Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Context (Warning: frank talk about bodily functions below)

The hike in the Rockies was a treat. Well, a treat that came with a great deal of effort, some bowel problems and bit of pain. OK, a lot of pain, I'm not as young as I like to think I am.

It was three days of wilderness camping in bear country. Hoisting your food up 15 meter poles at night, no smelly soaps or deodorants in the tent, that kind of camping. Along with the mild danger there were spectacular views and the satisfaction of hard physical effort.

The highlight/lowlight was climbing a feature called The Notch. It's the highest elevation on the Skyline Trail. I'm not sure how many vertical meters it was but it was pretty intimidating looking at it from the bottom. I was first to the top. Not out of my usual macho sense of competition but because I needed to get away from the group.

I'd been having some bowl discomfort for an hour or two before The Notch. A bunch of years ago I was treated for Ulcerative Colitis. Basically a bad inflammation of the bowls. The treatment of non-steroid anti-inflammatories worked and my doctor felt that it wasn't likely to re-occur. Mind you everything I've read says it will come back, but I choose to believe my doctor. I still have some issues with my poop. Occasionally I just have to go, and go now, or I'm going to do it in my undies. That's how I was feeling staring up at this cliff face and wondering just were is the trail up at the top?

I took off first in the hope I could get over the ridge before everyone and poop in privacy. I made it but the climb was hard. Towards the top I was walking ten or so steps and stopping for a few seconds to let the lactate acid clear from my legs, then another ten steps, the way real climbers do in the high mountains. All the cycling paid off as I never even came close to being totally out of breath, but there's no way I could have gone any faster. My muscles just aren't in shape for walking, especially not when carrying a pack full of food, tent, cloths, water etc.

Over the top of the ridge was a truly unbelievable view. High mountains lining off into the distance, deep valleys, bright blue/green glacial lakes: awe inspiring. Unfortunately I wasn't in any position to appreciate it. No, the position I was in was squatting over a hole I'd dug with the heel of my boot.

Never has there been a more spectacular setting for a poop, but just I couldn't appreciate it. I was too busy with a basic bodily function gone bad and chasing pieces of used toilet paper as they blew up the hill in the 40kmh wind. Yah, fun.

As everyone else crested the ridge there was tired celebration and some oohing and ahhing. That got me thinking about context. For them the context was putting the worst climb of the hike behind them and being rewarded for it with a postcard-worthy view. For me it was much more internal, literally.

Another example of context confusion came later that day. We were on the decent towards the camp for that evening. One of the six of us (J) had never done anything like this before. We were all worried about her, could she do it? She often fell behind but never gave up and never lost her spirit. It was pretty interesting to watch her bounce back from such an unaccustomed effort.

One of the ways she kept her spirits up was to play tunes from here mp3 player on a tiny sound system. At one point there were three of us (not me) dancing down the side of the mountain to the sound of YMCA. It was funny and annoying at the same time.

I don't like listening to canned music in the wilderness. That kind of music is a product of civilization, of the city. I go to the mountains to get away from that kind of thing. I'd rather hear a strident bear bell and the crunching of boots on gravel than even music that I love. For me the context of the mountains in entirely wrong for that. Of course for them it was entirely appropriate. It got J through some of the harder moments of the hike.

The context in which music is heard makes a difference in how it's perceived. I not much of a fan of jazz, specifically hard bop. I can appreciate the skill of the players, but listening to it while sitting at home in a well lit room on a comfy chair just doesn't seem right. When I've seen it played live in a dark, smoky club, watching the musicians sweat as they work, well, that's exciting. Context.

I watched a friend's band play some kind of union benefit a bunch of years ago. They played the usual socialist kinda rock and roll, all very socially conscious. One of the songs was about how the rich were bad. It rubbed me the wrong way. The lead singer/guitarist was a white guy in his fifties. He was well dressed, had a neat hair cut and was playing a guitar that I would have killed to be able to afford. His amp rig was just as impressive. This was prime quality gear that a poor person couldn't afford.

Watching him sing that song left a bad taste in my mouth. I was thinking, "Yah, right buddy." and basically dismissed him as a hypocrite. Turns out I was wrong. My friend in the band told me after that he wasn't in fact rich. He'd just made the choice to spend his money on good gear and sacrificed much else to do so. But there it was, the context in which the song was presented didn't work. At least for me it didn't.

I have no idea what he could have done about it. It shouldn't matter what the performer looks like and yet it does. It shouldn't matter where you hear a song and yet it does. I like to think a truly great song will stand out, shine and move people regardless of how and where they hear it. I'm not sure most people are wired for that.

Most of us inhabit a world that encompasses all of our senses. Just because you're listening to music doesn't mean you stop smelling things. Sure, when you're concentrating the other senses take a back seat, but they're still there. I haven't the faintest idea what to do about this.

At the level I and all my musician friends are at there's no control over the venue. We can't control the context in which our music is presented. You take the gig you can get and hope for the best. You certainly can't control the situation in which someone listens to the radio or plays a CD. Mind you that's true even for the most successful musicans.

I guess the right context differs for everyone and it isn't something I should worry about. You can't make an experience perfect for everyone. Pesky people, all being different and all.

And yet I do worry about it. I want people to have that transcendent experience of the perfect song at the perfect moment. I want to bring that kind of joy to the world. Less altruistically, I don't want to put a lot of effort into creating something and have it sabotaged by things I have no control over. I don't want people to be looking at a view that has enough beauty to stun the rational centers of the mind into silence and have them miss it because they're worrying about shitting on their shirt tail.

Ah well, I've yet to write anything with that level of art so I guess it's a moot point.


Anonymous said...

I know what you mean about the context of music. When I was young and foolish and doing my year in England, I went to the Royal Albert Hall one soft and balmy evening in April with the cherry trees blossoming outside. The R.A. is the height of the Victorian romantic, dripping with gilt cupids, grapes and red velvet. The program included the Mendelsohn violin concerto played by Yehudi Menhuin. The feeling all this evoked was a totality that I can still feel when I think of it, nearly 50 years later.

Coelecanth said...

Thanks Mom. Hope you don't mind me publishing your comment. I love the idea that these moments can stick with you for a lifetime.

Anyone else have a moment of the right music in the right setting?

For me it was a J erry J erry and the S ons of R hythm O rchestra in the old B ronx nightclub. Hot, sweaty, crowded, the perfect venue for their twangy rockabilly/pop punk stuff. I broke a bone in my foot at that gig and it didn't matter, I just laced my boot tighter and kept dancing.