Author: Nat Evans

Off the Trail: Absorbing the Reflection of the PCT

ascent from Red Pass

Ascent from Red Pass.

Over the course of the last four and a half months, my residency-on-foot was a prolific time. I wrote a couple dozen short works, made hundreds of field recordings, and have been able to think about music and sound in ways previously unimaginable to me. Since all I was doing every day was just walking, the sheer amount of time and space that each thought was allowed was huge—rewarding but also at other times maddening. It is a very privileged few folks who are able to conjure up the finances at the right time (such as when they have their health) and leave everything else behind to go walk across the country, knowing that they’ll be able to enter back into society relatively easily. This privileged set was one that felt oddly familiar to me as a composer: the vast majority of the thru-hikers out there were white dudes, and of both genders almost exclusively white. The process of writing and walking this multitude of landscapes led me to think, read, compose, and make field recordings based on related demographic queries such as who used to live there, how people alter and interact with the landscape then and now, who are the current inhabitants, and how everything sounds as a result.

The Pacific Crest Trail traverses all sorts of different types of land-designations—national parks, national forests, wilderness areas, Department of Natural Resources and Bureau of Land Management land, state parks, private land, and also a few Native American reservations. Each of these different types of land are managed in radically different ways by different agencies and people, yet one point all of them share is that prior to 1492 when Columbus and company washed ashore (opening a wave of change and genocide over the centuries) they were inhabited by various Native American tribes who had a symbiotic relationship with the land—with myriad managements of their own that evolved in tandem with specific bioregions over tens of thousands of years. Fast forward through hundreds of years of disease, presidentially authorized massacres by the military, forced removal, over-hunting, clear-cutting of forests, mining, colonization, romanticization of nature in the occidental arts, and a wave of westward expansion and pioneers, and the landscape is dramatically different. Even John Muir, radical as he was in his day advocating for the preservation of the natural world, helped change things further by pushing for Native Americans to be removed in order to create the first national parks, such as his beloved Yosemite in Central California. Thus, the concept of “wilderness” was born in the American mind—nature being something virginal and pure to be placed on a pedestal and admired from a distance, separate from humans.

near Stevens Pass in Northern WA

Near Stevens Pass in Northern Washington.

So, when walking through all these various landscapes, constantly altered as they are by human interaction of some type, it became apparent to me that part of my job as a composer on this long walk was not to try to capture a series of idyllic bird calls from this mythical concept of a beautiful and pristine wilderness, but to capture the reality of the lands I was passing through. Dark and dense 30-year-old mono-crop forests, replanted after being clear-cut, stand almost silent with little plant diversity or animal life stirring contrasted with an ancient forest only a few miles away that is noisy and open, with a myriad of different sounds humming away from the forest floor to hundreds of feet up to the canopy. Deep scars across the desert floor, generations old, crisscrossed by fresh lines from marauding troops of people on ATVs and four-wheelers. The sound of a flowing stream suddenly joined with the counterpoint of a buzzing power station and lines of wires stretching across the hillsides. There’s the concept of things being very “quiet” out in this American construct of “wilderness”—but should they be? The summer trading parties of the Washo (coming from the east with pine nuts and obsidian) and the Miwok and Maidu (arriving from the west with abalone shells, yew bows, and acorns) in the North Sierra Meadows have been replaced with the sound of a few hundred privileged white people in high tech gear passing through, music being broadcast endlessly through the tiny speakers of their devices which also communicate with satellites to tell them where they are. The Cahuilla tribe no longer are gathering herbs and singing their days-long pieces of music that tell their history in the desert of Southern California. Instead we hear the sound of coyotes circling, in tandem with a security van cruising slowly along guarding a spring on private land; wind turbines whirring from miles away on the desert floor. And should the elk be so noisy walking through the forest? Before, many of these tribes cleared brush and did controlled burns, making most of the forests impossible to burn the way that they do now, massive tinderboxes filled with brush that they are. Indeed, the eery sound of hundreds of acres of creaking burned trees after a devastating wildfire is something we’ve created due to poor forest management.

