Somewhere in my mother’s photo albums is a picture taken by my father of the teenage me standing on a viewing platform above the Dry Coulee Dam in central Washington State. Behind me, like a sublime landscape ready-made for a Zoom meeting backdrop, is a spectacular series of coved cliff faces over which the Columbia River roared many millenia before it was named by English-speaking conquerors in honor of an Italian navigator working for the King and Queen of Spain.
During the last Ice Age glaciers dammed up the river and formed vast lakes. Lake Missoula was the biggest. As the glaciers receded the icy barriers burst and reformed about 15,000 years ago causing enormous floods (the Missoula Floods) that excavated these gorges still further. As a result of these forces the Dry Falls are several miles wide, and the pools below, remnants of those ancient floods, seem tiny, inconsequential.
By the time the glaciers had gone, the river had found a new course. Twenty thousand years on, the New Deal dammed up the waters again, and made new lakes (small by comparison to primordial Lake Missoula) in the dessert. Just north of the Dry Falls, Banks Lake stretches behind Dry Falls Dam—tautological name since a dam shuts off a river. Except when letting the river flow briefly over their spillways, dams are just that —Dry Falls. Dams birth paradoxical names, too: the Grand Coulee was dry, now its upper section is a lake filled with waters impounded by the Grand Coulee Dam and pumped into the formerly dry Grand Coulee. All this is both more complicated and utterly miniscule, in comparison to the engineering feats of the glaciers and the floods.
Holder of a Ph.D. in hydrology and a masters in geology, my father explained all this to me, though I’m probably getting much of it wrong in this retelling forty years later. (My father was three years old when the Grand Coulee Dam was begun.)
The Dry Falls photo of me must have been taken in 1980. My father and I were on the way back from an organ competition I had played in in Spokane. I’d done well in the contest, and in the picture I’m smiling my photo smile—artificial like a dam but on a rather smaller scale.
Dams and organs were two fascinations of my youth. My knowledge, such as it is, of the former comes, as all this makes clear, from my father, who, I believe, is fascinated and appalled by them, dedicating a good part of his professional career as an E.P.A. scientist pushing for freeing the Columbia from at least some of its dams.
These two marvels of engineering—organs and dams—might seem disparate products of human ingenuity. Yet one can see, perhaps even hear, parallels. Though on differing scales, both can appear to their beholders as massive—sublime in the harnessed power of wind or water. The protruding ribs that mark out the spillways of the Grand Coulee Dam have the aspect of organ pipes spread across an implacable façade.
The wind pressure of the first Roman organs was stabilized by water. The instrument’s putative inventor, Ctesibius of Alexandria, was, among his many areas of expertise, a hydraulic engineer, the same profession as my father.
When water is released over the top of the dam thunderous music is made. There is a renaissance organ in the Villa d’Este in Tivoli in Rome that is powered by water. One could imagine a music division of the Army Corps of Engineers installing huge pipes in their dams that would be brought to sounding life by the rush of water and wind.
It’s probably no coincidence then that water politics led to my initial interest in the organ, a few years before that Dry Falls photo. EPA Region X in Seattle had enjoined the City of Seattle to build a new treatment facility to improve water quality in the Puget Sound. The City contested the order, and hired their own scientists to prove that Seattle was already in compliance with the Clean Water Act. One of the opposing environmental consultants working for the city got to talking about music with my father, who invited his would-be adversary to dinner at our home on Bainbridge Island. After dinner I had played some Bach on the piano for the visitor who was called Jerome Horowitz, a cousin of the great Russian pianist, Vladimir. Jerome asked me if I’d ever played any of Bach’s organ music. Beyond the notorious Toccata and Fugue in D minor, I don’t think I knew much, if anything, about Bach as organist. During his stint working for the City of Seattle (and long after), Jerome bought me some Archiv LPs of Bach’s music played on historic organs, and he eventually arranged for my first organ teachers.
