It was more than a little odd when I patroned the tiny Kosuge Village grocery store, overlooked by jagged mountains, and saw another white guy besides me in the store for the first time, with long hair, camo pants, and combat boots, holding an armful of potatoes.
“Whoa,” he said, with an American accent.
“Hello,” I mumbled.
I turned and spied yet another white man, this one sporting the lumberjack look: flannel and jeans, red beard and Timberlands, bent over the ice cream cooler rooting around like a honeying bear. When he stood up, he blinked and dodged back as if I’d thrown something. “Whoa,” he coughed.
Whoa was right.
“We’re here for a trance concert,” Camo declared when I asked.
“A trance concert. You know, bright lights, bass, crazy times, jivey tunes. There’s going to be like five hundred people out there.”
“Wait, you’re not here for the concert?” Flannel asked.
“No. I live here.”
Their mouths opened, and so did mine. There was a trance concert in the Japanese village of nine hundred people, and I didn’t know about it.
“You gotta come,” Camo said, his name Nick. “The concert’s in a campground, and the music just fits in so well with nature.”
I furrowed my brows. I hadn’t thought I could be more surprised than I already was.
I didn’t think much of trance then. Not that I knew what it was. Trance, as I would learn, is a Detroit-born, German-filtered music rooted in the eighties, epitomized by synthesizers with minimal rhythmic changes and only occasional instrumental atmospherics, putting listeners into a symphonic pleasure coma. But my lazy idea was of doped-up youths twitching to sounds that came from an inkjet printer.
I worked and lived in Kosuge as an English teacher, but I stayed on for the mountains. I had grown up family camping in hill country, and as a teenager I often tented in the shade of red-rock canyons. In college, I worked as an outdoor guide, taking students on backpacking trips, teaching them to take only pictures and to leave only footprints.
I doubted one could reconcile outdoors and city. I know such dualism is a sign of simple-mindedness. Humans are as much a part of nature as anything. Our Reeboks come from prehistoric ferns. Edible plants become us, etc. Words like “nature” say more about the speaker than anything else. My idea of it was just that, and a human one.
But trance? How can bright lights, pounding bass, and drugged hippies fit in with mountain streams, wildlife, and bird songs? Bringing something as ear-walloping into a forest wasn’t my idea of fitting in.
Nick said, “I’ll put you on the guest list,” and winked.
Curiosity churned. It was a question too impossible to ignore. How could this act fit in with the mountains? So I told him, “Sure, Nick, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Like many species, I’m also an opportunist.
The campground lay across town, and by night, rain slammed down. I wheeled in my decrepit Toyota, and at the entrance found sprouted shacks of PVC and tarp. One held a ticket booth and a shivering Italian woman with purple hair. She reclined with a stack of T-shirts for sale and a coil of black light powered by a car battery.
“How’s the concert? I asked.
“There’s not a lot of people in yet,” she said, “But, remember, the trance in Japan is beautiful. Once I was freaking out because I took too much acid, but people here helped me out.” She looked away into the rain. “Not like in Italy. I got a very bad vibe there.”
I was no stranger to psychedelics. From high school on, I had tried them some two dozen times, culminating when I bought three hits of LSD and vanned to my favorite canyon. I backpacked two miles in, tented, and dissolved the pieces of blotter acid atop my tongue. An hour later, I went hiking. A solo stroll around the sandstone wonderland completed as thick muscles of purple clouds clamped down. Lightning sparked and forked. The storm lifted, and the setting sun kindled the rocks. A rainbow spread its half-halo across the canyon, from cliff to cliff, for what seemed like an unbearable hour. Which would be enough to awe any sober person, but I was on LSD , feeling sights and smelling distant sounds.
Driving home the next day, I had a fear that my exploration was taking me into dark terrain, the uncharted waters of body experimentation. I decided to stop, figuring I had gotten all I could out of chemically fucking my mind. Part of what I resisted with trance is what I’d left behind. Backpacking and canoeing were adventures, but not descents into uncanny caverns that I was disinclined to get pulled back into. In this way I was a cliché: judgmental of a lifestyle I had recently given up, worried, in truth, that I might slip back into it.
Apparently the guest list only insured you got in. The price for admission was twenty bucks, yen. “If that’s cool,” the Italian woman said, looking guilty, but I paid up.
Pulling ahead, I crossed the river and soon felt vibrations in my seat. My car windows rattled, and the hairs on my arms stood at attention. I sensed a looming war zone.
I parked by the lodge and walked uphill where I came out into an open area with the staging ground. The stage was a thirty-foot-tall, red-wooden structure with an eve shielding the performance. The platform stood three feet off the ground, weighed down by skyscrapers of speakers and slithering cables. The stage hardwood lay thick but cracking.
