The Blue Nile Falls spill out of the rain-drenched highlands of northern Ethiopia. Known in the region as tississat, “the water that smokes,” they are also the water that thunders. The roar of the falls greets you before you encounter the heavy mist that gives them their name. Further south, in the province of Borana, water is harder to come by. In a drought year, Oromo pastoralists travel for days with their camels and cattle to the watering holes as the ponds slowly shrivel into the red-brown earth. But deep below the ground water remains. The Oromo dig wells up to a hundred feet deep. Dozens of men work in the wells, passing buckets of water up the system of tiers until they reach the surface, where thirsty cattle drink from troughs. The men chant in time with their movement, and song, along with life-giving water, rises up out of the depths.
As a musician, I’ve always been fascinated by the sounds that composers choose to represent water. Whether the simple melodies of a Mendelssohn barcarolle or Debussy’s impressionist use of planing, there are certain sounds associated with rivers and oceans in the realm of Western music. At the same time, growing up abroad as the child of international aid workers, I found that this music didn’t always match up to the realities I was familiar with, whether those of drought, water-borne disease, or, more generally, the varied forms of human interaction with water.
After moving to the United States for college, I became interested in the disconnect between our perceptions of water as an unbridled force of nature and the reality that was reflected in our daily experience. We live in a country where the mightiest rivers are tamed by dams, and Jet-Skis rather than gondolas are the norm. What would these elements sound like in music? I decided to travel across America to listen and observe, with the eventual goal of composing a piece of my own exploring the interaction of humans and nature. A grant from the Scholarly Inquiry and Research at Emory (SIRE) program made this possible.
Rather than translating impressions into purely instrumental music, I approached the project as a digital patchwork of sorts; I would record what I heard and use the raw sounds as the fabric of the piece, using a computer to combine them and explore the qualities of the different sounds. I mapped out a route across the country, following the course of major rivers as much as possible.
The decision to travel by bicycle was an easy one. Going into this project with an environmental focus, it made sense to use a low-impact means of transportation. Equally important was the proximity to the natural world that bicycle travel affords. On a bike, you are subject to the sun, wind, and rain, and are open to a whole range of sensations and sounds that motorists cannot experience. Your speed is fast enough that you can observe changes in the landscape, but slow enough to allow you to fully appreciate their significance.
The trip lasted ten weeks from the Oregon coast to the beach on Tybee Island east of Savannah, Georgia. The route took me along the Columbia, Snake, Platte, Missouri, and Ohio rivers as well as past numerous tributaries, streams, and canals. I recorded anything and everything water-related. Waterfalls, springs, and brooks were obvious targets as examples of “natural” sounds; dams, bridges, ferries, and irrigation systems exemplified the human aspect. Sometimes the sound of water itself was inaudible, drowned out by passing cars or insects. Elsewhere it was indistinguishable from the dull white noise of machines or the wind. Rather than disregard these recordings, I made sure that they were incorporated into the final composition. Unidentifiable sounds may not be the most aesthetically pleasing, but they inform us of a reality to which we are normally desensitized.
The journey provided eye-opening lessons in historical geography. The earliest portion of the route, from Oregon to Montana, traced the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Relaxing at campsites a few evenings, I flipped through my father’s paperback edition of the party’s journals. At times the explorers’ descriptions exactly matched what I could see now, two hundred years later.
Elsewhere, the contrasts were stark. The expedition chronicled their difficulties navigating the treacherous Columbia River, which at present is a series of reservoirs ideal for the use of commercial barges and windsurfers. I meditated on the significance of these developments and how my recordings could illustrate the contrasts between then and now. The thundering of waterfalls had been superseded by the roar of a dam spillway; the smooth tumbling of a narrow watercourse had given way to the gentle washing-machine-like rumble of a fish ladder. It was not a matter of “beautiful” nature versus “ugly” human-driven development, but rather an exploration of how both aesthetics and knowledge of the source play into the interpretation of sounds.
This human-nature continuum is universal. Looking back on the project and its results, I’m often drawn to wondering what elements a similar project undertaken elsewhere would have reflected. Over the course of the last ten years, a hydroelectric power plant has been constructed at the Blue Nile Falls, siphoning off much of the water. The mist is now barely enough to spot a rainbow in, and the roar is muted. Yet in Borana, the singing wells operate as they have for five hundred years, the steady chants unchanged for centuries. Water has power in all its forms.
Leila Barker 06C has bachelor’s degrees in biology and music, and spent this summer in the Department of German’s study abroad program in Vienna. She then plans to move to Sudan to spend a year studying Arabic, her “unofficial minor” at Emory.