Recently while sorting through my soundtrack collection, I came across an old and beloved piece of music. Titled “Baba Yetu“, it was the feature song for Civilization 4, an entry in a popular strategy game series that came out in 2004. While humming the tune and falling into the timesink that is Wikipedia, I learned that the song is a Swahili translation of the Lord’s Prayer, that it was the only videogame song in history to win a Grammy, and that the composer Christopher Tin‘s latest creation was a classical crossover album around the theme of water called “The Drop That Contained the Sea“.
“The message [of the album] is that, essentially, in the coming century water, and water management, is going to be the most important global issue to all people and across all countries,” Tin says, “Between melting Antarctic ice sheets and rising ocean levels and droughts and increased devastation from hurricanes and so forth, water is literally going to shape the way we draw our maps.”
Needless to say the project immediately piqued my interest, and upon an initial listen I found myself captivated by Tin’s latest vision. So in (late) honour of World Water Day, I would like to feature the album as an Ekostory into the songs and stories that humans have woven on this most precious of resources.
“What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”
– The last line of Cloud Atlas
The Drop That Contained the Sea comprises ten songs, each sung in a different language and performed in a specific vocal tradition. Most are directly inspired by one phase of water or another, ranging from snow to mist to clouds to rain. For those who are musically inclined, Tin also noted in his album foreword that Drop “contains all seven notes of a major scale – four descending and three ascending – mirroring the flow of water through our world, and representing the vast ocean of melodic possibility contained with a single scale.”
The following won’t be a standard Ekostory because I’m not a musician and am unqualified to do a critical analysis of each song. (There are others that have done a good job on that already) But as a writer, I wanted to take the opportunity to create something that connects with this unique work, to do it honour. While listening to the album on shuffle, I wrote ten loosely connecting pieces, one for each song. Some are short reaction pieces, while others veer off into unexpected directions. Like water, the flow within and between Tin’s songs is subtle and dynamic, forceful and yielding, but always endlessly complex. I sought to capture these shifts, and in the end the creative exercise proved both fun and rewarding. You can read them as accompaniments to a sampling of Tin’s work below or to the entire album available on his personal page.
1. Water Prelude
A gentle and warm introduction. The melody builds, rises, soars above to pan down over some central source, secluded headwaters, hidden from view. The tongue sung is Proto-Indo-European, a reconstructed language ancestral to Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and all to follow.
Discord grows. Voices break out, each sounding to disrupt the flow, branching off into their own directions, channels, rivulets. Yet the word spoken remains the same, water, always water, devoted to the one drop contained with all others…
2. Passou o Verão (Summer Has Gone)
… Something has been lost, a time, a past, a memory that flows clear out of reach, never to return. The lyrics, sourced from a sonnet and sung in Portuguese, paints a landscape that lingers with residual warmth, but will soon grow grey and chill. In between pristine solo notes I see a mountain creek’s silver thread winding down a valley in the shadows. The water will never run as pure again. One can never truly come home…
3. Waloyo Yamoni (We Overcome the Wind)
… The rains have arrived. With each drop of moisture the cracks in the hardpan soften. Soon planted seeds in the parched earth will swell with life and spool forth tender threads. Soon fields will flush with green and granaries will overflow. As people rush to seek shelter from the downpour, one farmer stands out to looks up at the sky, his tears and the raindrops mixing as one.
Everyone sings the rainmaking litany: Children, women, young men, the elders. All celebrate in Lango that things are well. Did the song bring the rain or did the rain call forth the songs? What matters in these uncertain times is that there is hope once more…
4. Iza Ngomso (Come Tomorrow)
… Its job done, water returns to the sky, climbing higher with each violin note and Xhosa tongue click. I swathe myself in the rising vapours, and on the journey back up the music tells me to look down, down to lush and verdant pastures, down at a hawk with spread wings riding the thin crisp air. In between notched feathers spread like lean fingers I spy the blue-green glimmer of river water. Nearby, hot air balloons bob alongside, and the wind carries us over gulfs and bays, across forests and desert sands. One day man, mist, and bird shall all return to earth. But not today…
5. Temen Oblak (Dark Clouds)
… Currents wedge tight against a front along squall lines. Clouds compress against an invisible ceiling, hardening into the flat top of an anvil. It is not quite time for Mjolnir to sound, for this story is sung in Bulgarian, and the legends of Old Norse are yet to come. Far below, a vast plain upon which sun and sky play scattertricks with shade and light. Creatures and people, sensing the charged tension in the air, scurry to and fro in preparation.
One drop leads the charge towards the earth. Down and down the rains fall, first soft in sheets but soon grows loud enough to drown out thought. The density of harmonies and rhythms is torrential, washing away all along their paths. Then, a reprieve. A shaft of light pierces the cloud cover above where the plains skirt the hills. The calm is beautiful but brief. More rain pours down, harder and louder. Another gap opens above the borderlands by the forest, closes.
The storm clouds move on to the mountains, leaving plains refreshed. As water droplets smash against rock and dirt, releasing the oils in the plants and soils. The scent of rain mingles with the scent of life. Petrichor is the name given for these momentary perfumes….