A set of sentinel speakers flanked a young woman in black sweats. Her hood was pulled over her face so you couldn’t see her eyes as she toggled buttons on a surfboard-long panel. An armada of rainbow lights beamed behind her, silhouetting the controls and DJ into Rorschach blots.
The air was freezer-cold. Six people in the audience, including me. I wrapped myself in the rain gear I usually wore for high-altitude summiting. The music rippled under wet mud, and I felt the bass poke through my boots. The rest was what I expected: the grocery bag-crinkling hum, no lyrics, a headache-provoking beat. I cracked open a beer I’d brought to have something fun to do.
I tapped my feet for a moment, and then Nick, the camo guy from the store, stepped up, and seemed glad to see me. He said there should be more people coming later—perhaps the five hundred he’d mentioned earlier—and the concert was scheduled to last until two in the afternoon.
“You plan on staying up that long?” I asked.
A cheshire cat-smile: “I’ll have some help.”
When Nick strolled off, I realized he, of course, was grinning about drugs.
While I stood before the stage, I had this idea I should dance. I don’t know why; the audience was stiff and in the single digits. I thought maybe if I was going to give trance a chance, I should exercise.
I began by bouncing thighs, first one then both. I swayed, jerked, shrugged my arms. I nodded my head, my torso oscillating in contortions like a squiggle pen. I spilled my beer, so I revolved slower. I felt very uncool, and there was no scene to join with. Of the audience, half huddled over cigarettes as if collectively amassing a campfire.
As I was about to walk away, two muscled pale faces walked up wearing skin-tight, flame-colored shirts. They surveyed the scene and began pumping their feet and hammering their forearms. They spun and twist-jerked. They bent at the waist and performed a move similar to two wet dogs drying off. Their movements caused me to go still with awe. For a few moments their energy burned away the rain.
Nick, who was beginning to seem like a nice guy, checked in, and when I asked he explained the music being played was psytrance. “Psy,” of course, short for psychedelic. This subset grew out of trance’s eighties heyday.
Trance, of course, is not limited to the three-minute trajectory of common rock or pop. Trance develops symphonically over a half-hour. There are motifs that slither in and out of a stream. This openness has led to variations. Psytrance was more chill than other harder-hitting forms, though tell that to my headache.
“Unlike other types,” Nick said, “which is really just fit for clubs, psytrance is just made for the outdoors.”
“And drugs,” I added.
Nick grinned again. “Well, that too.”
Behind us was a sloping hill of Japanese cedars, which the concert lights illuminated like a torch. I excused myself to go piss. Walking through the trees, I heard voices and grunts in shadows — two people fucking. In Kosuge’s mountains, I knew, lived macaques, boar, rabbits, deer, Asiatic black bears, kites, crows, swallows, dozens of warblers, pheasants, woodpeckers, and mice. I wondered how many creatures would come within a mile of this tornado of sound.
I walked back to the lodge and bought barbecue from the Japanese newlyweds who ran the campground, now working a grill. They looked shell-shocked, so I tried to smile.
“How do you like trance?” I asked.
They glanced at each other with baggy eyelids. The man responded. “We like that they bring money to our campground. And we like to see all the foreigners, and we get to practice our English. But, I guess . . .”
The woman spoke up, nodding, “We usually listen to reggae.”
Inside the packed lodge, I found the red-bearded man from the grocery store. He said his name was Quasar and invited me to sit down. He was preoccupied, a pen and paper in hand, rewriting tomorrow’s set, paired with the man sitting next to him, a DJ named Dylan. Out in the pouring rain, I had heard audience members murmuring about Dylan, praising him, if there was one, as the concert’s guru.
Dylan did have an aura: a forty-year-old with a tie-dye beanie covering the rest of his balding pale head with bleach-blond curls. His eyebrows streaked white-blond. He sported a dozen piercings and connected with penetrating eye contact. He sipped from a Coke and said to me they’d been touring Japan for two weeks as a duo called “The Fractal Cowboys.”
“How long have you been into this?” I asked.
“Ten years. Before that we were doing ambient rock—you know, lighter stuff, chill-out. We actually used instruments.”
He’d enjoyed the last Japan tour. “I really like these nature concerts, and Japan seems to have a ton of them,” he said.
I told him I thought it was curious that I kept hearing that his music fit in with nature. “I guess I’m just not seeing the connection,” I said.
Dylan nodded, expressionless, swigged his Coke. “I hear you, but you gotta keep perspective. For some people used to these concerts in warehouses, it’s nice to get out.”
Then he said something to the effect of, “Also, I like to think it’s organic. I think of the way trance evolved, earthly beats to the digital. It’s all an extension of culture right? And culture’s natural. There’s a pattern about it, at least the trance I listen to. Some trance is just shit, believe me, but this trance makes me think of rivers, trees, that sort of thing. Since it’s caught up in the flow, I just see it as a continuation of when we were first human, with the rhythms in our DNA.”