A lot of these new juxtapositions sound kind of depressing, and I have to admit I found some things downright disturbing (like the sound of logging going on on US Forest Service land), but some of the sounds and combinations thereof when observed objectively are quite beautiful, and I must admit that I missed certain sounds of civilization and found myself delighted when happening upon them. For instance, when resupplying in Southern Washington I ended up lingering in the hallway of a gas station a bit longer so I could listen to the gentle lilting 6ths being emitted from the ceiling vent. And, humans aside, there have been a plethora of incredible sounds I’ve recorded along the way (altered or not by humans and interesting in their own right): noisy dawn choruses, insects humming away, or the almost Feldman-like quality (think woodblocks in Rothko Chapel) of woodpeckers deep in the woods.

Mary Clapp

Scientist Mary Clapp working in the High Sierras. Photo by Ryan Carlton

Sounds being indicators of human alteration are being utilized by scientists as well. Mary Clapp, a Ph.D. student at UC Davis, undertook a bioacoustics-based research project in the High Sierras right by where I walked on the Pacific Crest Trail. Here’s more about her project:

My research, very generally speaking, involves seeing if acoustic recordings are a useful way of revealing and tracking habitat change, degradation, or restoration by the intensity and diversity of the chorus of the biological community that is present there. Specifically, the alpine lakes of the High Sierra have evolved without fish–the way the mountains formed, waterfalls and massive glacially carved granite topography prevented fish from ever colonizing up high–until the mid 1900s, when federal agencies started stocking these fishless lakes with non-native trout. The trout have had huge effects on the biological community in the lakes, and potentially on the species that visit the lake (picture a swallow or a bat darting over a lake, catching mayflies for itself and its nestlings). I’ve noticed that fish-containing lakes are a lot quieter than fishless ones, which led me to wonder if these birds and bats aren’t able to find the food they need at the fish-containing lakes, and whether I could use sound recordings to measure the difference between fishy-lake and fishless-lake communities.

So, she used a mule train (still the way to move goods in the High Sierras—I saw a number of them during my time there) to bring loads of recording equipment up to capture many terabytes worth of field recordings this summer for her research. I’m curious to find out the outcome of her research, but either way it’s interesting to note someone from a completely different community taking stock of the natural world through this type of documentation.

River view from 4,000 feet up.

River view from 4,000 feet up.

Environmental degradation and cultural annihilation aside, the total combination of sounds is something that is interesting and wondrous to behold. Portland composer Scott Unrein just finished his piece for my project, and had this to say:

I’ve hiked small sections of the PCT in Oregon. One of the things that has always struck me about doing it is how sound often precedes sight; particularly when encountering signs of civilization. The catch is that there’s often a delay between hearing and fully perceiving the sounds. That’s one of the things I amplified when combining Nat’s field recordings with other sounds. There’s often a special kind of beauty in the confusion that arises when you’re not entirely sure what you’re hearing.

And so, it feels at this point that the pieces I’ve written while on the Pacific Crest Trail end up reflecting a little bit of all of this. In some ways sound is just sound, other pieces will simply present where humans are in their relationship to these various wilderness areas at this moment in time. A couple others examine the history of places I passed through and the missing human elements or acknowledgement of the people who wandered through in search of a new life more recently. (I’ve been slowing down civil-war-era fiddle tunes for use in one of these.) Hopefully, in the end the recording I’ll release of all of my music will reflect all the topics I cruised through here, and how said topics relate back to the myriad bioregions I walked through as I moved across the country on foot.

And perhaps that is one of the biggest things I’ve taken away from this whole experience as a composer: that immersing oneself in something seemingly detached from music and composing can end up deeply impacting and effecting one’s music and creative life. Walking across the country on the Pacific Crest Trail and living out of a tent for four and a half months is, I admit, a bit extreme, and I’m in a privileged position to be able to do this due to life situation, prior knowledge and experience, finances, and place in society, but the impact of simple activities that make us human, no matter the level of time and effort required, push us too. If you never cook, try cooking once a week! Make a commitment to only eat greens from your garden one summer, join a running group, or take a class on something you’d like to know more about. We don’t spend that much time actually doing the composing itself, so why not engage more fully in the rest of life? The results might surprise you.

