cars – and I thought of the significance of the years and what it was like 100 years ago, with poets and artists and the origins of our town as an artists’ colony.”

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Courtesy of Pamela Madsen

Composer Pamela Madsen is also a professor of music composition and theory at Cal State Fullerton and specializes in site-specific compositions 

Reflecting Laguna Beach’s history

While some felt alienated by the orange construction fencing keeping them from the beach, Madsen experienced a welcoming feeling.

“I went every day to the ocean to be inspired and to listen,” she said.

She realized that, despite all the changes, there were fundamental scenarios taking place that also took place a century earlier when the country was emerging from the Spanish Flu pandemic, the scars of the Civil War were still fresh and economic and social divisions were creating havoc. 

In addition to being a composer, Madsen is also a historian and theorist. 

“I’m allowed to shine a light on things that are beautiful or need listening to,” she explained of her music. “It is not just what I’m hearing – they’re not just songs – but they’re songs that have a social impact as well – social issues and concerns are highlighted.”

In addition to her landscape-inspired creations (she also produces an annual piece for Crystal Cove and has received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts), Madsen is a professor at Cal State Fullerton and her opera Why Women Went West just premiered to rave reviews. Excerpts from the opera were presented by Brightwork newmusic, featuring soprano Stacey Fraser, at the Festival show before the suite was performed.

locally composed concert trio

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Photo by Theresa Keegan

The Eric Dries Trio, including Eric Dries, Trevor Ware, Peter Buck and vocalist Meloney Collins are joined on stage with composer Pamela Madsen following their performance of Laguna Beach Suite

While composing Laguna Beach Suite, Madsen delved into the past with vigor, including discovering poetry that reflected the three composition areas: Main Beach, Heisler Park and Village Entrance – from the Canyon to the Sea. Initially, there was to be one piece for each area and it would be performed on site. But when COVID restrictions made three unique gatherings a thing of the past, Madsen shifted gears, decided on one performance and added another sequence to each piece. The Laguna Beach Suite, which is now about a 30-minute performance, is enhanced with the lengthier compositions. 

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The poetry, and Madsen’s modifications, was sung during the inaugural performance by Meloney Collins. Although traditionally a classical composer, Madsen felt the Laguna vibe was best reflected in a jazzier composition. The Eric Dries Trio, consisting of the namesake (who is Madsen’s husband) as well as Trevor Ware on bass and Peter Buck on drums, performed. 

Adapting to changing circumstances

The suite’s three parts starts with the poem “When I First Saw Laguna,” by Isaac Frazee, who arrived in town in 1921 and initiated “the pageant” to raise funds for, of all things, a fireproof art gallery. 

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “In the Harbor – Loss and Gain” was the focus of the second piece. 

“The poems deal with the area I was composing for,” said Madsen. “There was a livelihood on Main Beach, so to address the loss and gains, in this time of reflection and solitude made sense.”

Madsen used the poetry of Sara Teasdale in a piece about Heisler Park as well as the canyon. Teasdale’s “Sea Wind” poem aptly reflects the beach at sunset and the ongoing lure of water. Her poem “To One Away,” used in the piece Village Entrance – the From the Canyon to the Sea affirms the connection of knowing one’s direction. 

Her use of W.B. Yeats’ poem “Address to My Soul” captured the magic of a contemplative dialogue. With a lulling bass and keyboard, and percussion chiming in, there was a holistic, musical summation that truly reflected the many transformations that have happened, and continue to happen every day, upon traveling through the canyon. Attendees who were lucky enough to hear this piece, while watching the sun’s lengthening shadows on the canyon, experienced all the magic that site-specific music can evoke. 

“My music comes from many layers of consciousness trying to be heard,” said Madsen. “I try to have people experience what I’m feeling and then what the poets or artists are feeling. There’s a depth of melodies.” 

For more information and to hear selected pieces, visit

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