Tag: hiking

Creating and Listening in Alaska: My experience with Composing in the Wilderness

Hikers in a foggy mountain range

I moved to Phoenix in 2008 to start my master’s degree in music composition. Almost every year since then, I have made it a mission to escape the heat at least once during the summer. I have made these efforts in spite of my financial situation and—although I am ashamed to admit it—in spite of my relationships. This year, 2019, has been my “year of doing less”—so far a grand and failed effort to take stock of what I have, get to know my Phoenix-based friends and musical companions better, and dig a little deeper into what it means for me to have a very full day job and do music “on the side.” To alleviate my annual wanderlust, I applied to Composing in the Wilderness, a program founded, built, and coordinated by composer/adventurer Stephen Lias. CiTW takes composers out into the rugged expanse of Alaska to find inspiration, connect with nature on an intimate level, and bring a new piece of music from idea to performance all within a few weeks.

I was woefully unprepared.

Map of Alaska


Before I left, I described Composing in the Wilderness as this:

It’s a program where you hike during the day in Denali National Park in Alaska, then after a few days of outdoor observation, you are thrown into a cabin to write some music, then you get a performance. Pretty cool, right?

I knew we would be interacting with scientists and park rangers, but I had no concept of the scope of that interaction. It is a similar situation to people who come to Phoenix and decide to hike Camelback Mountain in the summer, thinking it will be an easy climb. From a distance, it looks like a good day hike, but if you are not familiar with your new relationship with the sun here, it is a far different experience than expected.

“Composing in the Wilderness is not a class or a workshop, but a shared wilderness experience.” – Stephen Lias

While my casual summary is technically correct—the CiTW experience is hiking in Denali for four days, composing in cabins for four days, then rehearsals and performances in Fairbanks and Denali with Corvus, the new music ensemble in residence at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival—it is not what I expected. When I arrived at our campsite and saw the diversity of our group and the intense knowledge of our leader Christina Rusnak and Alaska Geographic educator Suan Adams, I knew that my usual trajectory and internal compass for being in a group of composers for an extended period of time would no longer work.

Q: What are the things that still “stick” with you after the experience?

A: “The creativity of exploration and motion. The incredible calm and sharpness found in wilderness. The fuzzy joy feels of humans.” – Andy Israelsen

Observation and Reevaluation

“I feel more focused in my life. My experience with CiTW has given me a confidence and sense of determination/ direction that I haven’t had before.” – Jordan Stevenson

I have been to a number of summer music festivals and experiences. My plan was to keep my engagement to a minimum so I could have my quiet and my solitude. My much deserved respite in nature from screen time and nonprofit administration. How I thought this would be feasible with nine other composers (eight participants plus our Christina Rusnak) is a mystery in hindsight. I came with prejudgements about the loose factions that would form based on who took what too seriously.


At first, I tried to experience Alaska in the way that I thought I had earned. I was quickly plucked from my ego and reminded that the earth does not belong to me, it is not here for my pleasure or artistic exploitation, and taking joy in discovery is far more fun than worrying about my musical knowledge and professional trajectory seeming more noble or interesting than another’s.

When I challenge why I would come in with such childish assumptions, I know it was out of fear that I would not belong or be taken seriously. I am now on the older side of the typical summer music experience participant and I want to say it doesn’t affect me, but that would not be the truth. As the group skirted around icebreakers and “where are you from?”-s, the flow of my attitude began to echo that of Anchorage-based composer Andy Israelsen, who on our last night claimed “I came for solitude, but instead I found family.”

Listening at the river

Photo by Christina Rusnak

Q: What are the things that still “stick” with you after the experience?

A: “Value of unplugged time, connection with the real—people, community, people, what lies under the superficial.” —Margery Smith

Connection to the Landscape

Regardless of the connotations “landscape” holds for you, it is a larger picture or format that has the potential to reveal multitudes if you take the time to observe. The scientists, Alaska Geographic employees, and park interpreters—who very literally led us into the wilderness and peeled back the layers—allowed us to make connections to scale, sound, and history outside of the scope of music. It was entirely up to us to make our own, very personal connections to the stream of information given to our group.

Most of us honed in on the scale of the landscape (be it cricket-sized or Denali-sized) and the visual and physical limitations the wildfire smoke had on our relationship to the wilderness. I realized that I was doing myself yet another disservice by not appreciating the bug flying past my ears and the grass tickling my wrists. Every small moving part is more essential to the whole than I ever knew. Davyd Bechtkal, a leading soundscape specialist for the National Park Service, opened our ears to the physical limitations scale and landscapes place on natural sounds and the way we experience them. Listening intently to the landscape around me gave me a better understanding of how small my role in the world is, but also how to find empowerment and joy in that role, regardless of scale.


Photo by Christina Rusnak

“NYC is a place where you don’t hang out so much. You just go and do stuff, then go and do different stuff with different people, or just hang out at home waiting for the next ‘go and do stuff’ moment. CiTW was a small compact society. We were thrust onto each other but united in orientation—we’ve all had fairly deep relationships to making music. It was fun to share the personal aspects of that to see where it matched others.” – Skip LaPlante

Natural Resources

At the end of a 24-hour Alaskan summer day, the people I met and the friendships that were forged were the most impressive resources I found. If you look back on the history of Composing in the Wilderness, you will notice a significant age range in the participants. I could have simply watched Skip LaPlante give a lecture on his repurposed musical instruments crafted in a loft in the Bowery or read an article by Christina Rusnak in an IAWM publication, but the knowledge gained would be superficial compared to having these individuals and eight other composers from separate walks of life in a space together, not distracted by technology or schedules, swapping stories.

