There is little more conducive to an extended, free-flowing conversation than finding yourself floating leisurely down a sparkling river on a warm, sunny day. Nevertheless, I find one of the most desired attributes in a canoe or raft partner is the ability to sense intuitively when to maintain perfect silence and just let the sounds of the river speak for themselves. Wanting to accord the same respect to my listeners, I’m tempted to let “River Runs” simply speak for itself – knowing it will address each listener in a completely unique way and with much more eloquence than I am likely to muster here. Nevertheless, at the premier of the 1st Movement of River Runs held during the gala celebration of the opening of the University of South Florida’s new School of Music building; I discovered audiences seemed to relish the bit of insight I provided into the work’s conception and they let me know how much it enhanced their enjoyment of it. So, I’ll offer a spoiler alert. For those who prefer a single-person kayak to a guided raft or who simply want the experience of their first trip to be as pristine as possible . . . . . . I understand. Meet you at the take out point!
Having previously written an extended work (Confluences – for Trumpet, Trombone, & String Quintet)) also deriving inspiration from rivers, I’ve taken to describing myself on occasion as a “life-long river rat”. If home is where the heart is that’s a pretty accurate statement. But the sad reality is, following an adolescence filled with white-water canoeing, my contact with rivers as an adult (more frequently on rafts now) has been sporadic at best. Yet when I have ventured forth in recent years it’s as if I had hardly missed a stroke. Indeed, some of my most treasured memories as a parent have taken place as I’ve introduced each of my children to “life on the river” and we’ve tackled some of America’s most iconic waters.
Gratefully, the river seems not to hold my absences against me. And, if my paddling technique has slipped a bit, my appreciation for the complex, powerful, and mysterious force that is the river has only increased over time. I am inspired by it, I am thrilled by it, I am awed by it. Yet the relationship is a complicated and often uneasy one – swirling eddies and whirlpools, submerged rocks, hidden holes, treacherous currents, and murky depths disguising the river’s fickle nature. Powerful rapids require instantaneous decisions with irrevocable outcomes (having personally wrapped an aluminum canoe around a rock to see it split in half!). Most significant, however, is the river’s absolutely relentless, unsentimental flow downstream. With each bend in the river, I can’t help be chagrined by what I’m being forced to abandon prematurely, mesmerized by the new vistas opening up before me, and humbled by the unknown which awaits around the next bend.
Each movement of River Runs is associated with a specific American river (or two). With several designated as “Wild and Scenic”, this very diverse group of waterways certainly contains some of my favorite “runs” of the past 40+ years. Yet their selection was due more to the characteristics or images they represented (and I was eager to portray musically), than any attempt to compile a personal “best-of” list.
It’s not uncommon for a canoe/raft trip to begin in the very early AM – the river valley’s morning fog muting all but the water lapping gently at the river bank, while stars, only partially obscured by the fog, wink out one by one in the gradually lightening sky. The prologue, Dawn at River’s Edge (the most overtly impressionistic moment in the Concerto) attempts to portray that scene as the paddlers wait anxiously to embark on their adventure – the light current at the put in spot deceiving no one. Downstream awaits. Unknown. . .the path quickly lost in fog – downstream is both foreboding yet alluring . . . . . and utterly inevitable.
Mvmt. I – Bound Away is linked to a pair of rivers in West Virginia – the Greenbrier and the New. One of my most memorable river adventures took place on these two when I was still a Boy (Explorer) Scout. The smaller Greenbrier was perfect for canoeing and I vividly recall a brilliant, warm, early summer morning in which the sun lit up the ripples of the broad, shallow shoals as if they were chandelier crystals. Eventually the Greenbrier dumps into the more powerful New River. And shortly thereafter the New drops precipitously into an ancient gorge that has some of the largest whitewater in the eastern U.S. Travel by canoe was no longer possible, so we built a raft made of over 50 truck inner tubes lashed together with green wood and rope!! Piling 13 or 14 of us on the raft, it was slow and quite ungainly – but, amazingly sturdy and durable! As we entered the gorge and approached a set of large rapids, I remember a startled fisherman dropping his line upon seeing this odd sight only to begin frantically motioning for us to get to the side of the river – clearly confident the rapids spelled our doom. Not at all sure he was incorrect, the noise of the approaching whitewater already deafening, we nervously looked to our leader for an indication of how to proceed. He just smiled and shouted back, “Forward!” The river really didn’t offer us another choice.
