A Meditation on Evanescence
When Jen Peedom approached the Australian Chamber Orchestra to provide the music for her film River in 2020, the incipient strange tensions of the Pandemic were taking hold and all our live performance projects had evaporated. So we were delighted at the prospect of belonging to a project that was not reliant on humans in a communal listening environment.
River’s predecessor Mountain, also created in collaboration between Jen and the ACO, was made in more “normal” times. And as mountains play a significant role in shaping rivers, the film Mountain played an important role in forging River. However its structure and processes flowed in a way that were vastly different. While Mountain brims with energy and effervescence, River simmers and offers a meditation on evanescence.
Mountains appear immutable. Rivers are fraught and fragile and always changing.
During the process of structuring the sound for River, I had the privilege of travelling to the source of the Snowy River with one of Australia’s great rivermen and environmentalists, Huw Kingston (whom I thank for contributing a profound voice on River in this program). It was a trip initiated by Peter Shorthouse, our dear friend and patron who passed soon after. We camped high above Guthega by the Snowy River. In spite of the freezing rain and camping in an ostensible swamp, I was heady from the extraordinary purity of the experience, and as the sun shone on the Aussie snow the next day it felt at the time like it could serve as an inspiration for the film.
But diverging from my romanticised ideas of the high country, Guthega serves as an ideal symbol for the contemporary tale of the Snowy region. The narrative revolves around water — its ownership, the entities vying for control, and whether the river, the source of this vital resource, has a voice in the matter. (I’d also like to thank Warwick Johnson for bringing to my attention that the town of Marlo is the Mouth of the Snowy).
The rivers that course through our globe receive relatively little consideration. We have rushed to extract every possible drop of water from them for agricultural and domestic use, resulting in the construction of a series of large dams along their paths, while distinctive native fish species are displaced by invasive foreign types, replaced for their popularity by anglers. These actions have seen once-mighty rivers, responsible for sculpting iconic landscapes, dwindle to mere trickles over time, incapable of fulfilling their natural course to the sea. The plight of rivers serves as a potent illustration of environmental decline. Globally, rivers, lakes, and wetlands face threats from inadequately planned dam projects, pollution, habitat loss, sand mining, climate change, and the introduction of invasive species.
But it’s not all dam and gloom. Working on the music for this film infused our spirits during the Pandemic and Jen’s meditative essay on these delicate, beautiful and essential dynamic systems gives us hope for their, and our, future.
It takes an extraordinary amount of collaboration to bring a film such as this to life. Thanks to Jen and the team at Stranger Than Fiction, writer Robert Macfarlane and narrator Willem Dafoe. I also thank my musical collaborators on this film, Piers Burbruck de Vere, William Barton, and of course my colleagues in the ACO.
Miraculously, following two years of pandemic cancellations, we were able to take the project abroad in 2022 to perform in London’s Barbican Hall. And now, three years on from when the tour was originally slated, we are thrilled to finally bring River to our audiences across Australia, on a tour reliant upon humans gathering together in a communal listening environment.