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Sounds of the Backcountry

This weekend, my roommate and I had to complete our last backpacking trip for Davidson Outdoors’ Trip Leader Training course.  As I was falling asleep, it occurred to me how much noise humans cut themselves off from by living inside of buildings.  While I think of the backcountry as being a much more peaceful place than the front country, it still comes with its own set of unique noises.  It occurred to me how unnatural it must be to fall asleep in the silence that people have come to expect when going to bed, and I wonder if this is a phenomenon that started when humans moved from sleeping out in the elements to sleeping inside of shelters that are more soundproofed from the outside world.

One of the noises that was most noticeable to me as I was falling asleep was the sound of the wind moving softly through the trees.  It was a pretty calm and warm night, so I was actually really surprised to hear wind because I hadn’t noticed the wind as we were setting up our tent.  This made me wonder if the idea of stillness is actually an illusion.  Certainly, the noises of the night gave an impression of anything but stillness.  There was a richness to the nighttime soundscape that I had never actually consciously thought about or noticed, and it made me wonder exactly how much connection with the outside world humans as a species have lost by moving indoors.  The idea of falling asleep in relative silence has become sort of expected by most people (although it occurs to me that people living in big cities probably disagree with this.  Being from the outskirts of a very small town, I have always expected relative silence around bedtime), but it occurs to me that falling asleep in silence is actually a relatively unnatural and recent phenomenon.

Similarly, waking up in the backcountry is so much easier for me than it is in the front country.  At a certain point in the morning, the change in soundscape becomes tangible, as all of the diurnal animals come out and begin to make noise.  The morning noise of birds calling in the woods is so much louder and noticeable in the woods than it is in an urban setting.  While birds do call in urban settings, those bird calls make up a much smaller part of the overall soundscape than they do in the backcountry.  In the woods, the morning bird calls seem to become their own presence, and almost seem to make up the soundscape.  There is no separating the bird calls from the rest of the soundscape of the woods in the morning in springtime.  This is very different from the front country where the sound of birds is never loud enough to actually wake me up.  In the backcountry, the bird calls served as a signal for me to get up and begin preparing for the rest of the day.

Spending time in the backcountry and concentrating on the noises that I heard there made me really think about how isolating it is for humans to live in small enclosed spaces that cut them off from the outside soundscape.  I wonder how much more productive I would be able to be if, instead of living inside, I moved outside and became more in tune with the natural environment around me.

Rainy Days

The past week has been ridiculously rainy.  The old adage, “April showers bring May flowers” has been trying to prove itself with a vengeance.  People have been bundling themselves into their raincoats and covering themselves with umbrellas, and all of the inch-worms have been drowned out of their trees and reduced to slopping across brick walkways where they are unceremoniously crushed by the traffic of students on their way to class.

Being a native of the Pacific Northwest, I find rain and all of its accoutrements a rather pleasant reminder of home.  I love the way the air smells right before and right after a rainstorm, and I am also guilty of channeling my inner five year old and splashing through all of the puddles I find on my way to class (there is one particular one behind Belk that has grown so large I think it has graduated from ‘puddle’ status, and moved on to ‘pond’ status).

I am particularly fond of listening to the rain.  As I’m falling asleep, the sound of rain beating on the roof and window brings back memories of nights spent playing board games in front of the fire while it poured outside.  Falling rain provides great background noise for productive studying, and it serves as a constant reminder that since it’s so nasty outside, there is no valid excuse for not getting work done.  Even the sound of water dripping from leaves onto the ground after the rain has already stopped brings back memories of searching for salamanders with my father in the Redwoods in Northern California.

On the piano right now I am learning a piece by Maurice Ravel called Jeux D’eau, or Water Games.  Salvatore Sciarrino wrote a shortened parody version of the piece that has the tune of Singing in the Rain juxtaposed on top of the opening melody of Ravel’s Jeux D’eau.  Here is a video of the parody version below:


Spring Has Sprung (and so have the frogs)

Spring has always been (and I’m pretty sure will always be) my favorite time of year.  It’s the time when the sun actually comes out and hangs around for a while, and plants start to flower.  Most importantly, however, it’s the time when frogs start to call.  Ever since I was a little kid, I knew that it was officially spring when the Pacific chorus frogs began their earnest and earsplitting quest for a mate.  Every year there is one night when all of a sudden, every single male chorus frog in the vicinity decides to holler with his buddies in the hopes that maybe some female will think he has a particularly lovely voice.  This is not to say that the chorus frogs don’t call before that night, because individual males will sometimes bemoan their loneliness in the middle of winter, but on the night when all the male frogs decide that it’s their night to get lucky the sound is particularly cacophonous.  Here is a compilation of male Pacific chorus frogs calling:

The male frogs will call together for a couple of weeks, and then once the majority of them have mated they once again become soloists.

This year, since I’m on the other side of the country, there are no Pacific chorus frogs to officially announce the advent of spring.  However, I’ve always said that frogs as a group are a trusty bunch, and true to their dependable nature, the Southern leopard frogs took up the call last week and alerted me to the fact that it is, indeed, officially springtime, and no longer winter.

