Composing River Memory

I have always wanted to compose a work about the Niagara Falls. Countless times I have walked along the Niagara River, from the upstreams to the falls, and along the Lower Niagara Water Rapids. Water goes through a series of transformations during its journey downstream. Inspired by the falls and this idea of transformation, I started composing River Memory by first improvising at the piano.

I imagined a watery sound world. Intuitively, I heard a quiet, deep, and gentle sonority flowing out of emptiness. I imagined myself surrounded by an immersive soundscape, as if I was lying in darkness at the bottom of a deep river and just waking up. I began playing chords at the lower register of the piano with my left hand, then adding on top a simple melody with my right hand.

Gradually, I improvised the entire first three minutes of River Memory at the piano by expanding the chordal and melodic materials and blurring the boundaries between lines and textures. Sometimes lines emerge out of textures and become more recognizable to the ear, and sometimes they weave into textures.

After envisioning the work’s opening, I thought about the ending of the work. Usually, I compose linearly along the timeline of a piece and do not conceive the ending till reaching the final stage of composing, but in the case of composing River Memory I had a clear sense of how the work would end. I wanted a short and energetic peroration that would create a sense of “still happening” exhilaration.

To arrive at this final peroration musically, I decided to create two points of full orchestral arrival as signposts prior to the ending, functioning as smaller and more localized climactic points prior to the final climax. The two signposts exhibit different characters: music comes to a burst of joy and brightness that rapidly calms down at the first signpost, and the second signpost is filled with tension, prolonged by dissonances and and turbulent dynamics. Having music arrive at and move away from these signposts was like taking a journey down a river, coming to two major scenic viewpoints along the way before reaching the final destination.

While composing this work, I started contemplating the connection between transformations of water and human. As an immigrant, my cultural identity has been transformed over the years. The sight of the Niagara Falls has always reminded me of where home is, no matter where I am. It reminds of a Canadian identity: being culturally inclusive, open-minded, resilient and free.

Blog Written by: Alison Yun-Fei Jiang

Don’t miss your opportunity to hear River Memory performed by Esprit Orchestra at our upcoming concert:

Sunday January 20, 2019

8:00pm Concert | 7:15pm Pre-Concert Chat | Koerner Hall,
TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning,
273 Bloor St. W.