A Very Long Walk: Time, Distance, and Creativity on the PCT

Sonora Pass

Sonora Pass

When I initially started walking the Pacific Crest Trail as a mobile residency, my usual daily concerns–tea, the garden, my cat–were immediately swept away, and so was the work-related concern: composing. Finding myself in the middle of a windy, dry, hot desert in Southern California those first couple weeks, I primarily spent my time figuring out how to meet my basic human needs in order to stay alive. Acquiring water became a particular obsession; when the weight of carrying 5-6 liters at a time is coupled with only coming across water once or twice a day (every 10-20 miles), for me thoughts about it simply became all-consuming.
Needless to say, composing while hiking the PCT has been a radically different experience than at my usual studio pace at home. My normal routine is something like this: 6-7 a.m.–wake up and see what the more easterly time zones are up to and read emails. Between 7 a.m.-12 p.m. is when I get pretty much any creative sort of work done; really much after 11:30 and my brain is toast! Afternoons are the time I reserve for doing most of my communicating and handling the business side of things and that may or may not trickle into the evening, which I generally reserve for attending music or art events or just cooking and socializing. Breaks for tea, exercise, or gardening, etc., punctuate the day.

The intersection of seemingly divergent types of rock in Toiyabe is wild.

The intersection of seemingly divergent types of rock in Toiyabe is wild.

So, composing on the trail was necessarily going to have to be different. Initially I was really weight conscious. I got rid of my trusty yellow legal pad and moleskin within the first couple days and instead began writing everything on the backs of my topo maps as I went through them. Without instruments at my disposal for notes, I now occasionally use a dinky little keyboard app when I’m lucky enough to have some spare charge in my phone (it’s fueled by a solar charger out here). When at home if I have a nuanced question about an instrument that my reference books can’t answer, I’ll just jump online and tweet out a question or text a friend who plays said instrument. However, most of the time on the trail there’s little cellphone coverage and even less possibility of enough reception to use good ol’ Google. So, I spend a lot more time thinking through ideas and trying to figure things out on my own, writing things out the best I can and carefully recording queries to pose to Google or musicians when I reach a town or happen across reception.
Highway-like sign on the PCT
As you can tell, composing on the trail is a pretty solitary and isolated activity! In fact, I have attended zero concerts since starting my trip and haven’t really had time to get into any new music when briefly in towns either. At the time of my writing this, I’m taking three days off the trail to go to a new music event of mine at the Soundwave Festival in San Francisco and I’ll see a friend, sound artist and occasional collaborator Chris Kallmyer, then. He’s the first fellow in our community that I’ve seen in person since May! So, this self-created residency takes on new levels of isolation not just from general society but from our community as well–something even most rural or remote artist residencies don’t do. Instead of working at a desk, I work out ideas in my head all day, then spend time in the evening after dinner writing things down.

Recording the sound of a huge steam vent called Terminal Geyser.

Recording the sound of a huge steam vent called Terminal Geyser.

In short, I’m just, well, out there. Even though my wife has joined me now for a couple of months, we still usually only see a few people a day out on the trail. So, though my days are spent meeting basic human needs, making field recordings, and doing a lot of walking, for the most part I have endless time to just think and few decisions to make. Besides composing, I’m making many field recordings for my project so it’s my job to spend endless hours simply listening. In Dave Grohl’s 2013 keynote address at SXSW, he returns frequently to the idea of the creative process for himself being the product of simply being left to one’s own devices without anyone telling you what to do. It’s an almost archetypal stereotype (whether it’s true or not) of childhood–that one has nothing really to do, no big responsibilities, and an endless amount of time to mess around, get bored, make trouble, and just play. That very same day-dreaming drifting time is the luxury that I have out on the trail. Instead of my usual pattern of working on four or five things at once, I work on just one piece, mulling things over sometimes for days before actually writing them down. I’m not distracted by emails or petty bickering on social media. This is just one very long period of time to think about sound, and to organize a little of it for folks. My legs have just healed from having several dozen mosquito bites after being swarmed, and I’m sure there will be another unexpected physical hurdle soon, but I wouldn’t trade the luxury of so much time left to my own devices to work on music and sound for anything…well, except maybe for having some Chinese food delivered on the trail.

