Two winters ago, between runs, I found myself sitting on a lovely outdoor deck of a slopeside restaurant at Copper Mountain, Colo. A plump Whiskey Jack perched on the railing eyed my food as a rivulet of water, born of the melting snow, sparkled under a Rocky Mountain sky. A warm spring breeze stirred the surrounding pine trees, which oozed fresh sap, suffusing the air with a sweet scent.
The only thing missing from this idyllic setting were the sounds of the jay bird, the trickling of the snow melt, and the wind sifting through the pine needles. They couldn't be heard. The reason, attached to a roof beam 20 feet away, was a loudspeaker belching out deafening music somewhere between acid rock and an atonal Philip Glass symphony. I put aside a half-eaten hamburger, clicked into my bindings and fled the scene.
I like music. I have eclectic tastes, ranging from country western to 18th Century concertos, to Forties' Big Band music and Dixieland. I love Mozart and Delbert McClinton. There's also music, such as rap, that I don't enjoy.
Choosing what music to play at a ski area is "a challenging issue," says former SKI Editor Ed Pitoniak, now Senior Vice President of Resort Enterprises for Intrawest Corp. The owner of Whistler, Tremblant, Copper Mountain, Snowshoe and other areas, Intrawest regards music as a way of "animating" guests.
"It's difficult," admits Pitoniak, "to satisfy the range of musical tastes represented by a 16-year-old snowboarder and his 50-year-old parents." Five thousand people gathered at a rock concert share a common interest in what's being performed; 5,000 people at a ski area have a common interest, but it isn't music. Agreeing on what kind of prayer children should recite in school has more chance of success than finding a tune that appeals to everyone at a ski resort.
It wasn't always so. At one time the sport possessed two kinds of music that skiers shared as their own. In the Forties, ski town bars were filled, not with canned music but with the ebullient live voices of skiers singing such ditties as "Two Boards on Cold Powder Snow," "They Call Him Super Skier" and "90 Pounds of Rucksack." If you were a real skier, you knew the words to these songs.
When American skiing came under the influence of immigrants from Europe's Alps, après-ski gathering places resounded with yodeling, accordions and oompah bands. Often the music was played by groups such as the Stratton Mountain boys, led by their ski school director Emo Henrich. When I first skied the Bugaboos in 1968, Hans Gmoser awoke us in the morning by gently strumming the zither. In the Alps, you can still occasionally hear skiers singing in the telepherique, as they're lofted up the mountain.
One day—perhaps it was about the time ski areas evolved from sport centers into amusement parks—the actively played and sung music of a ski culture gave way to passively listened-to rock, reggae, country and snow-country Christmas songs. It no longer came from the throats of skiers, but from inanimate CDs, DMX and satellite radio. The obvious thing about such music is that you have as much chance of ignoring it as you would the in-flight movie screens on an airliner crossing the Pacific.
I asked an old-time skier, a friend of mine, Galt MacDermot, the composer of the hit musical "Hair," how he feels about the idea of music pulsating through the pristine cold mountain air. "I hate it," he instantly replied. What he dislikes is the forced juxtaposition of an outdoor sport he once loved with another medium that he loves even more.
The young short-order cook, who selected the singular music that bombarded the deck where I was sitting, committed the equivalent of pouring ketchup over all of the food he prepared. Which raises another question. Why do resorts hire architects to design their lodges and engineers to make snow, but rely on the expertise of guys trained in writing menus to choose music?
"The decision is left up to the managers of thhe individual mountains, and to the F&B (Food and Beverage) managers in the case of bars or lodge operations," says Vail Resorts' Paul Witt.
"In the case of our halfpipes and terrain parks, we think good rock-and-roll music is very appropriate," says Tim Petrick of Booth Creek Resorts. "If the music's not there, it seems like something is missing."
In talking recently to a dozen resorts about their music, I found that the driving factor in selecting the tunes was the tastes of younger skiers and snowboarders. At Attitash, N.H., "Loudspeakers are used outside to enhance the atmosphere," says Skip King, a spokesman for the area's owner, the American Skiing Company. "I would classify the type of music as new alternative, appealing to Generation Y late teens, with crossover into Gen X 20 to 30."
Funny, this concern with what youth wants to hear, because the last time I checked, one out of every three skiers was older than 35. Maybe these are the folks Vail has in mind when it played native American flute music in its mountaintop Two Elk lodge.
Most resorts amplify music over outdoor speakers at restaurants and lifts, often enveloping the whole area in a miasma of sound. Author Jennifer Price recently described the phenomenon as overwhelming the natural world with artifice, or "Kilimanjaro in a Can."
Are ski resorts ignoring their own market research? For years, they've known that skiers are drawn to the mountains by the excitement of speed, the scenery, the adventure of high places and the opportunity to improve their physical health. The thoughtless layering-on of Disney Theme Park artifices, like the piping of canned music into every nook and valley of a mountain resort, therefore, may not be as attractive as resort operators think.
Which brings us to the final question, "What's wrong with quiet?"
"The appeal of the mountains and quiet forests is their calmness," says Billy Kidd. "I hate it when music is played outdoors, except at contests and events. The sport should allow us to get away from everything that represents city and crowds, noise pollution and problems."
My own most memorable moments on skis have happened when I was able to feed my eyes and calm my nerves in the serene, silent fastness of high places. "We look upon them, and our nature fills with loftier images," a British poet once wrote of the mountains. What can the sound of music properly add? "A lot," the Baroness Maria von Trapp might have answered.
"Quite possibly something terrible," I say.
John Fry has skied on five continents, listening to everything from Andean flutes to Russian balalaikas. He served as SKI's Editor-In-Chief or Editorial Director from 1964 to 1980 and was the Founding Editor of Snow Country magazine.