6. Tsas Narand Uyarna (The Heart of Snow)
… It is still too dark to see out the cabin, and the wood stove fire has long since died down. But sitting in the darkness she could still feel the sphere of heat, hear the light faint sound, the susurrus of whirling snow from the first autumn blizzard.
The cup feels warm in her hands. She takes a sip of tea to soothe her throat and begins to sing, clear piercing notes in Mongolian. Come morning everything will be white and the mountain roads will be impassable. She will finally have the time and solitude to practice. In the afternoon she goes out snowshoeing and finishes a novel she had been reading on and off for years. In the evening she eats the leftover roast from the night before while rewatching a favourite 90’s teen comedy for the seventh time. As she heads outside to haul in a load of firewood, she hears an owl’s call, three notes, the last one descending, clear over the snow still drifting down in fat flakes. Once inside she begins again: “The mountains are at peace, adorned by a helmet of silver mist…”
7. Haktan Gelen Şerbeti (The Drink of God)
… Come spring, one drop of mountain meltwater will join with a million to form a stream, and the stream will meld with a hundred tributaries to make a river, and the river will flow across ten lands before reaching the sea, and the sea will swell to quench one earth’s thirst.
In time, the drop will return to land as the tip of a wave, and the wave will crash upon rock cliffs to throw up a bitter spray, and the spray will land inside a secret cave where the ocean rises and falls to sound a hollow thunder, and out of that thunder will emerge a phrase that in Turkish means “glory to be God!”, and that God will be one who foresaw the fates of all, where they formed and how they fell, and he shall be worthy of awe and praise for all the afterdays. Yet even he knows he is powerless to stop the drop from its destiny…
8. Seirenes (Sirens)
… The sailor wakes on the beach just above the wrackline. Rubbing warmth back into his numbed hands, he recalls once more the shouting and screaming of men’s voices, the groan of wooden beams and the snap of the mast. The gunpowder bang as the ship struck shoal. In the turmoil and confusion he thought he could hear a woman singing. Then, silence.
The grey mist lifts. Surveying the coast he can make out the outlines of other ships, their broken hulls beached like dead whales, their cargo spilling out of gashed flanks. Shivering, he strips off his wet clothes and makes his way towards the wreckage. Along the way he gathers pieces of driftwood for a fire, but something looks wrong with the pile ahead. The pieces were too uniform, too neatly stacked. Too white. He picks up a shard of bone to find it covered with gnaw marks made by little teeth. In the distance he hears the song once again. This time, there are four voices…
9. Haf Gengr Hriðum (The Storm-Driven Sea)
… Fuelled by the sea’s rage the hurricane wails, laying waste to all in its path. Its gusts will melt Niflheim, extinguish Muspelheim, and rend the foundations of Asgard to reap the old Norse gods themselves. All that will remain is the Ginnunggap, the void from which all arose and shall endure after all nine realms have perished. The storm sings the dirge of death. Ragnorok is nigh, and all shall fall…
10. Devipravaha (The Goddess River)
… For a while. No darkness lasts forever. One day you find yourself floating down the river in a canoe, slant morning rays revealing the water’s golden wrinkles. Gentle currents of warm woodwinds and sweet Sanskrit bear you downstream as you survey the glory of the world, paddle in hand. A kingfisher flits into view, diving down to retrieve a minnow in its bill, where it will thrash the air and cast rose-hued droplets from its silver perishing self. Fishing bats dance across shadows cast by overhanging trees. A ripe fig falls.
As time slows, you will regard these events circling a greater creation with the eyes of a voyager who looks upon a cherished place for the last time, seeing it all whole and real and dear even as it slips away. Only in dreams will these events remain, reborn as drops falling into the mind’s ocean, rippling out-and-out…
The Drop That Contained The Sea is available for purchase on Christopher Tin’s page.
- Change, Choice, Connection: Cloud Atlas
- Nature and Music: The Work of John Luther Adams
- On Whimwhams and Wild Whats: Amy Leach’s Things That Are
Featured image by Roger McLassus from Wikimedia Commons.
Hi Isaac: There is nothing as important or worth writing about as water. Thank you for this thoughtful reminder….
Well done! Regards, Muriel Kauffmann
Hi Isaac: Neat work. ‘The Drop that Contained the Sea’ is well worth reading. I’m passing it on. Keep writing. You do it well. Regards, Muriel Kauffmann
Thanks Muriel. Hope you’re well!
Beautiful writing as always. I traveled with you and all those water stories so real and alive!
Thanks for reading 🙂 It was a fun piece to write about!
Janine and I have a son in the Angel City Chorale, who performed “The Drop That Contained the Sea” conducted by Tin last summer in England. The Chorale was joined by a singing group from EU who had been preparing as well. Christopher Tin directed a full orchestra with the chorales, and we were able to be in the audience for two of the three performances. The work is a powerful tribute to one of earth’s elements, which streams through the centuries and which cycles and recycles while humans do everything they can to spoil. It was a moving experience for me. My son was visibly moved, too, by the musical experience of performing with a sea (pond) of fellows. I discovered your blog by accident, and the experience came rushing back. I will read your thoughts on ecology. Serendipity.
That must have been an amazing experience – thank you for sharing that story with me. I’ve been thinking about both water and music lately, about how they are both so vital and unifying. Perhaps it’s time for a relisten.
Thanks for reading.