Given the opportunity to write a new work to be premiered on the banks of a river gives a composer many opportunities for associations, from history to religion and spirituality, and the works it has already inspired (Ellington’s The River, Smetana’s The Moldau, Deep River, Strauss’ On the Beautiful, Blue Danube, etc). I could also draw on the cities where I’ve lived, almost exclusively built on major rivers: The Bío Bío (Chile), Ohio and Mississippi. This new work is at the same time all and none of this.
Sweet Rivers gets its name from a shape-note hymn (printed in The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, pictured below), but this isn’t an arrangement. This music is a meditation on all rivers, their persistent flow without regard for human events, their functional purpose and importance for our environment. The hymn provides some of the musical glue, pervading the music without being obvious - it’s the trees in the proverbial forest, occurring most prominently with horns heralding a moment in the hymn with the words, “I’d rise superior to my pain, with joy outstrip the wind.”