Writers’ Conference focuses on rivers

Tammie Tamara

Tammie TamaraSection Editor

The Volstorff Ballroom overflowed with the rich sounds of music Monday as part of the Great Plains Writers’ Conference.

With the theme of rivers this year, the conference, entitled “Rivers of Memory, Rivers of Lore,” focused not only on composition of words but also on composition of music.

During one morning session, SDSU music professor Anthony Lis discussed how contemporary composers since 1900 have been influenced and inspired by rivers.

Lis treated the audience to recordings of various pieces dealing with rivers. The first he spoke about was Charles Ives’ “The Housatonic at Stockbridge.”

“This is one of my most favorite pieces,” he said. The Housatonic is in western Massachusetts and Connecticut.

He described the music: “The first three minutes are calm and placid. The last minute gets a little agitated with the first hint of autumn in the air,” Lis said. “The river gets a little bit restless.”

He then played the orchestra version of the same piece. “The beginning sort of paints a dreamy, misty sound of a river,” he said.

The 90-piece orchestra allows a loud climax when autumn comes.

Moving on from the Housatonic, Lis mentioned other composers that have written pieces based on the Hudson River, such as Ferde Grofe, Robert Starer and New Zealander Annea Lockwood. Lockwood recorded the river in 15 spots, then modified the clips by shortening, extending, echoing and playing them backward to make a composition.

Other pieces have been inspired by the Piscataway, a creek in southwestern Maryland, the St. John’s in northeastern Florida, the Ohio and the Mississippi.

However, he spent more time focusing on rivers close to our area.

Steve Heitzeg is a St. Paul-based composer. “He’s very into environmental causes in addition to writing pieces,” Lis said.

He first played Heitzeg’s “Mahkato Wakpa,” the Lakota name for the Blue Earth River. The powerful, majestic music includes a trumpet solo and portrays the turbulent sounds of the river.

Another piece by Heitzeg is “What the River Says: Three River Songs,” based on the Red River of the North running through Minnesota, North Dakota and southern Manitoba.

The third section of the piece, “Remember me,” is written using some of the same techniques that are common to folk songs.

“He makes use of something called call and response, an echo response,” Lis explained.

Heitzeg was inspired when he wrote the piece, as if the piece wrote itself, Lis said.

“The words and the music came to him. It’s a very beautiful piece.”

Lis also commented on composers that have written about the Missouri River and the Rivers of Texas.