Date of Submission
Academic Programs and Concentrations
Project Advisor 1
Water Cycle: A Song Cycle for a Hudson River Railroad Dream-Map
By the start of senior year, I had already begun writing the album-to-be and I knew that it was going to be about maps. I spent the summer thinking about my songwriting style and habits and I tried to put my finger on what it is that starts a song for me. I knew that memory had a lot to do with it. For me, remembered places usually turn in into fragments of stories, as if they should belong to some larger narrative but are missing either characters or dialogue or action. In my creative process, memory is an overwhelmingly visual record of places and things. In my music, there is no shortage of imagery, and the imagery of my songs is simple. There is a funny truth to this role: when a memory is reduced down into very basic elements, using simple language is somehow more useful in illustrating it. It is almost as if a memory can be better communicated by letting the listener remember it as if it were their own — a three-dimensional object, very specific in size and shape but with smooth, plain sides that give ample space on every surface to jump away from and into one’s imagination.
I like maps a lot — I figure it’s because you can look at just one small piece and imagine a whole story for it. I write about pilgrimages, about journeys across rivers and over hills, down roads in cars past stars and burning trees. Most of my songs are stories, and real or not, they start to feel dreamier in music than they do on paper, like remembering someone else’s memory. Travel is my vehicle for memory. Moving from one place to the next has a fleeting quality, like yearning for something that’s here one moment and gone the next. However, once you’ve been to a place, you can’t leave it the way it was. It belongs to the journey that brought you to it.
In the fall semester of my senior year, I registered for Susan Rogers’ “Reading and Writing the Hudson” class. I started to do more creative writing, and much of my work for that class turned into poems about the Hudson Valley. On the first day of class, we talked about generating a map of the river, and I started to think about the map hanging on my bedroom wall: a facsimile of a 1952 map of the Hudson River Railroad from New York City to Albany. There was something about this map that made it look like it contained stories that hadn’t really been written. At the same time, I was reading about Native American dream-maps. The Dunne-za Indians of Canada practiced a tradition of drawing maps from information gathered in dreams. They used their dreams to draw out hunting routes and to glimpse into the past and future. When they learned about the Christian idea of afterlife, they began to use dreams to map out the route to salvation.
Water Cycle is, in a way, a dream that was borne from the Hudson River Railroad map, like the dreams of the Dunne-za, only in reverse. But perhaps it is the anti-dream? Its imagery makes it feel real but far away, the exact opposite of the way a lucid dream feels. Its songs are made up of a weave of many different memories, and they are deeply connected to the Hudson Valley and the Hudson River in particular. I didn’t draw the map, but I think this music is the dream I had about it.
Water Cycle falls into its own genre: a conversation between new music and dreamy art rock, and inspired by folk singing. The winds, brass and percussion are focused and contain a lot of motion and momentum, while the guitar and sampling are washy and drone-y, primarily adding texture and color. The vocals and strings do both, and in this way hold the ensemble together. I’m guessing this relationship exists because my vocals tend to mimic my style as a violinist. I always write music melody-first, so my songs end up being melodically focused. This project rode pretty close on the coattails of Contemporaneous’ performances of Donnacha Dennehy’s Gra agus Bas, a piece for strings, winds, brass, percussion, and Irish Gaelic singing. The traditional sean-nos singing style that the piece is based on is intensely ornamented and very improvised sounding. Like Carnatic singing, sean-nos is melody grounded in drone, so the melody is the fundamental unit. I think with my next project I’d like to throw my voice through a different world — perhaps something like Indian Classical music — where everything is built around scales and tunings.
I’ve included the score for all ten tracks of the album. However, I did not use a score to the same effect that I would have if I had composed a piece of music strictly to be performed. My initial thought was that this would be a piece that would be recorded as a live-sounding performance, but I quickly realized that an album was the way to go. Nowadays, production is an infinitely dynamic instrument. If you want it to, engineering can be an extensive and wonderful compositional tool in a way that it never could have been twenty years ago. The recording process didn’t drastically alter the music, but I don’t think it would’ve been as strong a project had it gone straight to concert.
Before we premiere the album in the fall, I am most likely going to do a lot of re-arranging. The structure of the songs won’t change — the complexity of the instrumentation is interesting, but it ultimately serves the structure of the songs. That being said, I could definitely make some alterations in the arrangements to make certain things more compositionally interesting. The last thing I will add is that the album is not 100% finished. I am still adding a few subtle vocal parts and working on the existing vocals to give them a much different sound. Some of the bigger, more chorus-sounding vocals already have this quality. Ultimately, most of the vocals on the record will sound a bit stranger and more processed than they do now. In addition, the album needs to be mastered, which is a part of the process that has to do only with audio quality. I am excited that this project will continue to be very much alive and breathing beyond the Senior Project and to its premiere.
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Shanahan, Finnegan Nolan Stetson, "Water Cycle: A Song Cycle for a Hudson River Railroad Dream-Map" (2014). Senior Projects Spring 2014. 377.