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"We Are All Mozart"

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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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Water. Its significance in music is sometimes mentioned, rarely celebrated.

Composers move to water -- especially the ocean -- for serenity and the ability to concentrate, but what does water provide that a country meadow or quiet room does not? The sound and the smell of the sea? The horizon untroubled by land? Perhaps a link to that atavistic part of the flesh and spirit, feeling the neck for the missing gills?

Thoreau may have had his Walden pond, but composers look out at the warm Atlantic, the restless Pacific, the magnificent Mediterranean, and the great rivers and lakes. Kaija Saariaho and Alex Shapiro have both spoken of the Pacific in particular, Saariaho of watching the beach and the surfer boys, and Shapiro posting photos of her environment in "Notes from the Kelp". Despite being surrounded by it, English composers have sought the sea through the centuries, and Americans celebrated their Great Lakes and mighty Mississippi.

From impressionists and romantics, from new complexitist Richard Barrett's Unter Wasser to new surromanticist Beth Anderson's Water Strider Courrente, and from Handel's music to be played on the water through Britten's Sea Interludes to Virgil Thomson's The River, water images have been submerged inside sound.

Water is also mystical. Batya Weinbaum speaks of it in her "Making Music with Matriarchal Consciousness" and her Music of the Sea and Howl Brook. There's my own Plasm over ocean with the libretto by David Gunn, and The Private Sea of Dreams that was created by members of Musica Elettronica Viva. How about Eve Beglarian's Water Tango or so many of Gwyneth Walker's compositions. Hamza el Din's famous Waterwheel and Emily Doolittle's Four Pieces About Water. David Ott's lush Water Garden and Ann Southam's Boat, River, Moon and Bun-Ching Lam's Mountain Clear Water Remote. Water Colors by Elizabeth Falconer and Sea of Reeds by Judith Shatin. Rainsnout composed by Allison Cameron and Yvette Perez's Sea Cow. And for contrast, even Bill Gilliam's The River Styx and Mark Bartlett's Burning Water.

Composers have imitated water. Beethoven's Scene by the Brook and Wagner's imposing Rhine leitmotif are the most obvious along with that knockoff of the latter, Richard Rodgers and his Victory at Sea. Marjorie Ryerson collected water music in the eponymous book Water Music, together with photographs. Composers Libby Larsen and Jane Ira Bloom and Randy Newman and Sarah Chang are among those who make appearances in it.

Water sources are found throughout electroacoustic music, from untampered oceans and streams in soundwalks through highly abstracted compositions. Granular synthesis often sounds like splashes and rills of water in an unknown land/soundscape.

One imagines the overall motion as being intrinsic to music -- the rocking ships and the changing of tides. Water contains regular rhythms of dripping and lapping, irregular ones of waves, and complex polyrhythms of the babbling brook (which also makes an unceasingly liquid tumble of pitches). But those motions are not like heartbeats, insistently regular. They surprise. They suggest. They evoke. But unlike the heart, they do not throw us into death's jaws at their absence, but rather cause a gentle ebbing away of the spirit.

And yes, those pitches. Complex white and brown and pink noise out of which melodies seem to arise unbidden, and that babbling brook whose pitches are more naturally elegant than Xenakis's stochastics. And reflections and ripples and glints and inspirations outside the sonic world itself join with the imagination. They too surprise & suggest & evoke.

There's even a composer named Water Violet.

Today I was on the water, and it once again stirred that mystery below the surface, offering strength and serenity.

Lake Champlain and the sky

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