Within a year of taking up the organ at the age of fourteen, I was learning major Bach works. One of the first large-scale chorale preludes that I tackled was Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (Christ our Lord came to the Jordan). The hymn’s text by Martin Luther describes the sacrament of baptism. In Bach’s setting, the austere melody sounds out in long notes played in the pedal. This elemental tune is like a river bed over which flows the endless, riffling sixteenth notes in the manuals. These are given mostly to the left hand but occasionally rise into the right hand. More often, however, the right hand has eighth-notes that seem to suggest—at least to me—larger rapids and sweeps of the river. The flow of this music—and the river it depicts—is complex, unpredictable, eddying here, racing there. It is filled with indefatigable joy but also unfathomable mystery.
In his second verse, Luther tells us that
God says and means, there is water
but not just water alone,
his holy word is also present
with the rich, measureless Spirit –
The water is not something to be exploited or harnessed: the river is alive.
Bach’s earliest extant manuscripts were copies made when he himself was a teenager. This youthful, yet assured calligraphy captures organ pieces by two older masters based on another river hymn, “An Wasserflüssen Babylon.” Bach improvised on the melody for a half-an-hour in 1720 during his most famous recital, an epoch-making event that took place in Hamburg, Europe’s greatest organ city. This chorale melody marks out Bach’s upward path to become the greatest organist of his or any other generation. His setting of the hymn exists in three versions. In the final one from his later years the standard-four part texture is pared down from the five parts of the earlier version, two of them played in the pedal. Partly because of this easing off of the physical demands on the organist, Bach’s last revision is the most mournful. These waters mirror the feelings of the enslaved Israelites:
By the waters of Babylon
There we sat with grief;
As we thought on Zion.
There we wept from the bottom of our hearts.
We hung up sorrowfully,
Our good organs and harps
On the trees of their pastures,
That are in their lands;
There we must endure much shame and humiliation
Each day from their hands.
Thus a melody and text describing the silencing of the organ marks Bach’s mastery of that very instrument and does so over the ebb and flow of the composer’s own life. For those not of devout Lutheran bearing, but rather animist leanings, Bach’s music can be heard to adapt its plaint to changing geographic conditions: the Tigris-Euphrates is now heavily dammed.
Bach’s Saxon rulers (also for a time Kings of Poland) came from the art and war loving Wettin family. This bunch liked to stage musical entertainments on the River Elbe as it flowed through the baroque splendor of Dresden, even hunting from their royal barks, blasting at stags driven into the waters. On their visits to Saxony’s university and commercial center of Leipzig, the city’s Director of Music – Bach – was called on to honor the royals with open-air music. Bach put much effort into these works, not least because he would petition these same monarchs for help in his own hassles with his civic employers. One such offering from the 1730s is Schleicht, spielende Wellen, und murmelt gelinde! The text begins by extolling the energy of the rivers ruled over by the august visitors:
Glide, playful waves and murmur softly!
No, rush quickly,
Making the banks and cliffs often resound.
The joy that stirs our waters,
Which moves every wave to surge,
Bursts through the dams,
Set by amazement and timidity.
Bach conjures these gentle, welcoming waters with undulating string and flute figures. But trumpets that resound midway through the idyllic instrumental introduction to the first chorus recall the bracing power of the rivers (Danube, Vistula, Elbe and Pleisse — the last thrown in because it was Leipzig’s river) personified in the piece because they are part of the Wettin dominion. Water power is a good thing: these rivers don’t dash hopes and boats, but lift them up. But dangers await. Dams can burst. The music surges in unpredictable ways—thirty-second notes spouting up to trouble the surface, knocking long held-notes from their perches on the banks.
In the second section of the opening chorus, when the singers turn to an unlikely “joy” at “floods” the music is buffeted by violent bursts that disrupt the continuous flow. The river leaps and lurches. When the dams burst, the waters part and rage, then coalesce as they rush again towards a dramatic cadence. Gentler currents prevail again for the reprise.
This jubilant live performance of the entire forty-minute work comes from The Netherlands Bach Society as part of that organization’s project to record “All of Bach.” Like Bach’s presentation of the piece in 1736, the Dutch ensemble’s concert was staged in an outdoor civic space. What the group plays and sings is uplifting to be sure, but also portentous when heard in in Holland. So much of the Low Lands are not just low but below sea level, its rivers flowing not in the land but on it, contained in their paths by dykes constructed by the famed Dutch hydro-engineers.
While it might be tempting fate to hymn the breaching of dams in a Low Country, the same music could be heard as a symphony of truth above Grand Coulee.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at email@example.com.)