The Tortoise and His Raincoat: Music for a Very Long Walk

5 questions to Nat Evans (composer)

On April 30, Seattle-based composer Nat Evans stepped onto the Pacific Crest Trail, beginning a summer musical residency. His project, “The Tortoise and His Raincoat: Music for a Very Long Walk”, spans five months and 2600 miles, following the Pacific Crest Trail as it winds from the Mexican border in California to the northernmost region of Washington State. As he hikes the trail, Evans will compose a new work and collect field recordings. These will be mailed to composer-collaborators, each of whom will write a short musical response to the natural sounds. Dana Wen asked Evans 5 questions as he was preparing to depart for the California trailhead.

The idea of taking a stroll to stir the creative process is certainly not new. But a five-month-long walk is a little more unusual! Tell me more about the story behind this project. When and how did the idea emerge, and what have been some guiding sources of inspiration?

More than anything the ideas of duration and isolation were the genesis. I’ve contemplated artist residencies from time to time, and also as a long time Zen Buddhist I think frequently about heading off to be a monk for a while. I’m never really sure about committing to the latter, and residencies often don’t provide the amount of isolation I’m curious about. Last summer my wife and I were camping and hiking around an area where the Pacific Crest Trail comes through in the North Cascades of Washington and ran into all these rugged folks who had already walked 2,500 miles and were about to complete their journey. My interest was piqued immediately and the concept flowed almost immediately from there.

Nat Evans and his cat, John Henry

Nat Evans and his cat, John Henry

In Zen there is a long history of people walking as a form of meditation, whether going to a specific spot to view Mt. Fuji, walking trails considered sacred and chanting and blowing conch shells to pay homage to deities that inhabit the landscape, and also of writing travelogues in the form of a collection of prose and haiku carefully intermingling. Writer Gary Snyder not only delves deeply into those ideas in his sort of cultural anthropology, but also through making his own travelogues. In art we have people like Francis Alys, Marina Abramovic and Vito Acconci – folks who explore social practice, duration and performance through art. Somehow, all those disparate elements come together to be frequent influences, especially for this project.

Wilderness field recordings play a central role in many of your compositions and are one of the key elements of this project. When you’re working on a piece, how do you approach these natural soundscapes and incorporate them into your work?

My relationship to field recordings has been sort of an evolving practice in and of itself. A lot of interest lies simply in how we react on the subconscious level to sounds of everyday life when they are presented to us – and how they can serve as a counterpoint to music. At my senior percussion recital in college (longer ago than I’d like to admit!) I was playing a Cage piece – unwrapping garlic into a microphone and moving leaves around – and afterward my composition teacher Michael Schelle and a music history teacher came up to me and Michael, gesturing with his thumb to the other teacher said, “My god, Wayne’s gurgling stomach was as loud as you during that last piece – the PERFECT counterpoint!” Kind of sums that up.

But at the moment, and specifically with this piece, I am trying to make them very intentional. So, as I walk north from Canada I’ll send field recordings through the mail on an SD memory card to a composer who will then choose one and write a brief musical response to layer atop the field recording. They’ll then be posted online so that folks can hear the sound of the landscape changing as I move north, and also how different people relate to the landscape nearby them. In this way, it truly becomes a site-specific work, and one long slow-moving performance.

How do you expect your compositional process will be changed while you’re out on the trail, immersed in the sights and sounds of the wilderness?

Besides the field recordings, as for writing my own piece…well, I’m not sure, and I’m excited about that! I am open to change and the unknown. I often walk simply as a practice to be able to listen and hear the music in my head so that I can flesh out the ideas and write them down more accurately, and this will provide a much expanded version of that, for sure. One of the things that will be challenging is simply being removed from my community – no other composers, artists or musicians to dialogue with and no never-ending sea of new works to check out, and also nobody to answer logistical questions. So, as going to hear music and see art all the time it will be really curious to be removed from all that, hopefully for the better!

Ancient Chinese scholars had the tradition of taking their instrument, the qin, up into the mountains to write music. They spent time outdoors listening to the world and observing changing natural phenomenon. They’d then write new works based on these observed phenomena – kind of the original field recording in a way! These pieces would then be played in small intimate settings for just a few other people (fellow scholars). I imagine some of my work process may be in dialogue with this ancient practice in the end.

The Tortoise and His Raincoat: Music for a Very Long Walk

The Tortoise and His Raincoat: Music for a Very Long Walk

Preparing for a five-month hiking expedition certainly requires a great deal of logistics and planning. What tools and supplies are you packing for making field recordings and composing music

Figuring out the musical side of things has been relatively easy. I have a great little recorder with satisfactory condenser mics in it, and I’ll just be bringing a notebook and staff paper. My recorder eats batteries like handfuls of Skittles, so I had to get a small solar charger, but otherwise the biggest logistical challenge is things like food! Right now my studio is completely filled with food that I’ve been boxing up to send to myself later down the line.

Tell me more about how you hope this project will transform you as a composer. Are there any perspectives or insights you’d like to gain (or lose!) over the course of the residency?

Even though I’ve spent lots of time out of doors, including backpacking (like I’m doing the entire walk), this is the first months-long expedition, so the unknown is simply part of the process, and I’m excited about that! Things like protecting one’s food from bears, being mindful of mountain lions at dusk, dealing with blisters on one’s feet, and carefully collecting and purifying every drop of water for a period of time will make one reexamine the mountain of extraneous physical stuff that fills our lives, our relationship to it, and our relationships with one another and the rest of the world. Taking a close look at everyday life with only the essentials on hand will, in the end, hopefully allow for greater intent when making compositional decisions, and allow me to share sound and listening more deeply with others.