National Parks Photographer Featured In World Premiere With Central Ohio Symphony

Apr 25, 2019

Two and a half years ago, two people with strong ties to Delaware, Ohio, met each other when they were being inducted into the Delaware City Schools’ Hall of Fame.

The world will see the fruits of that chance encounter this weekend, when the Central Ohio Symphony presents the world-premiere screening of National Park Service Photographer Frank Lee Ruggles’ film Expedition with original music by two composers who once called Delaware home.

To mark its 40th anniversary, the Central Ohio Symphony performs its Local Focus concert April 27 at 7:30 p.m. in Ohio Wesleyan University’s Gray Chapel.

The program will showcase landscape photography by Ruggles – a Delaware Hayes High School graduate – music by former Ohio Wesleyan University music department faculty composer Jennifer Jolley and Ohio Wesleyan alumni composer Lauren Spavelko, and performance by pianist and University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music associate faculty member Jacob Miller.

Along with the screening of Expedition and performance of the music Jolley and Spavelko composed for the film, the event will also feature Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World” and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, with Miller as piano soloist.

The concert launches with Four-Second Fanfares, composed for the occasion by fourth-grade students at Buckeye Valley West Elementary School and orchestrated by San Francisco-based composer Danny Clay, a Columbus native who grew up in Delaware and served as musician-in-residence at Buckeye Valley West earlier this spring.

The Central Ohio Symphony presents Local Focus with support from PNC Arts Alive, the Ohio Arts Council, the City of Delaware and a Challenge America grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The visual images in Expedition chronicle Ruggles’ 13 years photographing the national parks, both as an unofficial explorer and as an official photographer for the U.S. National Park Service. In addition, the film is the centerpiece of a collaboration that aims to bring together the Delaware community to celebrate its cultural riches.

“A great opportunity for new music”

“When I was a young person and I said I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Ansel Adams, people laughed at me,” Ruggles said in a recent phone interview.

But for the last 13 years, Ruggles has been doing just that – walking in the footsteps of the legendary photographer Ansel Adams, known for the iconic landscape photos he shot as eminent photographer for the U.S. National Park Service.

Credit Frank Lee Ruggles /

Currently Artist Ambassador to the National Park Trust, Ruggles met Warren Hyer, executive director of Delaware’s Central Ohio Symphony, in October 2016, when the two were inducted into the Delaware City Schools’ Hall of Fame.

As they were standing on the football field of Ruggles’ alma mater, Delaware Hayes High School, Hyer had an idea.

“I looked at him, and I said, ‘You ever thought about using your pictures with the symphony?’ And he said, ‘No, but I’d really like to,’” Hyer said. “I thought this was a great opportunity for new music.”

Composer Jennifer Jolley
Credit Elizabeth Glenn /

Hyer spoke with Jennifer Jolley, who at that time was a composer on the faculty at Ohio Wesleyan University and a member of the Central Ohio Symphony’s board of trustees, about the possibility of collaborating with Ruggles to create a video that would juxtapose his photography with a brand-new underscore.

Jolley, who now serves on the faculty of Texas Tech University's School of Music, had been writing a chamber work on commission from the Grand Valley State New Music Ensemble for the ensemble’s national park project.

The coincidence seemed too good to be true – that Jolley had at the ready new music inspired by one of America’s national parks right when the Expedition project presented itself – so Jolley offered to orchestrate her chamber work, Blue Glacier Decoy, for Ruggles’ film.

Jolley’s eight-minute score wasn’t going to be long enough for what Ruggles and Hyer envisioned as a 16-minute film.

“So I said, ‘Maybe we could run with this,’” Jolley said. “And I suggested a couple of composers that could maybe flesh out the rest of the piece that would go with this video.”

Columbus composer Lauren Spavelko
Credit Adam Squier

One of those composers was Jolley’s friend and colleague Lauren Spavelko, a Columbus native, composer and music teacher who had completed her undergraduate degree in music education at Ohio Wesleyan before Jolley’s time there on the faculty.

“I contacted Lauren, and we listened to some of her music,” Hyer said. “And I said, ‘This piece really has a very visual quality to it. So we commissioned her to write the remaining eight, nine minutes to match what Jennifer had written.”

Monochrome and Spectrum

Very often film music is composed to suit the visuals. But in the case of Expedition, things worked almost the other way around.