Without this specific wilderness/composer experience, I know I would have remained very unaware of the life and career opportunities that lay bubbling in our national and state park systems. Although I’m a good 30 years younger than Skip, I fully agree with his sentiment: “I didn’t know there was such a webwork of composer residencies in wild places. … I think I’ve discovered a new society to be part of and have to work out how deeply to participate.”


Photo by Angus Davison

Continuing the Climb

“[H]aving the experience of being out in the field as we were, with such expert guidance interpreting what we encountered, and—more importantly—contextualizing them within the larger picture of the landscape of Alaska raised my consciousness of the interdependence of natural life, from very small to very large scale, to a level which I have never before had.” —Andrew Simpson

“I haven’t traveled much, and only within Europe, so I was shocked by how different both the wildlife in Denali and the culture in Fairbanks were to what I’m used to. It really was a little like walking on another planet when all the grass was different, all the trees were different, and the Sun was a different color in the smoke.” – Luciano Williamson

Without a doubt, the experience transformed me personally and will have lasting impact on my personal life and career. And I can only assume that when founder Stephen Lias came to Denali for the first time and began to formulate what would become Composing in the Wilderness, he knew exactly how transformative such and experience would be.

Before leaving for Alaska, I kept insisting to my co-workers that I was not going on vacation. Again, a true statement, but one that turned false after my experience. My sentiment was “I am not going to have time to relax, I am going to be working very hard while I’m gone. I am not going on a cruise.” Yes, I worked hard, we all did. But I found the things that a vacation allegedly brings: mental relaxation, reflection, and unforgettable new experiences. I came back refreshed. I came back not bugged by small things. The world is so big and people are so different, it doesn’t make sense to get caught up in the minutiae. We are human and it will still happen, but I find it easier to pull back and see the true scale of something. I feel more satisfied with what I have and am more ready to allow events to happen in their own time.

Composing in the Wilderness

Photo by Angus Davison

A Guide to Composing in Your Wilderness

  1. Minimize your interaction with technology.
  2. Find a friend to adventure with you.
  3. Select at least two new places in nature (as your available time frame and resources allow) to visit. A public park, a plant nursery, a different neighborhood, a botanical garden, etc.).
  4. If you have a question, talk about it, don’t look up the answer on your phone.
  5. Set a schedule, but do not feel bad if you do not adhere to it strictly.
  6. Eat a hearty breakfast and pack your lunch.
  7. If you are tired, take a nap!
  8. Take a deep breath, enjoy yourself no matter where you are on your journey.

Reading List

Andrew Simpson: Silence by John Cage

Particularly on that first full day in the field, as we were taking our meditative time, I kept coming back to his essay on silence, and how he says that you can never find true silence anywhere in the world: there is always sound of some kind.  In a place which is so quiet, I found myself thinking about that boundary between sound and silence, and becoming more attuned to the sounds which were there—the wind traveling through the spruces (coming from a long way off somewhere to my left, then crossing the place where I sat, and then continuing onward and out of hearing to my right)—the occasional bird, and such.  That wind moment eventually made its way into my piece, but the experience of being in such a quiet place and feeling its weight, punctuated by sound, made each sound more special and noticeable.

Christina Rusnak: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

[A book] that has to do with a way of “seeing” is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. As we spoke about the indigenous Alaskans’ tie to the landscape, this one kept coming up in my mind.

Jason Gibson: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

It’s a concentration camp survival story that focuses on the psychology of those in the [Nazi] camps. It sticks out to me because I found myself searching for meaning and legitimacy during the entire experience.

Margery Smith: The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise by Garret Keizer

This was one of Davyd Bechtkal’s books that I found very interesting and made me think [I can] still hear those crunchy chips from Denali lunch breaks!

Andrew Israelsen: Silence and Walking by Erlin Klagge

Silence was written after a solo walking trek to the South pole. The book is hardly about Antarctica, rather it is a winding journey on mindfulness and a wide variety of ruminations on silence. Walking has a fantastic narrative arc as Kagge explores poetry, philosophy, and personal experiences.

Skip LaPlante: The Tuning of the World by R. Murray Schaefer and Walden by Henry David Thoreau

The first is about the sonic environment in general, really understanding what you are hearing and the second is about observing and drinking in detail.

Elizabeth Kennedy Bayer: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is a sci-fi novel that addresses how language and views of the land and gender affect culture. It focuses on a visitor to a cold, ice-filled planet who is unable to grasp the slow pace of the people and lack of technological advancement. The visitor misses the technology they do have because it does not look like the technology he is used to. This scenario echoed with me as we learned more about how Western cultures have viewed and related to the Athabaskan, the indigenous people of Alaska.

Luciano Williamson: Musicage by Joan Retallack

It’s a collection of interviews with John Cage at the very end of his life, talking about words, art, and music, after being John Cage for a lifetime.

Jordan Stevenson: Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss

“…to get you in the spirit of adventure.”

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.