The title obviously alludes to an embarkation point (or “put in spot”). In addition, it’s borrowed from the lyrics of the American folk classic “Shenandoah” which, though thoroughly transformed and re-envisioned, serves as the primary melodic source material for the second movement (but is only obliquely referenced here).
Mvmt. II – My passion has always been for whitewater, but residing in Florida for the past 30+ years has introduced me to an entirely different sort of waterway. Dark Waters, Slow Waters pays homage not only to the Hillsborough River (which gracefully flows literally minutes from my home); but to all the spring-fed streams that lazily snake their way through dense, sub-tropical canopies of oak dripping with Spanish moss, Cypress swamps, and, in the Everglades, sometimes miles and miles of grass. Laden with birds and lush plant life, paddling these rivers is atmospheric and beautiful but a very different and often unsettling experience. A tranquil, clear-cut waterway may quickly give way to a broad, overgrown expanse of water/swamp in which no discernable path, landmarks, or current seems there to guide you. Obstacles appear everywhere: from downed trees and overhanging branches that threaten to snag you, tip you over, or drop spiders and snakes into your boat, to the lurking gators that supposedly aren’t a threat (but I’m still givin’ ‘em a lot of leeway!). It doesn’t take long to begin feeling confused, insignificant, and utterly lost in such an environment.
Mvmt. III – Chutes and Wave Trains are common features of rapids that frequently are also a great source of fun for boaters. A chute is simply a narrow waterway in which a larger body of water is funneled . . . . .creating a strong, fast current often combined by a precipitous drop. Wave Trains are strings of large (usually benign) waves at the end of a rapid that provide a great roller coaster like ride. In addition, experienced kayakers often seek out large waves in which they can “surf” while novices and experts alike take delight in leaps off boulders, raft “wars” (someone always goes swimming!), and floating rapids sans boat (but with a life jacket!). The Chattooga (Chatuga) River, sitting astride the South Carolina & Georgia borders, not only has many such opportunities for water play, it’s rugged beauty and thrilling rapids were utilized in the filming of Deliverance.
Mvmt. IV – Overnight river expeditions often break early enough in the afternoon to allow for plenty of time to relax beside the river, fish, or take side hikes and explore the surrounding area. Through such hikes I’ve discovered waterfalls, thermally heated pools, petroglyphs, abandoned cabins/ranches, and abundant flora and fauna. Typically, however, I tend to hike up – up to the highest point readily accessible. The view is often inspirational and commanding. And I not only get a better sense of the flow of the river – where I’ve been and where I’m going – but a stunning and layered view of countless other ridges as well. Ridges that seem to beckon but, most likely, I will never visit. Ridges that are always just A Ridge Away.
While all of the other movements were written expressly for this Concerto, this one was adapted from an earlier project – Jack Wilkins’ “Ridgelines” CD. The inspiration and significance really didn’t change. Its just that his ridges were those of the southern Appalachian mountains – hazy blue ridges that seem to extend to infinity; whereas I chose to focus on a side hike taken with my son while rafting the Green River in Utah as well as an earlier backpack trip with my daughters down to the Colorado River in the heart of the Grand Canyon.
Mvmt. V – The Salmon River has been nicknamed “The River of No Return” and is considered some of the finest whitewater rafting in the country. While floating through the largest federally designated wilderness area in the lower 48 States you enter the second deepest canyon in the continental U.S. – 1,000 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon. However, it was the desire to find a navigable passageway through the Rockies, not the stunning scenery that initially attracted Lewis & Clark to the Salmon. Only, between the treacherous currents and sheer rock walls they found no way of traversing back upstream, hence its nickname.
The movement’s title, Perhaps the Better Claim is taken from the second stanza of Robert Frost’s “A Road Not Taken”, a poem that continues to both haunt and inspire me. Though Frost’s traveler is on foot in the poem, I found him in my raft throughout much of the composition of this work. While I wasn’t always comfortable with that, I felt I had to acknowledge his presence.
A Final Word – Although I had a framework, a couple of motives, and a general concept of where I wanted to head with this piece; I had barely begun composing in earnest when my father passed away in February of 2010. While it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what impact that had on this work, I know it did . . . . . . . . . Even as a grandfather myself (albeit a very youthful one!!), there is a surprising sense of rudderlessness with the loss of both parents (my mother passed away some years ago). But then, a canoe doesn’t have a rudder until you dip the paddle in the river and start paddling.