Where’s Nat at?

Where’s Nat at? When he sent in this post from the trail, he was approximately where the red dot is.

Listening to the Journey: Hypersensitive Hearing on the Trail

Sun on the Pacific Crest Trail
Since I started walking the Pacific Crest Trail seven weeks ago, I’ve undergone a number of physiological and mental changes. Living outdoors and walking somewhere between 10 and 20 miles a day has made my feet stronger and more agile (along with the rest of my body), my idea of what tastes good and my desire to eat is in constant obsessive flux, and my sense of time has expanded, too. One of the biggest changes that has occurred, however, relates more specifically to working with sound and music as a composer—an alteration in my sense of hearing.

Over the last few weeks, my hearing has changed dramatically. Sounds are much sharper and clearer, as well as more complex. I take time to analyze what I’m hearing and to react to it. This shift in perception is also part of an overall greater alertness in all my senses, such as vision—spotting the tiniest of things moving on the hillside or being able to make out a friend’s shoe print amongst others. A sea of sagebrush has greater relief and detail and parsing out the different shades of gray in clouds is easier—they seem infinitely more complex than any clouds I’ve seen before. Birds I may have disregarded in an everyday city moment now alert me to look up and see a rattlesnake on the trail. At other times, the perception of sound becomes downright psychedelic—hearing becomes not unlike the experience of certain ethnobotanicals. Occasionally voices seem to arrive out of water, echoing off a rock face; the particular way the wind sounds in trees will strike me as funny and I’ll chuckle endlessly at it, or a birdcall will echo in my head, morphing and becoming almost like a series of sine tones until I’m no longer sure what part is birds, what part is sounds in my head, and what’s happening in real time.

Part of this new sense of alertness in hearing comes simply from not being in a city environment for a prolonged period of time—the current, though ever-shifting sonic surroundings are for the most part without too much human intersection. That is to say, I have the luxury of experiencing one sound at a time usually—just the infinite sounds of the natural world that are all around us without the trappings of cars, refrigerator humming, phone buzzing, music in the distance, etc., that our busy sonic landscape is filled with in contemporary life. However, this new sense hearing also comes from a physiological alteration of my brain becoming better at picking out sounds, which stems from the pure endurance of what I am undertaking by walking great distances for days on end. When under duress our bodies pump a cocktail of hormones into our brains, a primal reaction meant to help us simply survive. These two factors intertwining are what is creating my current state of sonic perception.

This altered mental state finds a home in other arenas of endurance as well. Since the 1960s in Occidental culture, we find many people hunting that “runners high” or a similarly psychedelic perceptual brightening that comes from rock climbing or even roller coaster rides. In Japan, an esoteric sect of Tendai Buddhism utilizes running as an ascetic form of meditation—running for 100 days followed by isolated meditation for several days. Once when speaking to a monk, he described to me the sound of the ash falling from burning incense during the final days of mediation sounding like thunder. In my own Zen practice during a retreat once, I heard a thud behind me, but upon inspection later I discovered that it was simply the petal of a tulip that had fallen. So, perhaps endurance events and meditation, when intertwined, affect our hearing in similarly expansive ways.

