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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2008/07/22
by John Zinkand

Music, Nature, Magic

Every summer in Oregon is another opportunity to get outside and enjoy the beauty and splendor of nature. One can take in the grandeur of the Cascade Mountains, the rugged beauty of the Columbia River Gorge, or the craggy, windswept views of the Oregon Coast all within a short drive of downtown Portland. I look forward to each and every summer here as a magical time to get out and enjoy it all. Hiking, biking, camping, backpacking, and even rafting in the great outdoors of Oregon cant be beat. Each summer there seems to be a lull at some point in the amount of live music that comes to town, so I seize these times to get out and interact with nature as a surrogate for the music I love so dearly. And in so many ways, improvisational music is very similar to enjoying the great outdoors.

For instance, we went on a great whitewater rafting trip down the Rogue River in Southern Oregon earlier in the summer. I had never been rafting on this river before, only on the Deschutes River, so I did not know what to expect, exactly. I could use this exact same description for many of the live shows I go see. Ive either heard about a band through word of mouth or have read about them online, so I take the leap of faith and go check them out. Sometimes the band does not live up to the hype, but other times I find a new favorite to check out the next time they come to town. And with each bend in the river comes a new set of unexpected rapids, a rocky cliff to pull over and take a few leaps from, or a fellow rafter hiding with a water-cannon ready to soak you down to the core. Improvisational music does the same with its unexpected peaks, its mellow valleys, by taking sharp turns into humor or weirdness, or even falling on its face with a total train derailment. You never know exactly what you are going to get until you are there in the moment enjoying it for whatever it may be, and this still holds true even for bands Ive seen a dozen times.
When hiking in Oregon or Washington, each turn around a bend can provide unexpectedly beautiful views. One can turn the corner and find themselves gazing at a towering snow-capped mountain peak, a vast field of colorful wildflowers, or a deep chasm rolling out of the foreground and into the horizon for as far as the eye can see. Such beauty is incredibly inspiring and feeds the soul much like art or music. A sudden change in a melody line that develops into a towering improvisation can inspire, fill one with wonder, or even shake ones confidence. The wide array of emotions that can be elicited by nature or by music are very similar. Melding the two can be intense and I sometimes bring my MP3 player to take in a crazy jam while also taking in an intense view at the peak of a summit. Of course, the solitude and beauty is usually satisfying enough.

Another outdoor activity I love to do here in the Pacific Northwest is backpacking. Backpacking is great for providing a little more solitude, a little tougher workout, and usually a little better views. In keeping up the live music to outdoor activity comparison, I would say that backpacking trips equate most closely to music festivals. Backpacking gives the time to stretch out and get to some places youve never seen before, similar to checking out bands youve never seen before at a festival. Although at a festival the band itself may not have time to delve into deeper jams in their allotted forty five minute set, the sheer variety of bands gives a diversity that is enlightening. Much like a backpacking trip can whet ones whistle to try and another trip somewhere else with similar or different terrain, the festival is a great way to taste different bands and come back for seconds if one is so inclined. And of course, the lengthier trip and need for more endurance are very similar when comparing backpacking and music festivals. Whether its pushing yourself up that last 300 ft. ridge with the 50 lb. pack on your back or forcing yourself to stay up for that second late night set on the final night of the festival, it takes a little more effort, endurance, and seasoning to fully enjoy the experience.
Im sure most who read this will be enjoying live music this summer in some way or another a live show, a summer festival, or downloading MP3 files. Its also great to find something that gives you a similar satisfaction – enjoying nature can be a transcendent and intense activity or a mellow and soothing one. Depending on ones moods or needs at a given time, the experience can be personally tailored to fit the situation, just like live music. Ive a full schedule of both live music and outdoor activity lined up for the rest of the summer. Im most excited for a trip out to Colorado over Labor Day weekend as I will get the chance to engage in nature and music simultaneously. Ill take in shows at the beautiful Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Fox Theater at night and hike in the day. What could be better? I know I will be putting forth my best effort to reach the high point of every jam and every mountain peak. Will you?

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