This is an article I wrote for the Pacific Crest Trail Association blog where I get a chance to talk in depth about my approach to writing music inspired by the natural environment, and the nature (ha!) of my collaborative efforts with Friction string quartet. Thank you to the PCTA for giving me a turn to sing my praises and share my thoughts!
This is a reboot of a song called This Land that Odessa Chen and I wrote together. I played a mix of a recording of the song for my buddy Keegan Stokes while we we were relaxing one night over some cold beers, and Keegan started singing the hook to It’s Raining Game by Mac Dre & Raphael Saadiq over an instrumental break in the track. The Mac Dre reference fit the the song really appropriately (since both songs are about living in the bay area) and I knew instantly that I had to do a reboot of This Land that incorporated the hook from It’s Raining Game. The idea of putting Odessa, Mac Dre, and Raphael Saadiq on a track together where they are all singing about the bay was way too magical to pass up.
I was walking through Tuolumne Grove this past news years day, gazing happily upon an indescribably massive Giant Sequoia, when I noticed a Coyote sauntering past the base of the giant tree. I am fascinated by Coyotes. Several years ago I discovered rather by accident that whistling to a coyote will often pique its curiosity and thus slow its gait, giving me more time to observe and admire the animal. Apparent lovers of song and virtuosic singers themselves, Coyotes seem to me natural born musicians; rambling, expressive, intelligent, social, yet aloof and wary. And so I whistled. As I hoped, it slowed. I whistled again, a variation on my tune. It stopped. I whistled some more. Placing itself just behind a tree so as to become invisible in the diffuse early winter light, it casually laid down. Coyotes seem to do this instinctively – no matter how curious they are, care is always taken to remain invisible yet observant. It was a lovely moment. Then I remembered where I was.
This Coyote was no doubt aware that the Tuolumne Grove is a popular place for tourists like myself, who often accidentally drop tasty snacks from their pockets in moments of reverie. Perhaps there are even some visitors who still find it entertaining to feed wildlife when encountered. As I stood whistling tunes, I also remembered who I was dealing with – Old Man Coyote, the famous trickster – and it dawned upon me who was regaling who. I remembered what the human ego has wrought. We think of ourselves highly as a species, and I am no different. Impressed with my own whistling skills (I am a better whistler than singer, which says little), I believed I was directing the encounter. I could almost hear the universe laughing as this thought dissolved. Comfortably lain with attentive ears perked, the Coyote was playing an utterly convincing role as attentive listener. But it was in fact I who was being regaled. In a masterstroke of cognition and perception, the Coyote both fooled and charmed me, all while giving himself potential access to a novel food source. All he had to do was stop, rest, and be seen. Perhaps this Coyote sensed in me that he had an enthusiastic audience, just as I thought the same of him.
As these thoughts occurred to me and then came together in my mind, I stopped whistling and decided it was time to leave Old Man Coyote be. He remained elegantly lain in a pile of sequoia needles as I turned my back and continued my happy stroll through the grove. I wished I could leave some gift for him in return for being such a gracious teacher, though what gift I did not know. Large undisturbed tracts of land would be a nice start. Perhaps it is true among animals as well that giving is the greatest gift, and that Old Man Coyote was content with the lesson he gave me.
I don’t usually celebrate when I finish working on a composition, but this time I am. Having spent the last year dreaming about, planning for, walking, and finally spending too much time sitting alone in a room composing music about the Pacific Crest Trail, I am done with my string quartet for Friction Quartet. It was a privilege to be inspired by such a magnificent landscape. I am grateful that this project allowed me to further explore the complex paradox that the natural world presents and that music embodies. I have discovered absolutely nothing new, but I learned much; the glorious, vexing multitude of sounds made by the common raven (a piece waiting to be written); ants are gods who command respect; the land is alive and vigorous and will be forever; that if I find myself at a road crossing in the Mojave Desert, strangers might be waiting there with ripe peaches, cinnamon rolls, and mango drinks. How do these thoughts play out musically? I don’t know. All is possible.
So, to celebrate the conclusion of my compositional adventure I have decided to return to the PCT…on snowshoes! I’m headed out today to spend a few days in the back—country at a ski hut the Sierra Club maintains just north of the Clair Tappaan Lodge near Donner Pass. The hut happens to be right off the PCT and I remember checking it out last August, so hopefully I’ll be able to re-locate it easily. Clair Tappaan was one of my favorite pit stops last summer on the PCT and I’m hoping to make visiting here a personal tradition, especially in the winter.
Thanks so much for reading — happy holidays!
Having concluded my Socal to Norcal hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, I’ve dived into working on my trail-inspired piece for San Francisco’s Friction Quartet.
I’m setting the piece in 4 movements (surprise, surprise), and each of the 4 movements will somehow reflect one epitome-like place in each of California’s four (broad) mountain regions; the desert, the south Sierras, the north Sierras, and the southern end of the Cascades in Northern California. There are many beautiful places on the PCT, and sometimes when they are exceptionally beautiful, they simply overwhelm ones senses and emotions. In these moments one might simply stop and gaze, maybe shed a tear of happiness that such places exist. Those places are friends of ones memory, places easily and joyfully recalled. Each movement is about a place like that.
