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.
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.
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.
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.