Rick Zelinsky of Anchorage is a saxophone and clarinet artist. He is a practicing Buddhist and combines the sounds created by nature and technology to demonstrate how they are both related and unrelated. Zelinsky also is an avid mountain climber and has made dozens of ascents with his magnificent dog, Koda.
Ice cracks against the teeth of Rick Zelinsky’s crampons. A few yards ahead, the scrabbling of Koda’s toenails signal the Samoyed has found an area of windblown crust beginning to form on the final rise. “Look at that,” Zelinsky says to his dog. “Ascent No. 128.” The pair steps up onto the broad expanse of Peak Three overlooking Anchorage’s city lights. Together they pause. Their breathing slows.
“It’s a different world up here,” Zelinsky observes.
It’s also a different world when Zelinsky, a jazz saxophonist, writes a new composition. “When you create a tune, a jazz tune, you’re creating a planet,” he says. “And then when you improvise, you land on that planet and you explore it.” With different chords, rhythms and meters, Zelinsky and his jazz ensemble not only travel over and across new terrain — they create it as they go. “That’s what I love,” Zelinsky says. “I love exploring the mountains and music.”
“When you improvise and plan on it,” he says, “you can take different ascents. You can go over here to this ridge, or you can go up the gully and take a straight shot.”
Back up Peak Three, there is a faint click: Zelinsky switches off his headlamp. He hears the sound of night air rearranging snow into patterns that snake among the rocks. Nights like this, nothing holds still and outer space presses in until the cold air seems as liable to rearrange the stars overhead as the dry snowflakes underfoot.
Twenty-four years ago, Zelinsky and his wife drove from Ohio to Alaska. “The first day we got here, we climbed Flattop,” he says. “We got some bear bells actually. From REI. So we’re the only ones climbing Flattop with bear bells, and people — well, they laughed.” Now a savvy Chugach mountain climber, Zelinsky laughs also. “You know,” he says, “you definitely don’t need bear bells climbing. I don’t even know if people actually wear those bells anymore.”
Zelinsky started in music as a child, learning first to play the recorder, then the alto saxophone. “Actually, I would have picked trombone or something,” Zelinsky reflects. “But my mom already picked saxophone. So I had no choice in the matter.” He’s made peace with this long ago, of course: now, Zelinsky’s woodwind fluency spans all sizes of saxophones from baritone to soprano and also includes bass, alto and soprano clarinets, as well as the flute. Zelinsky solos on all these instruments. He has a bachelor’s and a master’s in saxophone performance and has recorded and released five jazz albums.
The newest of these is “Strange Mountains,” released in July 2019. In it, Zelinsky showcases a set of skills he honed at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he completed a nine-course training in electronic music production. Aesthetically quite different from his first four albums, “Strange Mountains” is both a sonically and conceptually ambitious group of four compositions — each named for a mountain ascent — and each of which combines saxophone sounds, nature sounds and electronic effects.
How do these disparate elements fit together? First, Zelinsky composes “cells” — discrete musical ideas designed to fit together in an array of configurations. With this defined lexicon of cells, the individuals in his jazz ensemble can experiment, explore, arrange and reconfigure unmapped territory — in other words, they can improvise together. Then, as the ensemble plays together in live time, Zelinsky uses a foot pedal to trigger clips of nature sounds. Some of these were recorded by fellow Rasumson Foundation awardee Lucy Peckham including crane, eagle and raven sounds. Zelinsky recorded other nature sounds himself such as creeks and mountain winds.
Responsiveness, in jazz especially, is everything. Yet jazz’s foundational blues tradition of call and response is not about music alone — it has political and philosophic ramifications fundamental to the worldview that Zelinsky upholds, one of deep respect and cherishing for all that lies outside the self. By putting nature into the compositional mix, Zelinsky’s new music brings the more-than-human world into the jazz tradition of spontaneous, conversational exchange.
“I practice cherishing all living beings,” says Zelinsky, a meditation teacher and a Buddhist. “The reason why I practice Buddhism is not because I’m enlightened,” he says. “I’m definitely not. But I know which direction I want to head: being someone who cherishes everyone.” By this he means everyone human, and he also means everyone more-than-human.
Such thinking is not about spirituality alone. It is also materially urgent. Environmental catastrophes unfold worldwide. Integrated in industrial society are myriad unsustainable practices ranging from the mundane to the unconscionable. Zelinsky’s music implicitly argues that human-made sounds and nature-made sounds must engage one another.
“Strange Mountains” reflects this in its combination of saxophone sounds and nature sounds — but the album’s innovation does not stop there. Zelinsky puts both saxophone sounds and nature sounds through a computer program of 60 different sonic effects. “It can be anywhere from making the sound totally spacey, like echoes,” he says, “to making it sound like a synthesizer.” The computer program applies these randomly, introducing yet another layer of spontaneous variability — to which the improvising jazz musicians respond as they play.
The aesthetic effect is mesmerizing. And the philosophic effect hits hard, for the album’s featured electronic component raises a crucial set of questions: How great is the distance separating the digital world from the ecological one? To what extent are “computer” and “nature” mutually alien, and to what extent are we to understand them as kin?
“One part of Buddhist practice is imagining when you inhale, you’re taking the suffering away from other living beings,” Zelinsky says. “And as you exhale, you’re giving them happiness.” It’s a profound image, particularly coming from a wind player. “When you’re writing a piece,” he says, “or playing a piece, then mentally, you want to dedicate that to the happiness of all living things. And when you’re making music, you’re making vibrations, right? Those vibrations will never stop. They keep going in the universe.”
Enjoy these two Zelinsky compositions:
“Be Like the Sun”
“My Way in 5/4” (an experiment in electronics)
Corinna Cook’s first essay collection, “Leavetakings,” was published in fall 2020. Her current essays-in-progress focus on Alaska and Yukon artwork, biomes and histories. She lives in Juneau.
Image credits - Artist portrait courtesy of artist. Gallery images 1, 3, 4 & 5 courtesy of artist. Image 2 is by the writer, Corinna Cook. Writer portrait by Jeremy Pataky.