The descent from 13200 ft Forester Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail

The descent from 13200 ft Forester Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail

Part of my project while on this hike involves attempting to instill bioregionalism via field recordings that I’ll surely use in the music I’m writing all summer, but more specifically through the music that my series of West Coast collaborators are writing. When we listen to field recordings, at least a small amount of this heightened awareness that I’ve been talking about occurs, and it opens up those doors of perception. Scott Worthington is the second of the eight composers to receive and work with my field recordings, and he had this to say about hearing, field recordings, sense of place, and his writing process:

I had never composed with field recordings before and making this piece gave me two strong impressions. First, I immediately noticed that, when played continuously, the recordings made me imagine being at the site of their creation. For example, in my piece, when I hear the birds fade in around one minute in and continue for a few minutes, I imagine sitting in a dense forest just after dawn. This isn’t a daydreaming kind of imagination; I am both transported and completely aware of my actual surroundings. Second, during and after writing this piece, my own local surroundings—in my apartment and walking around town—literally sounded different. I noticed the same kind of bird calls from the recordings. I heard sounds I’m positive I’d been hearing for the past year as though for the first time. Even traffic sounds different. I didn’t hear these “new” sounds as music, but they made me feel more attached to my surroundings in an aural sense (which is a sense I’m quite fond of).

Being a little less than halfway into the hike, I’m curious what other physiological changes will occur in relation to my senses—certainly an unknown factor, and one I’m excited to embrace. Perhaps, to paraphrase Gary Snyder, this sense of hearing and alertness that comes with living closer to the natural world is a reminder that, as living beings, we are not only invited to the feast, but we are also part of the main course. In this deep sense of alertness and awareness, we find the root of simply being alive, and at the moment this feels to me like the place where language and music arise from in humans—making order out of the perfectly balanced chaos of the earth.

Where’s Nat at? When he sent in this post from the trail, he was approximately where the red dot is.

Where’s Nat at? When he sent in this post from the trail, he was approximately where the red dot is.

Read Nat’s previous post here.

Composing on the Pacific Crest Trail

A couple weeks ago I had just drifted off to sleep when I was awakened by a slow crunching sound and a sense of movement under me. A few seconds later, the ground on one edge of my tent gave way and the whole thing toppled over. The next morning (after I had moved my tent at 3 a.m.) I awoke and looked at the map, reminded that the next water source was 19 miles away. And so, I took off down Mt. San Jacinto in Southern California, walking for 12 hours on a trail from a sparse dry alpine forest at well above 10,000 feet that steadily transitioned into a sweltering desert—slowly descending 7,000 feet of elevation over that 19 miles—until I got to a small water fountain near a privately owned spring that feeds a gated community of 20 houses clustered together in the middle of nowhere, around five miles from a huge wind farm on the desert floor. After setting about hydrating myself and putting up my tent, I settled into a night of 80-mile-an-hour winds (apparently there was a reason that wind farm was there), once again having my tent toppled over, even while having all of my possessions in the tent with me.
Pacific Crest Trail: Wind
Despite life-long experience in the great outdoors, and a good long while as a composer as well, so far my self-created residency on the Pacific Crest Trail this summer is certainly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before on a backpacking trip, and also unlike any few months of time dedicated to simply writing music.

In a way, the concept of the Pacific Crest Trail in and of itself is rather odd. Other long-established sacred walking sites in traditional cultures are in fact part of the landscape for those who exalt it—think of circling sacred Mt. Kailash in Tibet or the traversing of the Diamond-Womb trail by the esoteric Buddhists the Yamabushi in Japan, blowing conch shells and chanting—but on the PCT because of weather, water availability, and other things over a huge (but arbitrary) geographic area, you’re really only waving hello as you pass through myriad different types of landscapes or, previously, regions of different Native American tribes that used to fill and use the land in a very different way. The sheer ability to be able to walk it, though most of it is wilderness, is actually a product of the infrastructure of our society, and the reasoning for doing so exclusively individualistic.

