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Watershed–noun: an area defined and connected by a subtle system of waters and their flow downward toward a common goal, emptying out into a body larger than all of its tributaries; a place and time in which things come together, e.g. a watershed moment: a defining moment in which the energy of many currents comes together decisively in such a way as to make underlying energies manifest.
When the Ann Arbor Symphony asked me to write a piece with a local theme, it struck me that the Huron River and its tributary streams form a very real connection between us in southeast Michigan–the river literally flows through all of our veins. The watershed seems like an auspicious metaphor to celebrate the anniversary of an important community arts organization, one that also works toward bringing us together and connecting us.
The Huron river itself flows past my house; I go to look at it every day. It’s been polluted, bridged, dammed, and damaged by runoff from residential development as well as industry. I’m told it might be one of the most studied rivers in the US, so it’s not normally associated with wildness and mystery. (Though it is now one of the cleanest urban rivers in the state.)
Yet at the swampy headwaters, even with the sound of the highway and the train whistles ringing in from the distance, the world seems to attend to itself. You can feel that it is an old place—the plants are mainly native, the trees venerable, and the feeling of life obeying its own nature is palpable. It’s hard to be in the presence of the first gathering of waters without feeling a touch of magic.
Here is where the first pools arise from darkness and come together, each one a little micro-climate with it’s own shape, color, temperature, depth, and rate of vibration. The connections between them are often invisible, and tiny rivulets that may or may not consolidate the flow twist off quietly in all directions. Once the water has reached the surface, it begins to settle, threading its way down through the muddy places and marshes. The many streams of the watershed all begin to converge, widening the river and making it powerful, slowly dropping in a great curving arc, eventually emptying into Lake Erie.
While it is difficult to describe the ways in which the natural world finds its way into something as abstract as music, the sense of movement and stillness, and the qualities of attention I have experienced in my meditations on the river system are the wet soil that the piece grew out of. The music begins with stylized birdcalls, then begins gently winding around small chordal centers, leaving some questions unanswered. The longing for union that we all carry in our hearts is part of the trajectory as well—as the music begins to flow, gathering strength and direction, its many streams joining together, pushing and yearning toward the rolling blue waters of the great lake beyond.
This piece was commissioned by the Ann Arbor Symphony in celebration of its 80th anniversary season. It is dedicated to the memory of Mary Beth Doyle, an inspired and joyous local environmentalist who died tragically soon, and whose life’s work was to protect our waters and our land from being poisoned.