A River Runs through Music Straight to the Heart and Soul

by Mark Miles

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably realized I love both rivers and music. This goes back to my childhood, as do most things that are deeply felt and persistently cherished through life. My dad was the one who introduced me to my love for rivers, which was the logical result of our fishing trips on the weekend and during summer vacation. My mom was the one who introduced me to my love for music, which she cultivated by encouraging me to sing in my church choir and listen to classical music whenever possible. Because my parents divorced when I was seven years old, the two passions to which they exposed me were stunted and never fully developed. So it was left to me to remedy the situation, which I only began to do a few years ago, in my early thirties, when I rediscovered my love of classical music through composing and my love of rivers through hiking.

Since that time, I’ve been enamored with the idea of composing music that embodies the spirit of the river. I’m not the first person to have this idea though. Many classical composers have had the same idea, though they’ve adopted different approaches to fulfill it. I won’t be tackling the entire history of classical music regarding rivers in this article, but I will nonetheless be covering four of my favorite works which embody rivers with beauty and majesty, composed by four men of different nationalities and disparate backgrounds who found common ground in their love for the rivers they knew best.

Richard Wagner is one of the most famous operatic composers of all time, renowned especially for his Ring Cycle, a tetralogy of music-dramas about power, corruption, virtue, destruction, and redemption. It follows the story of the Ring of the Nibelungs, a powerful artifact, crafted from gold stolen from the Rhine River, that confers world domination on anyone who possesses it. In the process it gives the synopsis of a heavily mythologized German history and paints an unforgettable tone-picture of the land surrounding the Rhine River. The Ring Cycle is easily the most ambitious and successful work of Wagner’s career, taking fifteen hours over four days to be performed in total and being the product of extravagant funding by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who nearly bankrupted his country in the process. In short the Ring Cycle is a mammoth in every sense.

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My first serious introduction to the Ring Cycle was through a “Best of Wagner” disc which I bought when I was ten years old. I had a passing familiarity with “The Ride of the Valkyries” from numerous movies and televisions series, but otherwise the Ring Cycle was a foreign country to me. Nevertheless this snippet, “Dawn and Siegfred’s Rhine Journey,” absolutely enraptured me. In it, the hero Siegfried bids farewell to his beloved Brünnhilde and sets sail down the Rhine River to make a name for himself in the wider world, thereby forgetting his beloved and assuring his own destruction. It’s intoxicating stuff, and though I didn’t know the story behind it when I heard it for the first time, I nonetheless knew in that moment that I loved classical music.

“The Moldau” is easily one of the most iconic works of classical music dealing with the tone-painting of a river. It comes from a larger body of work, My Fatherland, by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, and it paints a sonic picture of the Moldau River over its course from the Black Mountain in the Bohemian Forest to its confluence with the Elbe River in Melnik, Czech Republic. The music is thoroughly evocative, conjuring the play of water, land, wildlife, and humanity through its length. From this work I learned that pride in one’s country can enrich the sense of devotion to the land when effectively applied.

Franz Schubert was renowned in his own time for his composition of chamber works that frequently found their way into pubs and drinking halls. This was no different with his song “The Trout,” which he later incorporated into a string quintet by the same name. The work sparkles with the freshness of a clear mountain stream — which may have inspired the setting for the piece — even two centuries after its inception, and it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see in your mind’s eye both the trout and the river of which the trout is a part. The mellifluous vivacity at the heart of this piece confirms that — while many tone-paintings regarding rivers can be melancholy — there’s also plenty of room for sunshine.

“The Swan of Tuonela,” on the other hand, is the song of melancholy incarnate. Telling the story of a mythical swan who patrols the Tuonela River surrounding the Finnish Isle of the Dead, it evokes the longing, sadness, and tenderness of a being who’s seen it all, being witness to every soul that passes from the Land of the Living to the Isle of the Dead. Though the piece is ostensibly about a swan, the river is palpable in the supple string textures that provide the background to the voice of the swan. The composer Jean Sibelius is more widely known for his work, “Finlandia,” which was used as a rallying cry for Finnish independence from the Russian Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, but “The Swan of Tuonela” is the gem in the crown that cements the surpassing excellence of Sibelius’s musical legacy.

At the end of the day, however, all of this music is just music unless we, as listeners and creators, take the next step by allowing the music to move us to get to know the rivers where we live. In my case, the river that I’ve been drawn to get to know is the Eno River, which flows through the town of Hillsborough, North Carolina, very near where I live. The Eno has a spirit and a voice too, just like the Moldau, the Rhine, and the Tuonela, and in my composition I aspire to one day be able to capture it and share it with you.

If you love the land where you live, I urge you as well to find some way to honor the river (or lake or watershed) that flows through your town and gives life to you and many others, whether through photography, painting, sculpture, composition, writing, or some other creative outlet. While it may not seem to be much, it will deepen your own appreciation for the true essentials in life and will give others a model of how to establish a relationship with the river that flows through their own backyard. After all, every river gives us so much; it’s time for us to give back.

Image Credits:

1. The River of Life (William Blake, circa 1805)

2. The Eno Shines in May (Mark Miles, 2017)

References:

Der Ring Des Nibelungen,” Wikipedia, accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Farrington, Iain, “Richard Wagner: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Ferrebee, Wayne, “The Swan of Tuonela,” Ferrebeekeeper, accessed June 3rd, 2017.

Götterdämmerung,” Wikipedia, accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Vltava,” Wikipedia, accessed June 3rd, 2017.

