Music with Minnesotans: Will Steger

by Alison Young, Minnesota Public Radio
May 25, 2011

St. Paul, Minn. — Will Steger is one of those amazing people you think you'll never have the chance to meet with up close and personal.

But a couple of months ago when an article was written about Music with Minnesotans and I was asked who would I like on the show, I named the most famous Minnesotans I could think of and Will Steger saw his name and called me up.

What's so amazing about this polar explorer - besides the fact of all he's accomplished - is that classical music pervades his entire life. He doesn't listen while outdoors or on expedition, but in the moments in between and in a kind of abstract way music informs his life.

Will Steger has traveled tens of thousands of miles in the past 45 years by kayak, dog-sled, and on foot leading teams on the most important polar expeditions in history. Only last week, he celebrated the 25th anniversary of the North Pole expedition that included Ann Bancroft - another Music with Minnesotans guest. He told me that there are so many parallels in these expeditions to the work of a musician - the commitment, the striving for something beyond oneself, the ability to deal with disappointment and frustration and know when to try a different tack.

Erik Satie's music matches moments in nature. It helped me leave the cities for the widlerness.
- Will Steger

Will is not a musician himself, though he did stand on his hands and let all the blood rush to his head as a kid listening to records. Listening has always been a kind of "event. He purchased a turntable from Dayton's way back and even opened a charge account to do this which was one big deal! Once he moved to the wilderness in Northern Minnesota - with no electricity - he used batteries to hear music, and even found a way to heat them up to get them to last longer. So there was something old-fashioned in pulling together a group of friends to sit down and listen to a Beethoven Symphony intently and not just in the background. Beethoven's ninth in particular reminds Will of some of the wild storms he saw on the Arctic Ocean.

Many years ago Will Steger lived in the Twin Cites and longed for the wilderness - and a simpler life. It was the simplicity and directness of Erik Satie that helped him pack up and leave friends and family for the unknown. Satie's music he says matches moments in nature.

At one time, Will got himself "off track" and spent time in a Zen monastery. Becoming aware and living in the present were skills he learned that have helped him stay alive and keep all his limbs on dangerous expeditions in the most formidable terrain in the world. He often listens to Gregorian chant as a way to stay centered and in tune with nature's rhythms.

In the winter, Will Steger builds furniture. He works 10 hours per day fashioning wood into smooth and curved designs that capture the changing light and fit into the organic surroundings of his natural setting. The attention to detail is so much like his experience in the Arctic. Not a sound can be heard but the slight susurration of the snow and one's own heart-beat. He describes the sense of being alive, but actually one with the surrounding - nearly non-existent. Listening to the gauzy and hazy textures of Debussy and losing himself in work on wood is a way to be simple, calm and balanced.

And that helps him to reach for the "grain of enlightenment" Will believes we all have inside us but can't always access. Music brings him closer to this place - including Handel which can be inward, searching but also resolute.

Enjoy this marvelous conversation with an amazing individual who relates to music from its power to its more meditative moments.


Will Steger's playlist:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 6 "Pastorale" - Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vanska

Erik Satie, Gymnopedie No. 1 - Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Codex las Huelgas/Quis dabit - Theatre of Voices/Paul Hillier

Claude Debussy, Nocturnes - Montreal Symphony/Charles Dutoit

G.F. Handel, Suite in G - Keith Jarrett


Check out more from Music with Minnesotans:

Linda Z. Andrews, Ann Bancroft, Charles Baxter, Philip Brunelle, Mayor Chris Coleman, Michael Pearce Donley, Joe Dowling, Dr. Victoria Elmer, Gwen Freed, Nancy Gibson, William Gurstelle, Karen Hansen, Steve Heitzeg, Stuart Loughridge, Allan Naplan, Stephen Paulus, Chris Polydoroff, Consie Powell, Lois Quam, Mayor RT Rybak, Nick Schneider, Steve Schon, James Sewell, Mary Shideler 'The Kayak Lady', Ann Swenson, The Reverend Spenser Simrell, Ann Swenson, Paul Thissen, Dale Warland, Matt Wehling and Larry Zea.


Next week, Sam Wai is my guest. He is the Treasurer for the American Crystal Sugar Company in Moorhead and is on the Board of Trustees of MPR. That is because he is passionate about classical music, ever since he was introduced to music in China as a boy and bought his first record - now part of a huge and diverse collection.

On Now

Listen to the Stream
  • Rocky Point Holiday 8:54 Ron Nelson
    US Coast Guard Band
    Lewis Buckley
    Buy Now
  • The Washington Post 8:50 John Philip Sousa
    Buy Now
Other MPR Radio Streams
Choral Stream
MPR News
Radio Heartland

You can now listen to Classical and Choral Music on your iOS (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad) or Android device.

Classical Notes Blog

Read more