Variant Music

by Richard Yost

I passed beech and rhododendron. Along the way, as the trail elevated with a series of switchbacks, the air felt as though it were generated by an outsized greenhouse humidifier. No wonder sweat ran in runnels down my grimy neck.

I paused to drink water in shade cast by yellow poplars. The leaves hung motionless, and I noted an absence of bird chirpings. The stillness was uncanny, similar to the Delicate Arch in Utah, but without the fierce raison d’etre.

When I arrived at a campsite I set up my tent, pumped more water from a spring, and ate a meal. Afterward, I suspended my backpack and scanned the area, especially a thicket of laurel, to make sure a bear was not nearby digging for grubs and plant roots. Finally I built a fire and settled back to enjoy the breeze that had been missing at the trailhead.

Shadows merged and redoubled the gray tint of the forest floor. It seemed as though night were rising to meet black peaks on the silvery skyline. Lines from one of Frost’s poems came to mind: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,/ But I have…”

A tree branch creaked. I scooted forward. To my left, my right, and behind me were undertones of unhurried murmurs too faint to locate and too numerous to dismiss.

Some people believe ghosts haunt the mountains. They are both correct and incorrect. We bring the ghosts with us and they whisper while we sojourn in the mountains. We hear the sounds and we chose either to ignore them or to listen.

I chose to listen, and the day’s last slivers of light segued behind distant mountains, and everything in the vicinity closed in.

Hearing is involuntary and listening is intentional. Not surprising, they seldom work in tandem and tend to yield divergent results. For example, right after a person hears volume, tone, modulation, and duration–all measurable components of sound–the same person may choose to listen for ambience: mood, essence, spiritedness, and other qualitative features. In this case the hearing part identifies the fundamentals of sound without imparting meaning while the listening part interprets hearing, often without being aware of the quantitative basics of sound.1

Granted, it would be advancement if the aural attributes were brought together in a tight partnership. Think about it: hearing to detect sound, listening to add distinction. Unfortunately, though, subjective interpretation does not fit snugly with habitual assessment. I wish it were different–I wish I could integrate my own hearing and listening skills and summon them jointly–but…well, there it is: I am reduced to wishing.

The breeze picked up not quite to the level of wind. I probably heard its effect on the trees, but I definitely listened to the rustle of the leaves.

And in a forest the arena for listening widens after sunset, likewise a primal apprehension of the dark. I have learned to shore up my courage while I listen for ghost-sounds that accompany real sounds. It was not easy, not by any means. The trick was to put myself in a reverie and to function well once I was snapped out of it.

Let me illustrate with an analogy. I want to listen to music, in particular the soundtrack for the movie, The Last Samurai. But first I must hear it. I choose the MP3 player format which allows me to experience electrical energy flowing through two earplugs as three-dimensional surround sound.2

The structure of Hans Zimmer’s score is impressive. However, I become unconscious of the structure while my imagination floats between violin-induced melodies and woodwind notes. Once the performance ends I will adulate the musicians for their ability. During the performance, however, I pay no attention to the musicians, only the beautiful renderings they produce. For instance, I am not telling myself that the bamboo flute player achieves flawless tonality. Instead, I follow the phrasing as it diverts from yet remains harmonious with a glissando from string instruments. Nor do I acknowledge the impeccable timing; I will focus on timing only if it were to become faulty. Ah, and now a shift in chord progression. A new, enchanting emphasis. Listen. Execution enlivens the movement, then pulls back the delivery, restrains it. Steady. Steady. Whoosh. A wave of sound distends in volume and tempo and reaches a crescendo anchored by deep, booming drum strikes. The intervals between notes become shorter and shorter until they conflate into a crashing ka-boom.3

Damn! A stupendous clap overwhelmed my senses. I startled and without thinking poured water on the campfire and hurried beside my bivouac-size tent.

Jags of lightning preceding more cracks of thunder blazed across the treetops. The very ground seemed to shudder as though a ferocious beast were stirring beneath it. I discerned what reminded me of a snap of the thumb against the middle finger, and before I could rationalize the metaphor a ubiquitous flash made the forest appear like a compilation of statues that extended forward and withdrew almost at the same moment.

I ducked into my tent, and rain pounded on the waterproof flysheet.

I woke an hour before sunrise to the bugle call of elk and got up to pack my drenched gear. At dawn the forest glistened in the soft sunlight and the air felt cool and smelled earthy.

Birds filled the trees. I heard them on my way back to the trailhead. I listened to their singsongs and wondered about purpose beyond the mechanical rise and fall of intonation, then shrugged my shoulders against the heavy backpack and kept walking.

A clearing comes after the storm, and the listener nods in appreciation, tired muscles and damp clothes notwithstanding. At such moments the miles mean more than physical distance.

1 Tone is a sound of distinct pitch. In music, tone is the interval of a major second on the diatonic scale. Modulation is the shifting of tonal center or key.

2 Surround-sound is characterized by an enriched audio source in relation to the audience’s location. Its directions are surround-right, surround-left, and surround-back. The intent is to encircle the sphere of hearing.

3 “Fue” is the Japanese word for bamboo flute.  “Taiko” is the Japanese word for a stick percussion instrument.