Southern leopard frogs call very differently from Pacific chorus frogs.  True to their name, chorus frogs form a chorus and call together in synchronicity (I even read in the book Why We Run by Bernd Heinrich that there are one or two individual chorus frogs that will lead and direct the whole chorus).  In contrast, leopard frogs are soloists who sometimes just happen to be in the vicinity of other frogs (not necessarily belonging to their own species).  The ‘chorus’ in North Carolina has a much more variable sound than the chorus in Oregon, because there are many different frog species singing together here, whereas in Oregon it is made up just of a group of individuals belonging to one species.  Here is a video of a male Southern leopard frog calling:

Of course, frogs don’t only call for the purposes of attracting a mate.  Many frogs have distress calls that they emit when threatened or consumed by a predator in order to warn other members of their species that danger is in the area.  Here is the distress call of a bullfrog being eaten by a snake:

Owl Calls and Old-Time Love Songs

Both of my parents are biologists. My father is a professor of biology at Southern Oregon University, and my mother is a biologist for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When I was a little kid, my mother’s big project was to protect the California Spotted Owl. This meant two things for me. The first was that there were a lot of owl calls imitated at the dinner table when we all ate together as a family, and I learned silly ways to identify owls without being able to see them (for instance, the Great Horned Owl’s call sounds like it’s saying, “Who’s awake? Me too”). The second was that my mother spent a lot of evenings out in the field and wouldn’t get home until way after my sister and I went to bed. On those nights, my sister and I would climb into our parents’ bed, and our dad would pull out his old guitar and play songs by John Prine, Nanci Griffith, Emmylou Harris, Steve Goodman, and even sometimes the Grateful Dead. There was one song he used to sing to us, “Tecumseh Valley” by Townes Van Zandt, which tells the story of a girl who leaves home to get a job for the winter because her father can’t afford to buy enough coal to keep the both of them warm. I thought that it was a happy song until I was fourteen or fifteen, when I heard an actual recording of it, and realized that my dad had only been singing the first three verses. Here’s a recording of that song:



My father bought his guitar for fifteen dollars when he was sixteen years old, and learned how to play by listening to his favorite songs over and over and over again until he had figured them out. That same guitar was the first musical instrument I ever “played” — sitting on the floor of the living room when I was four years old picking out “Hot Cross Buns” on this instrument that was bigger than I was. I started learning to play the guitar in earnest when I was in seventh grade, with a lot of help from my dad. He has never been able to fingerpick because he smashed one of the fingers on his right hand with a hammer when he was younger, and doesn’t have any feeling in it. So instead, he has figured out a way to mimic fingerpicking using a flat pick. While he would help me figure out chords and strumming patterns, he would never teach me to pick the way he does, no matter how much I pestered him, because, as he says, “You have five perfectly functional fingers, and should learn how to fingerpick like a normal person.” So now I “fingerpick like a normal person,” and still haven’t figured out how my dad does what he does.

I started singing in earnest probably in fifth or sixth grade, when my dad, my sister, and I bought the CD “Joan Baez’s Greatest Hits” for my mother for Christmas. One of the songs on that CD is a live recording of Joan singing Amazing Grace with her audience, and at one point she sings harmony while everyone else sings melody. My sister and I spent hours one Sunday afternoon in front of the CD player figuring out how to fit harmony with melody, and then switching off singing each part between verses. After discovering that we could sing together, Katie and I came up with simple harmonies to classic songs like “Oh Shenandoah” and “Down in the Valley.” It was only a matter of time before we both started adding guitar, fiddle, and even mandolin to the songs we figured out together. Eventually, we started singing and playing with our dad, now singing harmonies to the songs that we had listened to so many times as little kids as we waited for our mother to come home from work. Sometimes, Mum even joins us in our “jam sessions” singing melody to old Grateful Dead tunes (my mother was a die-hard Dead Head in her youth, believe it or not).

Now, one of the things that I most look forward to when I go home is sitting around the coffee table in the living room, with my parents and my sister, and playing these old songs that nobody listens to anymore.  Somehow through them, I have gained a better understanding of my family, and even a better understanding of myself.

Rondes and the Difference Between Music and Noise

The beginning of a new semester is generally an exciting time for students in musical ensembles because they get to put down the music they learned the semester before and look at some new pieces.  In chorale this semester, our chorale director has challenged us with a piece called Rondes by a Swedish composer named Folke Rabe.  My first reaction when I saw the sheet music was something along the lines of, “Excuse me?  I don’t think this is actual music.”  A picture of one of the pages of this piece is enclosed below:

Rondes by Folke Rabe

This piece and my reaction seemed to be pretty pertinent to what we’re discussing in class.  On the one hand, this does not look like the sheet music I’m used to reading.  In fact, it is such a new concept for me that I have a lot of trouble figuring out exactly what I’m supposed to do when trying to sing this piece.  Also, the noises that I have to produce in order to “sing” this piece are much more akin to mouth percussion than they are to what people generally think of as being “singing.”

At the same time, once I started to figure out how to decode this piece, Rabe is actually very precise with his directions and vision for the way he wants the piece to sound, and, in my opinion, the piece actually sounds really cool.  It is amazing to me how a certain type of sense can be extracted from so much seeming chaos.  Here is a video of the piece being performed:


This piece uses arbitrary noises, like people whispering their addresses and members of the group randomly leaving the stage, to create what is arguably an entertaining piece of music.  Like Four Minutes and Thirty-three Seconds, Rabe questions the listener’s concept of where the line between music and noise actually exists.