Jolley’s Blue Glacier Decoy had been inspired by Washington’s Olympic National Park and Washington native and choreographer Trisha Brown’s 1979 dance piece Glacial Decoy. Jolley was intrigued by Brown’s description of her dance piece, in which shifting bodies become a metaphor for shifting glaciers.

“What I did musically was, I had a series of six or some chords that you would hear all together,” Jolley said. “And then over time there is a rotation of these chords, so that that they shift over time.”

In addition to the instrumental parts, a recording of Brown talking about Glacial Decoy is also gradually distorted over the course of Jolley’s piece.

Credit Frank Lee Ruggles /

Spavelko’s task was to transition out of the end of Jolley’s piece and into her own new work for the film.

“We had a good idea of what (Jolley’s) music was going to sound like and what sort of pictures Frank might want to match with her music,” Spavelko said. “So when I was working with Frank, I asked him what sort of images did he imagine that he would like me to write music to, that maybe wouldn’t quite work with what Jennifer had already proposed or would match better.

“And so he said,” Spavelko continued, “‘Well, I think I want it to have a lot of orange and a lot of hardscapes in it’ – like more rock features. And he and Warren both wanted a big ending, so something very grand.”

Credit Frank Lee Ruggles /

Spavelko gained inspiration from looking at the photographs on Ruggles’ website, though she didn’t know which of his photographs Ruggles would include in the film.

“I ended up writing a piece that is rhapsodic – it has different episodes and different textures – so that Frank would have a lot to be able to work with, with his collection (of photographs),” Spavelko said.

Spavelko says the sound of Aaron Copland’s music depicting America’s wide-open landscapes was also an inspiration for her piece – which she describes as “very American” – named Keyah, the Navajo word for “land.”

Credit Frank Lee Ruggles /

Jolley and Spavelko sent Frank electronic files of their scores, and Ruggles matched his images to the moods of their music.

“They looked at my photos and then composed music based on how the photos made them feel,” Ruggles said. “And the timing of the film matches the music – the crescendos and decrescendos. As the music swells, the pictures change. So I’m cutting it beat for beat to go along with both of their compositions.”

Ruggles also matched the color palette of his images with the mood of the music Jolley and Spavelko sent him.

“(Jolley’s) piece Blue Glacier Decoy is more subdued,” he said. “It’s got a lot of undertones to it, so I used only my black-and-white images for her work. And then the second half of the film, it’s a more bombastic type of music, and that’s where the color photographs come in. And so I call the two halves of the film ‘Monochrome’ and ‘Spectrum,’ because that’s what the music felt like to me.”

"Hi, Frank"

In selecting and arranging the images that appear in Expedition, Ruggles says he was reaching back to his childhood in Delaware, when friends and neighbors opened his eyes to the world through slideshows of their vacation photos.

“I remember growing up in Ohio that when somebody went away on vacation or on a trip, one of the sort of neighborhood requirements was for everybody to come back and watch their slideshows,” Ruggles said. “We would have a potluck dinner, and they would put on some records and we would watch the slides of their vacation.

“I sort of feel like this is what I want to do with my hometown,” he continued. “I’ve been away for 20 years. And I want to come back to my hometown and put on this presentation of images of the places I’ve visited to share what I’ve seen and what I’ve done.”

Credit Frank Lee Ruggles /

Expedition is just the beginning of what the Central Ohio Symphony’s Local Focus concert will bring to the Delaware community. 

“There are a variety of activities that will be going on with this concert, many of them outside the concert hall,” Hyer said.

On April 25, pianist Jacob Miller will perform a recital at Ohio Wesleyan’s Music Department, and Ruggles will lead a hands-on nature photography class in Delaware’s Preservation Parks.

Credit Frank Lee Ruggles /

Ruggles also will be the guest speaker at an assembly at Delaware Hayes High School, will teach Delaware middle-schoolers how to take good pictures with their phones and will give presentations to an area Rotary Club chapter and at a retirement center.

This week through April 27, a selection of Ruggles’ photographs will be on display in the Central Ohio Symphony’s downtown Delaware office, where the community can view them during business hours.

Beyond sharing his work, Ruggles says he hopes to make new friends in his old hometown.

“Most importantly,” Ruggles said, “I hope that people will walk up and say, ‘Hi, Frank.’”

The world-premiere screening of Expedition, with images by photographer Frank Lee Ruggles and music by composers Jennifer Jolley and Lauren Spavelko, takes place during the Central Ohio Symphony’s Local Focus concert, April 27 at 7:30 p.m. in Ohio Wesleyan University’s Gray Chapel.