Andersen: The sound of music

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

The wind pelted us with snow on an exposed ridge far above treeline as my son, Tait, and I made a three-day traverse of the Williams Range over Labor Day weekend. With hoods pulled over our faces, we clambered down a steep gully into a veritable Shangri-la.

The small tarn was set gemlike in a green expanse of alpine verdure. We were the only people within miles, and we set up camp in a sweet mood of earned exclusivity.

The sun dipped low on the horizon in a blaze of gold, the wind abated, the sky cleared, and we finished our meager dinner of mac and cheese in hushed tranquility. Suddenly, Tait perked up.

“I think I hear music,” he said, listening intently.

“That’s impossible,” I told him, wondering if the full day of wind had induced a hearucination, perhaps even addled his brain.

“No. It’s definitely music,” Tait insisted. “Dad, we’ve got balcony seating for the Jazz Aspen concert in Snowmass.”

I cupped my ears and keened them toward the west. Sure enough, the distinctive sound of a bass line came stuttering through the mountain air.

We were 20 miles from the sound stage, but here, deep in the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness, came the sound of music — and Julie Andrews was nowhere in sight.

If Julie had been there, she would have cut a far different figure from the Rogers and Hammerstein, dirndl-clad, singing nun. This Julie would have been boogying through the purple asters to an electric beat wearing skinny jeans, a sheer camisole and platform sandals with piercings and tats.

“If we can hear the concert from here,” reasoned my ever-observant son, “imagine what it’s like standing 20 feet in front of those speakers.”

“It would rattle your rib cage,” I said. “It would vibrate your organs. It would jelly your brain. It would trash your tympanic membrane. All your ganglia would come untied.”

“Don’t get carried away, old-timer,” smirked my No. 1 son. “For a lot of people, loud music awakens an atavistic, quasi-tribal experience. I went to a Ziggy Marley concert at Snowmass a few years ago, and everyone got down with the tribal pulse. It was fun.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t hear Ziggy from 20 miles away in an alpine wilderness where you’re not supposed to hear anything but your own thoughts through the murmur of the echoing Big Bang.”

Tait thought that over for a moment and then waved off my objection. He keened his ears again. “Wow! Now I can hear a guitar.”

Tait has superhuman ears, but I, too, could distinguish a melody line. This from a child of vintage rock ’n’ roll concerts whose once youthful ears withstood electric verve 20 feet from a wall of speakers during a Jimmy Page solo at a Led Zeppelin concert in 1969 at the Electric Theater on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

“Who do you think adjusts the volume at these concerts?” Tait wondered aloud.

That’s easy. It’s the guy from Spinal Tap, the dude who turned the speakers beyond 10 to that mythic number 11, the guy whose outer ears are singed and whose malleus, incus and stapedius have been beaten permanently into his eustacian tubes; a deaf tech whose sole role is to pour sound over an audience with the volume of Niagara Falls, blasting the full audio range of sound waves until they stun the utricle and pummel the deepest curl of the cochlea. The guy who now stands behind the speakers.

The sound of music was reaching out to us now with the long tentacle of syphilisation — just what we had hoped to escape in our hiking-booted, ramen-noodled, oxygen-deprived backpacking trip to a wild and wooly wilderness wonderland.

“Oh, well,” we said in unison, followed by a fist bump and a high-five. “What can we do?” To drown out the distant thump of the concert we launched into a duet of “Fly Me to the Moon.”

Just then, the clouds parted and a delicate fingernail of silver glowed in the heavens. All at once a chorus of coyotes came in strong, “and let me play among the stars.”

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at