I stared at him, believing he had me. Music does make biological connections with material consciousness. This is why people’s brains light up like Christmas trees when they hear music while scanned inside MRI machines.
But then when I asked Dylan what he missed from America, he responded with “the drugs,” and I felt the weight of enlightenment fall from my stomach. Empty again, I wondered: Am I missing something because I’m ignorant or because I’m no longer into mind-altering controlled substances?
Trance, loudmouth bass and synthesizer, is an extension, a cultural evolution, from cave-and-stick ancestry. A meandering line from when we first became human. But then, what part of culture isn’t derived from our origins? Toxic sludge, acid rain, speakers? That didn’t mean it “fit in” with other life-forms of a forest environment.
But thoughts swirled inside me. The earliest humans made art and beat the ground. We are, after all, the Earth expressing itself.
I asked when the Fractal Cowboys were playing. Maybe I needed to hear the “right” trance.
“Six in the morning,” Dylan said. “You should come. We’ve worked a lot of PSAs into our set.”
“Public Service Announcements,” Quasar looked up and said.
Dylan read my face. “Just come; you’ll see.”
I promised I would and then strolled downhill from the lodge, the air crisp, rain momentarily lifted. I held my car keys while I listened to the trance waffling down from the stage, while the rain trickled and my windshield rattled.
Sleepless, I read from my copy of Walden . I had no idea what I was doing when I grabbed the book. I was lounging in my floor chair as I did every night, and it was simply a matter of reaching over and plucking the book off my shelf. It seemed logical later: My idea of nature besieged with towering, aggressive speakers and angelic, well-spoken DJs, I look to Henry D. for comfort.
And what should I find, not thirteen lines below the famous “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”?
“It is never too late to give up our prejudices.”
About life ? Even that?
After-school-special advice, I thought, and I continued reading, although a seed, I guess, had been sowed, like the kind I used to make eggplants and peppers and watermelons in a garden, which is perhaps the oldest, most easily recognizable art, a combination of human will and the earth.
After a late night spent reading, I overslept, snoozing through an alarm I’d set for five. I woke up, rubbed the night out of my eyes, and drove back to the campground at about 9:30, the entrance deserted, tarps blowing in the wind as if from a shipwreck.
I worried everyone had vanished, but when I wheeled in next to the lodge, I espied Quasar bouncing downhill, braids whipping to-and-fro, carrying an MP3 player with headphones. He was sweating and called out, beaming. I’d just missed the Fractal Cowboys set.
I sat down on a log beside him. They’d had a terrific set, he said, maybe the best in eight years, and they’d recorded it and planned to release it as an album.
“Where are we again?” he asked.
I said Kosuge Mura.
“Moo-Rah?” He said.
“Mura means village if that helps.”
“Live from Kosuge Village,” he said. “That sounds so much better than Live from Oakland.”
I told him I was surprised he’d recorded an album from such a small venue, with—how many today?—a few dozen people in the audience.
He appeared hurt, all frown. “Coming out here was a big deal,” he said. “I can’t just get on a plane and fly to Japan. I got a wife and two girls.”
Reeling in a propensity to stereotype, I let my jaw hang. “You have children?”
He retrieved a faded flip wallet, and when he lifted up a color photo of twin, blue-eyed blondes, lightning struck more clearly than if I’d been on LSD watching a storm. Quasar became a different person; in fact, trance became a different music because somebody who would show photos of his daughters was behind it, not a life I’d left but one I hadn’t yet lived.
I arrived at the stage and found Dylan standing alone at the edge of, I counted, twenty-five people—half Asian, half white, and one black. They watched Nick, Camo-guy, spin. Nick bounced from foot to foot, pumping a fist. The day was warmer. I told Dylan sorry for being late.
“What?” he said. “You couldn’t get up at five in the morning and come stand in the rain?”
We watched Nick, and Dylan revealed, surprising me again, that like me, he rose from a small town in Texas.
“That’s why we’re the cowboys!” Dylan said. “I don’t know how it is with you, but my family keeps asking when I’m going to have a family and settle down and move to New Braunfels.” He laughed. “It’s like they have no idea what kind of world I’m in now.”
Because we were revealing, I told Dylan about how my family had picked up and moved from Texas, first to Idaho and then to a Tennessean suburb, then split apart. They didn’t continue to share the love for the outdoors that was born with them.
“I feel a little adrift,” I said.
Dylan shrugged as if to say, Aren’t we all ?
As drizzle fell, Dylan entered a circle of people dancing. His movements were slow at first and then built. He bobbed with his eyes closed, his head tilted back as if he were taking a shower, an image made more real by the rain beading on his face. Soon his legs thumped on the grass. His arms spread, and he revolved in place.
