Right now, composer Nat Evans is walking. That I’m pretty sure of. As I write this, on 6th May 2014, I think he’s somewhere in the south California wilderness, just north of the Anza Borrego Desert, maybe heading towards the Cleveland National Forest.
I know this much because since last week, and through to mid-September, Evans is walking the 2633-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada as a ‘mobile residency’, under the title The Tortoise and His Raincoat. He’ll be writing a new long-form composition as he goes, but mostly he’ll be walking: 20 miles a day for five months, through deserts and forests, around lakes, and up mountains. The journey itself will be solitary for the most part – although as his Twitter feed already reveals, you’re never alone for long on the PCT – but he has musical collaborators along the way, in the shape of composers Carolyn Chen, Scott Worthington, Andrew Tholl, Brenna Noonan, Chris Kallmyer, Scott Unrein, John Teske, and Hanna Benn.
Musical walks have a long and varied history. One of the first and possibly most famous is the 250 miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck supposedly walked by the 17-year-old J.S. Bach in order to hear Buxtehude play. More recent practices are summarized in a chapter for the Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music, in which John Levack Drever mentions, among others, the following: Mahler’s hikes in the Tyrol; Percy Grainger’s Walking Tune; Satie the flaneur; Pauline Oliveros’ Extreme Slow Walk; Cage the forager; the soundwalks of Hildegard Westerkamp, Janet Cardiff, and Christina Kubisch; the Fluxus walks of Higgins, Yoko Ono, and Alison Knowles; Schafer; Cardew; and Bruce Nauman. One might add more. Drever mentions Cage’s Musicircus, in which the audience walks among the performers, and there are many comparable examples by composers as varied as Alvin Curran, Lisa Bielawa, Wolfgang Mitterer, and Lasse Thoresen. Then there are Peter Ablinger’s ‘Transition Pieces’, sorts of variants on the 4’33” idea for walking listeners. And Ellen Fullman’s work should also be counted. Since her early sound sculpture/performance piece, Metal Skirt Sound Sculpture – an amplified metal skirt that was ‘played’ as the performer walked – walking has played a significant role in her music-making. There’s a video of Fullman walking the piece through downtown Minneapolis in 1980 here:
Compare this to Fullman’s more recent work with the ‘long string instrument’ for which she has been best know over the last three decades or so. Again, the act of walking is essential to activating the instrument, this time simply because it is so big. As she developed a notation for performing on the LSI, Fullman incorporated numbers on the floor spaced a metre apart beneath the instrument. Using these in combination with durational indications, it is possible to notate the speed at which one walks up and down the string, and therefore certain characteristics of its resonance.
Evans’ walk has its own artistic forebears. He cites Marina Abramovic and Vito Acconci as inspirations for a particular kind of art-as-social-practice model. And within music, Craig Shepard’s On Foot project is also clearly related. But there is a spiritual dimension too: ‘As a long-time Zen Buddhist, I am also interested in the historical practice of pilgrimage and poetry-and-prose mixed thoughts in the form of travelogue from walking journeys.’ Evans also cites ancient Chinese scholars who would walk high into the mountains with their qin in order to gather, by playing and composing, the sounds they found there before presenting them to their colleagues in small concerts. In his 21st-century version, Evans will be making field recordings along the walk and posting them to his eight composer-collaborators, who will write musical responses to them. These will be collected together, along with Evans’ own long-form composition (as yet unformulated, but ‘I imagine the music I write will in the end at least in corporate a few field recordings in some way or another’), and released next year on Quakebasket Records.
Art historian and curator Nicolas Bourriaud considers journey forms an important part of the ‘radicant’ or ‘altermodern’ aesthetic. Here, the journey, rather than the destination, becomes the crucial form of contemporary art, a way of capturing a range of realities of 21st-century life, from globalization to identity impermanence to ecological precariousness. He cites, among many other works, Gabriel Orozco’s Yielding Stone, a 150-pound plasticine ball that the artist rolled through the streets of New York City, collecting and marking its surface with whatever detritus lay in its path.
Orozco’s plasticine ball weighed approximately the same as him, and Evans also expects to be marked and shaped by his journey: ‘As I strive to embrace constant change on this journey, so too will my music and every-day-life upon my return.’
Nat Evans will be writing monthly blogposts for NewMusicBox as he walks, and pieces will be posted to his Soundcloud page throughout the summer. You can also follow his progress on Twitter and Instagram. Donations towards the project and pre-orders of the forthcoming album can be made through Hatchfund.