Zen Songs for Hikers!: “Mountain Songs”

Mountain Songs

In 2010 I was asked to write a piece for a concert of the Governor’s Mansion Chamber Music Series in Olympia, Washington, in honor of long-time Olympia resident and Evergreen College music and art professor William (Bill) Winden. Seattle pianist Judith Cohen was the organizer of the concert and asked me and our fellow Evergreen Alumna colleague,  coloratura soprano Cyndia Sieden, to collaborate on this concert that would celebrate the life, music, painting and love of mountains of our former mentor, Professor Winden.

I googled “poems about mountains” (a silly thing to do, but sometimes silly things work!) and came up, quite magically, with a name I remembered well from my years as an Evergreen College student in the mid 1970’s: Cal Kinnear. At that time Cal ran the grooviest bookstore in Olympia, out in the woods near the Evergreen campus. It was stocked with coffee table books of the DaoDe Jing, Alan Ginsberg and Alan Watts, The Greening of America, Future Shock, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (of course!- de rigeur reading in those days!) It was also the place where I rehearsed with my Renaissance music group, arriving there on my ten-speed with four recorders and a “Rackett” in my red REI backpack, my pony tail flapping in the breeze. “Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end…”

My google search turned up the fact that Cal, who had been a poet back then but also a bookstore owner and dancer(!), had indeed become a serious poet on the Seattle/Pacific Northwest scene in these intervening years and had published, amongst many others, a superb set of 22 poems called Heart Range that were reflections on a solo multi-day hike he had once taken in Washington’s Olympic Mountains. For me as a fellow backpacker, these were so vivid, so clear, so TRUE that I immediately recognized them as the poems I wanted to set for this concert and tribute to Bill Winden- himself a great hiker and climber.

Another google search revealed Cal’s whereabouts, and a phonecall and a ferry ride from Vashon Island brought Cal and me together for the first time in 30+ years for a chat about the project. Cal had been working for an arts law group for many years in Seattle, helping makers of literary and artistic property protect and benefit from their work, so I knew I wanted to get the permissions stuff just right! Poets seem to be much like classical composers- we definitely want to be credited for our work, and if there is money to be had, we’re happy to receive! But we also know that we make art for the joy of it and because that is who we are and what we naturally do. Most of us are happy to collaborate with each other for a good cause and for the purpose of making more art, and so it was for Cal and me.

Of course, some poets seem less than thrilled with having their carefully crafted art messed around with by a composer- after all the poem is “complete” unto itself, and does not require music to present itself in final finished form! Sometimes adding music to a poem is no more satisfying than adding words to a Tchaikovsky symphony theme… I remember humbly discovering in college that T.S. Eliot’s poems did not need my music! (Imagine that!) But, as I like to suggest to poets, sometimes music can add a context in which new understandings of the words can be found, surprising and interesting even to the poet!

I proposed a set of 3 poems, selected from the full group of 22, that I hoped formed a nice set unto themselves and, in an abbreviated way, reflected the longer journey of the entire collection. Cal agreed instantly, and also agreed to do a reading of these and a few others of the set at the concert, prior to their musical performance. This wonderful idea allowed the audience to hear the words clearly before they were sung, and to hear them the way the poet heard them, in the music of pure language.

My selected set of three suggested a quiet, mystical opening song, a more robust and physical second, and a quiet, reflective third: slow-fast-slow. Overall, the three seemed to emphasize the smallness of a human when in the midst of vast mountainous terrain, and our tendency at such times to wax philosophical- even cosmic. Like the Chinese and Japanese philosophers of Chan and Zen Buddhism, like Americans John Muir or Gary Snyder, we find ourselves musing on the universe and our infinitessimal place in it.

The first song, No. 12 in the full set, begins with the line “Mountain under Heaven,” ( a hexagram from the Chinese Book of Changes) which I used as my title. It is night, and we see the mountain looming above us and beyond that, the stars. A rising series of quiet intervals in the piano evokes our rising gaze, and quiet tinkles evoke stars. The soprano enters and sings her poem, quoting enigmatic but thought-provoking lines from the Book of Changes and Genesis.

The second song, No. 21 in the full set which I titled “Lost Where I Was Lost,” is the full-throated joyous one of the set, beginning immediately with energy and movement. The text suggests that though we can stride through these mountains and gaze over great distances from these heights, we are still unable to fully grasp the vastness of the space or time they represent. We also seem to revel in these moments of feeling “lost” in the universe.

The third song, No. 19, ends with the word “Enough” which I chose as my title. It is short, but extremely vivid in its compression- again, very Zen. It reflects on why we hike to such remote places- not to prove anything to anyone, but simply “for the having been” in these “wholly (holy?!) other places.” I chose to set this with an appropriately simple pattern in the piano- almost a Mozartian alberti bass and a kind of breathless simplicity. It ends quietly, returning us to the place of silent awe where the first song began…