Though I’m surely imbibing in this sense of individual exploration by walking and writing my own music, I’ve attempted to remove myself somewhat from this and tried to imbue my project with a sense of place by bringing in eight different composers along on this 2600-mile stretch. While walking I’m making a series of field recordings, which I then send to different composers living nearby. They then take a few minutes from a field recording and layer a brief musical response on top, which will be posted online. By doing this, hopefully my role becomes one of facilitator and collector as much as composer, and the project then is infused with a strong sense of bioregionalism. That is, the people who live nearby these sounds surely relate to them differently or more closely than I do, a tourist in a foreign land. For instance, Carolyn Chen, who received the first memory card filled with recordings as she is furthest south, knows the sounds of things like acorn woodpeckers or the Santa Ana winds howling through the trees, and therefore will think about them differently. By instilling bioregionalism into this collection of music and sound, people will be able to better understand the places they live, each other, how we relate to the natural world, and, perhaps, the arbitrary nature of the boundaries we’ve created for ourselves.

Beyond exploring our ever-evolving relationship to the natural world over tens of thousands of years, deep ecology, and humorous battle stories, 314 miles into my walk there have been a number of practical concerns and adjustments to make in my remote, mobile residency. I have a number of items with me that are needed to simply make the work, but even more items that are needed simply to live. However, since everything on my back weighs something, it became immediately apparent that I’d have to re-think how I was going to operate. My long-time standard yellow legal pad was the first to go as I opted to recycle the backs of my topographical maps instead of carrying extra paper weight, soon followed by my precious staff paper moleskin, spare writing utensil, and extra batteries. While walking I think about the direction of the sun not only to find shade if I need a mid-day siesta in the desert (the first 800 miles or so), but also where best to place my solar charger that is necessary to charge the batteries I use in my little Tascam recording device to make field recordings.
Pacific Crest Trail: Sculpture
Each month through September I’ll be posting more thoughts on composing while slowly meandering through the wilderness—exploring ideas central to my work and thoughts on simply being a composer who’s removed from traditional city-life experimental composing. What happens when, due to battery/solar charging life, you have to take time to decide which music you’ll listen to every few days? One’s hearing changes when in the wilderness for a prolonged period of time, so how does that effect a sound-based creative practice? What is the effect if one does not attend concerts, hear live music or much new music for a period of time? How does the current incarnation of man’s sounds intersecting with nature’s impact us as people? I’ll be thinking about questions like these and writing about them when I take a break and come into towns and cities. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go purify some water.

Where's Nat At?

Where’s Nat at? When he sent in this post from the trail, he was approximately where the red dot is.

#Yeezus: Lessons in Contemporary Performance from the Stadium Set

Late one recent mid-October evening, Kanye West walked out on stage in Seattle to kick off his Yeezus tour in a jewel-encrusted Maison Martin Margiela mask reminiscent of artist Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skulls. Death-obsessed Hirst says he created those glittery skulls because he was making art from what was around him, and perhaps one could be pushed towards similar conclusions here: that money is Kanye’s medium. However, the nearly three-hour-long show was not a referendum on narcissistic bedazzled-navel navel-gazing. Instead it was a massive interdisciplinary art, music, and sound event produced on a scale large enough to successfully fill an arena.

Kanye’s elusive and shadowy creative agency DONDA designed the elaborate set—a 50-foot, multi-tiered mountain with an even bigger rotating projection screen behind it, a runway with extensive futuristic laser possibilities, and a moving triangular mountain-extension stage in the middle of the arena. If you look through the hashtag #yeezus or #yeezustour right now on Instagram, you might think to yourself, “Dude, this is hella Wagner,” and you’d be right—the main set designer for Kanye’s tours and concerts is Es Devlin, who has designed sets for dozens of operas, mainly in Europe, including a production of Wagner’s Parsifal. At the time of this writing, I have been unable to confirm that Ms. Devlin worked with DONDA on the Yeezus tour, but her influence and direction is surely present given her extensive history with Kanye in the past. Beyond the physical set itself, the massive projection screen was its own lively being. At times it became the moving and occasionally apocalyptic sky behind the mountain, at other times there was live video processing going on that was projected onto the screen—two different videographers capturing Kanye’s face enshrouded in another of the jeweled masks, then someone manipulating the image and projecting it onto the screen above. And still other times there were video works pointing to themes of racism, institutionalized violence, and the oppression of minorities via imagery such as the human back in a vulnerable position or vicious barking dogs. And, often enough these images and events were peppered with feedback-inflected, noisy drones, recordings of “Indian pow-wows” from old films re-appropriated to make a beat-driven commentary on racism, spoken word interludes over resounding choruses, or sounds of electronically manipulated orchestral instruments that bring to mind Olivia Block’s latest project. Signature Kanye West beats seamlessly strung it all together.