Turning Paradise into a Parking Lot

by Mark Miles

It’s entirely possible that the National Park Service will be eliminated in the foreseeable future. Of course it’s the last thing I would ever want, and it’s one of the worst things that could happen to many wildlands in the United States. There are nonetheless a whole myriad of issues which are threatening the survival of our national parks: 1) increasing corporate interference in the political process is transforming the ethic of government from public service to private profit; 2) declining revenues from decreasing rates of taxation on the wealthy are systematically impoverishing governmental coffers; 3) a ballooning national debt is providing lucrative opportunities for multinational creditors to effectively subordinate national sovereignty; and 4) continued disaffection from a populace alienated and preoccupied by digital technologies is allowing all of this to occur unabated. In short, the days of the National Park Service are numbered.

This has prompted me to start thinking about what my life would be like without those little pieces of paradise called parks. While the ones I regularly visit are managed by the state of North Carolina, they will also be affected by the dissolution of the NPS if and when it occurs. If nothing else, loss of our national parks would set a precedent for the expendability of parks in general and would increase the likelihood that state governments would consider liquidation of their own parks as a short-sighted solution to the increasing issue of budgetary shortfalls at every level of government. This could spell the demise of many state parks, including Eno River State Park in Durham, North Carolina. Without a park designation to protect this land, it’s entirely likely that it would be decimated in the name of profit, reduced to a hollow shell of its former beauty and vibrance.

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With that in mind, I arrived at Eno River State Park a few weeks ago to explore Cox Mountain Trail for the first time. (I only discovered Eno River State Park last summer, so I’m still becoming acquainted with it.) After parking and joining the trailhead, I found myself confronted by the sight of several trees which had been chopped down alongside the trail. There was no apparent reason for it, but it gave the tiniest of impressions of what might occur if Eno River State Park ceased to exist. I don’t know if and when that will happen, but I do know this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a strip mall.

After crossing the suspension bridge leading to Cox Mountain Trail, I passed a small historic cabin in the woods and noticed the land around me gaining elevation with every passing step. I rounded several curves and twists, noticing more and more visibility as I continued my upward transit. Before too long, I came to the highest point on Cox Mountain Trail, where I found this sight of the surrounding land. Though the powerlines obstructed my view, the scope and beauty of the land were breathtaking. From this point I could see for miles eastward, and I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a subdivision.

From the eastward view, I followed Cox Mountain Trail through woodland until the trail began to descend. I hadn’t realized how high I was prior to this, but with the slope of the land in front of me it was clear to see that the estimate of 270 feet in elevation, stated on the park website, was reasonably accurate. The adjacent hillside loomed larger with every downward step, and it wasn’t long before I was surrounded by the shade produced by the late afternoon sun falling behind the opposite hill. Once the trail had reached the level of the river once again, I noticed small creekbeds converging toward the Eno. One of those creekbeds was mostly dry but provided a nice view which I promptly photographed. As I did so, I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a convenience store.

With the sound of rushing water in the distance, I knew the Eno wasn’t far away. In less than five minutes I was once again hiking the banks of my favorite river, looking for any and every angle from which to capture its beauty. The Eno is fairly shallow at this point, and it wasn’t unrealistic for me to navigate my way over stones in the river to try to find a good view. Unfortunately, despite wading a third of the way into the river, the photos I ended up with were less than stellar. Nonetheless I did manage to find a decent view of the old dam, graced by the late afternoon sun. Soaking in the beauty of the moment, I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a highway.

From the ruins of the old dam I followed the course of the trail on its eastward circuit. Soon enough the trail veered away from the Eno and made its way back into the surrounding woodland, where I found a rich canopy of oaks, beeches, and pines on every side. The trail continued through the woods for a another mile, providing me ample opportunity to inspect my surroundings. Around this time, I stopped to look through the branches overhead and saw the rotund shape of the moon in waxing gibbous phase. Stopping in my tracks to take a photo, I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a factory farm.

Trekking through the woods for another half-mile, I passed several small streams and creekbeds before I found myself at the suspension bridge which provides access to Cox Mountain. The sunlight had dimmed considerably and provided much more even illumination at this time, the hour before dusk. I found the perfect angle to frame the bridge and considered how lucky I was to have such a beautiful place within thirty minutes’ driving distance from where I live. Likewise I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of an overpass.

Finally I crossed the suspension bridge, feeling the gentle swaying of the wood planks beneath me with every footstep. While it wasn’t the most stable surface, it provided a lovely view of the Eno to the north and the south. There were no other hikers in sight, so I had the bridge to myself, which allowed me to take as long as I wanted to get a satisfactory shot. Gazing into the serenely rippling waters of my favorite river, I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a parking lot.

Image Credits:

1. Trail of Shadows (Mark Miles, 2017)

2. Glimpse into the Distance (Mark Miles, 2017)

3. Blood-Red Creekbed (Mark Miles, 2017)

4. Remains of the Dam (Mark Miles, 2017)

5. Moon Embraced by Branches (Mark Miles, 2017)

6. Suspension Bridge Beckons (Mark Miles, 2017)

7. Brown February Eno (Mark Miles, 2017)

References:

Hansman, Heather. “Congress just made it easier to sell off federal land, including national parks.The Guardian via Business Insider. Accessed February 21st, 2017.

Mitchell, Joni. “Big Yellow Taxi.” Ladies of the Canyon, 1970.

Rowland, Jenny. “GOP Platform Proposes to Get Rid of National Parks and National Forests.Think Progress. Accessed February 21st, 2017.

Schlanger, Zoë. “What Can a Donald Trump Presidency Do to National Parks?Newsweek. Accessed February 21st, 2017.