In trance, there are often special effects, call-outs, breaks. I think this makes it easier for people to join, for there’s always an opening. Trance mixes in one track, then two or three or four, then mixes them out, so you are often left with the beat you began with. Tempos rise and crest and then fall. Like a mountain.
I was watching Dylan dance, because I was trying to figure out what to do. Not just with movement but with this music, with this much sound in something I’d identified as quiet. For the moment, I stood with my arms crossed and watched. Most dancers were decked in spandex and neon tights, but in the crowd was an elderly, Japanese man in shorts and a see-through rain slicker. He jumped from wooden-sandaled foot to wooden-sandaled foot.
After a few minutes, without realizing it, my right knee unhinged. My heel picked up and dropped back down. Again. And again. Faster. My arms unspooled, twisting around, making a pretzel. I dipped my hips, started to roll my torso into parabolic waves.
The music hummed into synthesizing riffs, chords of piano and violin spiced with sitar and the echo one would hear inside a beaten hollow tree. Amid the track was also something sounding like swallow chirps mixed with a bulldozer’s engine: revving and cooing and pounding. I guess I liked it, if “liking” means getting lost in the beat.
It was odd, that blend of animatronic and animal. There was a tug at my subconscious, which was why my body was moving. But once aware, I became shy and slowed, pulled my arms into tight circles, and eventually devolved to foot-tapping.
Then the notes spiraled out as if caught in a breeze. There was a twinkle of chimes; the bass stopped. I heard a voice over the speakers—white, male, mid-thirties, but not Nick, who stood with a big smile, speechless.
“Better taste. Better quality. Better nutrition. Simply better food . . . Eat organic.”
I looked up on stage and saw Nick punch the air. The crowd, too, raised their fists. “Yeah, organic!” a young man in pink spandex yelled.
“We’re mostly all vegetarians,” Dylan told me when he came back. “Nick just likes to spread the organic message, thinks it’s less confrontational.”
Vegetarianism, as any greenie knows, is one of the best things you can do to curb your carbon footprint.
A new track switched on. The beat mixed in a twang of a bass guitar. An echo floated off the treble range, some mix of piano and synthesizer. Jazzy. Somewhere in the background: an uncanny rendition of cricket chirps.
I closed my eyes to see what it felt like, the music tripping over me, and there, what was that? It was my heart leaping from my chest, my stomach clenching. There was a whirring, almost like a blender, but softer, the rustling of feathers.
In my mind, I pictured geese, a tornado of them swirling in and out of a field, flying through trees; you couldn’t keep track of singular rustlings as they grew into a roar like rapids. The wings beat, rolled out of my head and out over the forests and mountains and, I guess, out to the sea.
Most trance at the concert sounded like a vacuum cleaner revving, but when the beats were less aggressive, when somebody like Nick was spinning, I got to the point where I could recognize this harmonization. Nature is slow and methodical, but it can be fast too. And then slow. And then fast again.
When I’d arrived at the concert I believed trancers were engaged in a world I had departed, and I’d assumed that all too cliché attitude of condescension. I realized that, but I still wondered if I was past the time I could really enjoy trance. I recognized its value, but that you would maybe still need drugs to sink into it. In Kosuge, the concertgoers were breathing in the narcotic fumes of the forest which were enchanting and alleviating, as numerous health studies show. But likely the concert was also damaging the forest with its crotch-kicking sound. And sound , as much as sight, is an experience of the forest, the crackle of water, the stillness of damp earth. Tiny mammals escaping away.
Then again, I walked around a bush where there was a recycling station (instructions in English and Japanese), and I realized that with the PSA, the recycling, the vegetarianism, this was, perhaps, the most eco-friendly concert I’ve been to.
Like with any conversation about what’s natural, the one I’d been having in my head was ambiguous, unanswerable. Did I like the music? Kind of, though it was splitting my skull. Did it fit in with nature? “Nature” was a human construct, like a microphone.
Would I go to another trance concert? That, at least, felt easy to answer. When Nick, standing in a circle with Quasar and Dylan, smoking a joint, asked the same question, I replied in the affirmative, as easy as water flowing off a stone.
Nick offered the weed, with a tight look in his eye I knew meant he was welcoming me. But I turned him down with my own look saying I appreciated the gesture, of being part of a wider circle.
We chatted for a bit, and I asked when the Fractal Cowboys were playing next.
“In two weeks in San Francisco,” Quasar said.
Dylan elbowed him with the joint in his mouth.“We play Wednesday.”
They flew out soon, arriving, California time, on Tuesday.
“The music doesn’t stop, so we don’t,” Nick said and took a drag from the herb, a plant grown in a garden somewhere with the same sunlight I could see parting between the gray clouds.