Jan. 15, 2019: "Chris McCandless," by Matt Halvorson
(artwork by Zeke, age 4)
I had the original idea for this song a couple years ago now after reading the Jon Krakauer book, “Into the Wild.” It’s about Chris McCandless, this kid who just walks away from everything one day and starts living free and wild.
I was really struck by the beauty of his experience and his commitment to physically living with the Earth and letting go of whatever constrained him. Even if he seemed crazy, or felt scared now and then, he lived out his principles to the bitter end. That really moved me, and it has inspired me many times since to make braver decisions, or to follow my gut, or to put my foot down when I just know something’s not right, you know?
So, I started the song after finishing the book, and I liked the first line that came through: “If anybody thinks of me, let it be as someone who believed in something.” It felt like the beginning of what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t finish it. I tried a few different choruses, different structures, and spent long periods just having forgotten about it, but it ultimately still sat lurking in the back of my mind.
I wanted to do this subject justice at some point — or at least I wanted to feel like I had done my best in tribute to Chris McCandless. This week seemed particularly like the time to take it on. Our government has shut down because our president wants to build a border wall. And all this is happening even after children have begun to die in custody of our immigration agents. Meanwhile, the Canadian government just forcibly entered the unceded land of the sovereign Wet’suwet’en People and the Unist’ot’en Clan, using militarized police to enforce construction of an oil pipeline. Sound familiar?
A friend of mine — a fellow water protector I met in Standing Rock — was assaulted by the Seattle police on Friday during a peaceful show of solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en People. He spent 28 hours in jail and seems hopeful that there is “no structural damage” to his spine, which is good, although it’s too bad that structural damage to his spine is on the table in the first place.
So, this song is also in honor of Ryan, and it’s in honor of everyone who is standing up fully for what they believe in right now. It’s in honor of everyone who is truly living out their principles in the uncompromising way that Chris McCandless reminds me is possible. This is not a time to let our principles bend, not when it would mean something as inhumane and anti-life as a border wall that traps us in and keeps everyone else out. Now is yet another time to loudly and clearly say no, and to show that we mean it.
As one final layer in all this, I learned last week that the National Park Service has a website with public-domain recordings of wildlife in Yellowstone National Park. It turns out it’s amazing. And since part of this absurd government shutdown is that our national parks are shut down as well, this felt like the perfect time and the perfect subject to try to intersperse with some wildlife sounds. The creatures and habitats that made these beautiful sounds are threatened, of course, by the very same thought processes that led to the shutdown, and led to the mounties raiding indigenous land in the name of oil baronhood. They, too, are calling for us to say enough is enough.
This recording starts with just the hum of modern life, and our connectedness to it, and then I tried to slowly transition to where I was more and more playing “with” nature, playing a song “with” the animals, and “with” the Earth. Hopefully nature was indistinguishable from music at times, while also pulling back now and then to represent periods of solitude. I may have gone a bit overboard with the animal sounds, but I tried to lean in that direction as opposed to playing it safe. It felt like that was the way that Chris himself lived.
I recorded the piano and the vocals first, and then started listening to and experimenting with the nature sounds. I tried to push myself to add texture with nature sounds instead of instruments or harmonies, and to add a prominent animal noise where I might have wanted a guitar solo or a horn melody, but to still keep it musical.
I tried to let the animal sounds just be as whole sounds, to let them have their natural rhythm — their own cadence — and overlay it with mine. There’s an elk, a bear, lots of wolves, and it ends with loons calling. The sound of loons brings me back to my childhood and time with my family near the water, and so I liked ending the song with the loons trilling for that reason, but this recording of the loon calls was just so haunting as well that I couldn’t stop listening to it. I really liked the way it fit there, as something to melt away into in the end.
And honestly, listening to Jennifer Jerrett’s recording of a chorus of wolves through a decent pair of headphones brought me to tears. Hearing them singing along with my own voice for the first time was a really beautiful experience, even if it was just for me. So, here it is, to be shared, a song about Chris McCandless, sung with the wolves and the woods.