Most reviews of this opening Yeezus show in Seattle, like this one in Rolling Stone, note the cadre of women wearing bodysuits and imply that this is surely an example of just how narcissistic this rich black rapper is. In fact, the body suits seemed not to be designed with hyper-sexuality in mind, but highlighted the human figure, often in zombie-like gray tones. West has collaborated with performance artist Vanessa Beecroft a number of times over the last few years—at listening parties in L.A. and also for his epic 35-minute video for Runaway. And, indeed, Beecroft was not only the choreographer, but also the artistic director for the show. Throughout the performance, the dancers interacted with both the mountain and Kanye, created a series of shifting shapes and textures, and at one point mimed a Catholic-inspired priestly procession. They also appeared to act out other scenes seemingly drawn from the history of performance art such as Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy.

As the show progressed, Kanye moved through a series of other masks and a number of costume changes, and a slightly abstract storyline slowly unfolded. Kanye as a black Jesus (a.k.a. Yeezus), the rise and fall and struggle of this character as he moves through a shamanistic vision-quest and eventually, in a bizarre and hilarious Christian passion play-like event, confronts Jesus, who emerges from the giant mountain in a stream of light and smoke. While there had been costume changes leading up to this moment, the intentionality seemed to shift at this point. There was a huge robe and white face mask that made Kanye appear alternately like a scarecrow and like a depiction of a dying Jesus or disciple in a Raphael painting. When meeting “White Jesus,” Yeezus wore an elaborate, Arab-inspired blue tunic echoing the Nation of Islam’s Tribe of Shabazz and Black Power—a leader with a new vision splitting with the past and pointing to a new way forward.

All in all, this was a massive undertaking, and to imagine the manpower and money that will be required in order for Kanye and DONDA to take this show on tour is mind-boggling. So it would be easy to write this off as being something unattainable for anyone outside of pop royalty. Yet, this is clearly an excellent example of what is possible when it comes to art and the general public. There I was in an arena filled with 15,000 people—people on their feet in awe of experimental performance art, music and highly sophisticated video pieces.

The internet has produced a seemingly endless supply of blog posts heralding the “death” of classical music, while others have suggested that shoveling heaps of violinists into bars to perform might redeem a too-formal concert music in the eyes of the public. There have even been curiously racist musings suggesting that the color of one’s skin dictates how we perceive time, and that this could be the key to getting Mozart and communities of color together in the same room. However, this post is not meant to suggest a new way forward with the same old ideas, but to suggest that the way forward is a full-on bear hug with interesting and challenging new ideas, and that people of all races and ages yearn for this, whether or not they say it in the same way we do.
Perhaps we just need to admit to ourselves that people like to be challenged, that people want to dive into wild and contemporary imagery and messages, but that our success in that mission may not come from our own backyard. I was fortunate enough to experience something intense, interesting, challenging, interdisciplinary, and yet totally accessible. Part of what is so striking about the Yeezus tour is that this is supposedly low art, but it’s woven seamlessly into so-called high art on a massive scale, and it’s actually really difficult to tease apart where one discipline ends and another begins. Things are getting messy, and that’s ok! All different aspects the show are free of their respective dogmas through new combinations with different disciplines and a well-balanced group of collaborators. And, all these collaborations are celebrated and are made interactive because, as Laurie Anderson notes and the 300,000-strong #yeezus hashtag demonstrates, we are the media now, and so even the audience is incorporated into the performance as an analytical and reflective machine—the performance continuing on as people see it from different angles and perspectives in videos and photographs and sharing of content. Success like this is possible for new music, too, but doing that may have to start with us putting down our instruments and seeing what’s happening in the rest of the world.