Composer Max Stoffregen walks the PCT to reveal music in landscapes

By Max Stoffregen – The Friction String Quartet will perform Max’s  composition – The California Crest –  at Old First Church, 1751 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, CA 94109  on April 24 at 8 p.m. Information.

May 6th update: Max’s music is up on soundcloud. It’s fantastic. Take a listen.

In January of 2014 I asked Doug Machiz, my frequent hiking partner and Friction String Quartet cellist, if he would be interested in co-creating a piece of music inspired by my then-planned hike of the California PCT.

The idea of walking the length of California held an immutable appeal and seemed like a logical place to start for someone curious about the natural world. The landscape presents a very high diversity of life, and the PCT offers a navigable route. The more I thought about it, the more necessary and worthwhile it felt, like a true bucket-list item.

I wasn’t sure how it would work – what does the California high country sound like? But Doug is intelligent and adventurous and I knew if he agreed it would be a good start.

Giant-SoCal-Oak

One of the giant oak tress on Southern California’s Pacific Crest Trail.

With backpacking trips in Peru, Alaska and many of the western states under his belt, in addition to being the cellist and co-founder of a string quartet dedicated to presenting adventurous and thoughtful music, Doug was the perfect partner for a project like this. As I hoped, he was stoked on the idea and immediately agreed to the collaboration.

This was an opportunity to combine my two great loves, being outside and writing music – activities that are usually mutually exclusive. It was also a chance to deemphasize my bounded, mortal perspective in an attempt to portray something vast and interconnected. It was in fact a great privilege.

It was a windy May 1, 2014, when I set out from the southern terminus in Campo. Four months and 1,400 miles later I finished my hike in Northern California. Having walked the transverse ranges, some of the desert, the High Sierra, and past the volcanoes of the South Cascades, I was grateful to have seen so much glorious land in one contiguous hike. I felt ready to head home, hole up in my studio and attempt to write music about California and my experience walking it.

Kelso Canyon, Pacific Crest Trail.

Kelso Canyon, Pacific Crest Trail.

My idea was to create a piece of music that would be an expression of my own mental map of the California crest. A mental map is a convolution of the real environment with the perceived environment. Music also is a convolution, a manipulation of invisible forces of sound that elicits human pleasure. Music expresses emotion while remaining abstract, even mathematical in some sense, and a mental map reveals the emphases of one’s perception in relation to the real environment. Both embody a reconciliation of complex paradox. Both allow for the description of seemingly disparate things. It sounds more complicated than it is in practice – start walking, be present and enjoy the scenery, and take many notes.

The interesting thing about a mental map is that it describes how we feel while traversing a landscape. This is why I find the concept useful. It encourages expression of the landscape, an expression I can translate directly to music. However, a mental map must still be accurate enough to be useful, despite its distortions. Similarly, my ideal music would express both my experience of the landscape and geographical realities of the landscape itself.

A huge Joshua Tree provides welcome shade.

A huge Joshua Tree provides welcome shade.

The California crest seemed distinguishable to me in four large areas: the transverse ranges of the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains; the Southern Sierra; Central California; and the Cascade volcanoes of Northern California. Reflecting upon these landscapes and how I experienced them, I set the composition in four chapters: Sky Islands, Mojave, The Rebirth of Owens Lake and Cinder Cone. The elevation profile of the California PCT suggested a compelling structure, a long line I semi-consciously recreated in the overall dramatic arch of my composition.

In a technical sense, music also has the ability to express real things like line, contour, color, and direction (the basic elements of a map). A great example of this is Romanian composer Gyorgy Ligeti’s Coloana Infinita, a composition for solo piano inspired by Constantin Brâncuși’s sculpture of the same name. Thus the craft of composition can, like a mental map, serve both a topographical and emotional representation of the landscape. A rising scale may suggest an escarpment; a lush chord presents a vision of alpenglow or perhaps, a dense, diverse forest; fast, granular riffs that repeat relentlessly like the wind, sand and sun of the desert.

Composing music and eating breaskfast on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Composing music and eating breaskfast on the Pacific Crest Trail.

The land, Barry Lopez writes in Arctic Dreams, is “an animal that contains all other animals.” Walking the PCT allows one to see that it is indeed alive and vigorous; the trail transcends arbitrary boundaries to reveal the landscape as it really is, interconnected regions that work together to harbor diverse and plant and animal life. It is a chance, Lopez writes, to have an “elevated conversation with the land” – to gracefully leave behind one’s comfort zone and be consumed by a mysterious, beautiful creature.

Max Stoffregen is a composer, keyboard player, and teacher working in the San Francisco area.  Friction String Quartet will perform Max’s  composition – The California Crest –  at Old First Church, 1751 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, CA 94109  on April 24 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $5 for students, free for children and can be purchased at the door or in advance.

Banner Peak.

Banner Peak.

Lassen Peak.

Lassen Peak.

Photo by: Nathaniel Middleton