At the height of the ‘Occupy’ movement that arose in response to the mismanagement of wealth by the global financial sector and the resulting 2008 market crash, I remember seeing a video of a woman living somewhere remote (in Alaska, I think) who had decided to participate in the social moment by occupying the symbolic space nearest to her: a large, rocky stretch of empty wilderness. The video showed her marching through the middle of nowhere, waving a placard bearing the slogan ‘OCCUPY THE WILDERNESS!’, and ranting over the howl of the wind about the need to engage in acts of political protest wherever one may be located. At the time everyone thought she was nuts, but looking back I have a sneaking suspicion she might have been on to something.
For five months last year, Seattle-based composer Nat Evans also chose to occupy the wilderness by hiking the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail that runs the length of the United States through California, Oregon, and Washington. Along the way he made field recordings and sent them to composers living nearby to use as the basis for new compositions. The resulting music, including several works by Evans, is collected on “The Tortoise” (named, I think, after Aesop’s famous crawler who beat the hare). The album channels all the desert spirits and wild visionaries of mythic Americana, as well as providing an exciting showcase for a generation of innovative and talented West Coast composers.
Evans chooses to keep his pieces for saxophone, clarinet, bass, percussion and shruti box pared down and minimal, allowing the very air of a recorded elsewhere to permeate the music. Tones and dynamics are organised not according to melodic conventions or complex patterns, but by the shifts and undulations of a landscape. The sense of ‘being there’ is extremely palpable. The instruments don’t so much describe a place as add shape and depth to the sensation provided by the field recording of what the place does to the senses and to perception, to affected bodies. Now and then an aircraft passes overhead; now and then instruments sound like passing aircraft. Harry Partch in his hobo period. Hello desert, I’m here.
Evans’ compositions make up roughly the first half of a fairly long album, with the rest given over to the work of ‘guest’ composers. Several follow Evans’ strategy of keeping things small and low-key: Carolyn Chen’s wonderful work for guqin (a Chinese zither) is both detailed and open to the sounds of the field recording provided by Evans, while Scott Worthington translates the stop-start, back-and-forth dialogue of birds and frogs into his own sonorous double-bass language. Others, such as Chris Kallmyer, Andrew Tholl, and Scott Unrein, transform the location material into beautifully rich ambiences, like radio signals from real or imagined elsewheres.
The field recordings allow the contributors to respond and join their voices to a landscape without having to reproduce the traditional signifiers of landscape, as they are already present in the recordings. Each piece finds its own way of being where it is, and while most try to be so quietly (Brenna Noonan’s acousmatic piece ‘The Marvellous Structure of the Existing World’ being a thunderous exception), I didn’t get the sense that the Pacific Crest was being reduced to a single representation or experience. Though the danger of lapsing into rhapsodic cliché is very real, the format of the project and the restraint and sensitivity shown by the composers and performers helps to ward off such a fate. They don’t come to reify the wilderness, but to occupy it.