So far my working titles for the movements are:
Traverse of the Desert Sun
The Rebirth of Lake Owens
I’ve got the first movement more or less done, and large chunks of the 3 other movements pretty well sketched out. I’m looking forward to bringing all this material into a lesson I scheduled with the always insightful and philosophical Dan Becker. I’m also really looking forward to finishing the piece over the next 2 months, and then sitting on it for at least another month before giving it another look. I find that having a true second look at a piece before sending it off reveals many obvious things I may have missed during the initial creative process.
I’m also happy to report that saxophonist/vocalist Kendra Emery’s new album Beautiful Mess features a new composition of mine called Black Pine written especially for her. It’s equal parts nature vibe and 808 bass…Check it out below!
The Sierra. The Range of Light. The High Country. Mt. Whitney, Owens Valley, Mono Lake, Rae Lakes, The Palisades, Evolution Basin, The “Golden Staircase”, Lyell Glacier, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite Valley, Sonora Pass, Lake Tahoe. Central California is a landscape of epitomes. A single region of a single state contains the highest peak in the lower 48, the largest alpine lake in North America, and the largest tree in the world, which is also 100 miles due west of the oldest tree on the planet. All of which describes none of the beauty and power of this landscape. While walking this section of the PCT I often found myself muttering, “having walked here my life experience is now complete.” Which, upon reflection, is merely a partial, egotistical comprehension of what this land really is. It is bigger than all the life it supports (L.A, S.F., Central Valley farms, millions of migratory birds, not to mention all the other wildlife that lives in the Sierra) and it will always exist in accordance with its own intrinsic energy. This land reminds me that I simply traverse it with no claims, and to always thank the sky for sun, rain and snow. I am only a dirty hiker, but if I may be graceful I will ride the wave, go with the flow, and hike my own hike!
For the last 3 weeks I’ve been hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail through southern California from the border town of Campo to my current layover town, Big Bear Lake. I’ve hiked through several different desert habitats (Colorado, upper and lower Sonoran), over a few mountain ranges (Laguna, San Jacinto), and passed though two biomes (arid desert, Mediterranean). The scenery has been dramatic, to say the least (for example – losing 8,000 feet of elevation over 15 miles coming down off San Jacinto Peak into the San Gorgonio river plain, while passing through at least 4 discernible forest types) . I’ve met and befriended an amazing number of fellow travelers – Avocado, Glide, Gizmo, Bluesman, the Saint, Monique, Tidy Sarah, Slo-Mo, Dirt Nap, Dune…only to name the very few I can recall now as I sit in the Big Bear library writing this. The most amazing aspect of the trail so far has to be the Trail Angels, though. These are people who live near the trail who donate rides to and from trail-heads, offer up their kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms, backyards, wifi, water, soda, and sometimes even beer to us weary, obscenely smelly hikers. Their generosity is truly inspiring and continues to expand my view of humaneness and community. A special shout out is most definitely due to Glide On, Ziggy and The Bear, Papa Smurf and Mt.Mama. Thanks A MILLION y’all. So far I’ve managed only to write a dozen bars of music for Friction Quartet, but I have been brain-storming their piece for many hours, and I can feel the the spirit and scope of the piece every time I imagine it. I’m still hoping to find my composing groove though. I initially thought I could compose on my rest days in town, but those have mostly turned into much appreciated social events with fellow hikers, gear repair sessions, frenzied food shopping, and sheer face-stuffing contests at whatever wonderful dinner table we find ourselves at (which reminds me of my least proud moment on the trail so far – eating 4 double cheeseburgers from Burger King, which to be fair was the only game in town at a certain point). I think I’m going to start composing in my tent at camp. That seems the best bet for wood-shedding. In any case, I’m SO DANG excited about this piece for Friction Quartet. It’s going to be a blast when I really start putting notes down. Thanks for reading y’all, and all the best to you and yours!
Max (aka Medicine Man)
Odessa Chen and I just finished recording this cover of Chris Isaak’s early 90’s classic Wicked Game, recorded especially for Andrew Kippen who generously donated to our album fundraiser last spring. The bass music fan in me has always wanted to put some 808’s under Odessa’s voice, and this cover somehow became a vehicle towards that end. When that 808 kick hits on the choruses, with Odessa’s voice flying way high over it, I’m just super happy about it!
My composer friend from Austin, Andrew Sigler, recently reviewed The Act of Loving You and 2 other new albums for his blog on New Music Box. I’ve always enjoyed reading Andy’s reviews for their wit, insight, and cogent musings – plus he always writes about hip shit that I’m predisposed to being into! Check him out:
I’m writing a new piece for amplified violin virtuoso Todd Reynolds, and this image keeps coming to mind every time I sit down to compose – the view looking straight up the trunk of a giant Redwood tree from its base, up into sunlight filtered through evenly dispersed branches, springy beds of fallen needles underneath my feet. I’m trying to use long, slow comb-filter sweeps and cyclical harmonies to suggest a similar feeling of quiet majesty, although I recognize–as John Steinbeck did-that “the feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.” Musical imaginings aside, I am super pumped to be writing for Todd, which is truly both a pleasure and a privilege. Kinda like standing underneath Sequoioideae now that I think about it.