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Forking and flowing, forte and fishing

by Melissa McCarthy

11 April 2024

Melissa McCarthy responds to Flux Alluvia, an inventive three-part composition by Greg Harradine shaped by the River Tweed.

We’re always midstream, in one way or another. When I’m standing on a little island a stone’s throw from the ruined walls of Kelso Abbey, with the waters of the Tweed and the Teviot twisting and intermingling around; or hearing the music from the strings overwhelm me, lap around, then recede into echoes; or thinking of the flow of time – everything moves; that’s a constant.

This idea, of long-perspective continuity as expressed through change, is at the core of Greg Harradine’s new composition, a three-movement, thirty-minute piece for string sextet. It’s there in the etymology of the title, Flux Alluvia, with ‘flux’ meaning flow or continual change, and ‘alluvia’, sediments deposited by moving water. Everything flows, as Heraclitus pointed out two and a half thousand years ago. But something remains.

Music is a good medium for a work about the river’s impermanence and persistence, suggests violinist Iona Brown at the premiere of Flux Alluvia at Kelso’s Old Parish Church in March 2024. Brown is one member of Amici, the sextet for whom the piece was composed, after Harradine saw the ensemble in concert and admired their overflow of sound (much louder than a quartet). Music is more ephemeral than other art forms, and it changes with every performance, although the score remains the same. Harradine agrees; he’s always been interested in the flow of music as parallel to, and constituted by, the flow of time. And particularly so in this work: Flux Alluvia’s three movements are titled The River Was, The River Is, and, The River Will Be.

This piece doesn’t follow a traditional mode of composition, Harradine explains, where there’s a simple theme and response, and he expands and develops on them. It’s more that the music shifts and flows from one musician to another, a phrase starts here then shimmers and ripples around the group. Brown observes that this makes the piece particularly hard to practise alone because each part only makes sense once it’s heard interlocking with the other jigsaw pieces. There is, it seems to me, an ecology of sound.

It’s a new work, but Harradine doesn’t place himself at the cutting edge of contemporary music. Like the river has its persistence and individuality, he, too, writes what he likes, that he hopes a non-specialist audience could engage with at first listen. He speaks of being in conversation with the last four or five hundred years, not just with the last fifty. Perhaps he’s influenced, subterraneanly, by the motto on the heraldic crest of Peebles: Contra Nando Incrementum, there is growth in swimming against the stream. The coat of arms depicts three salmon, two heading oceans-wards, one facing against the tide.

Peebles is the first of the three locations that Harradine looks to for inspiration for the composition, followed by Kelso, where the work was first heard, then Norham. He moves downriver, “from swerve of shore to bend of bay,” as James Joyce puts it, influenced by his own, subjective experience of becoming more familiar with the Tweed, as he wanders and listens. There’s also a second, more procedural way in which the Tweed informs the composition, and this is, by use of data from the WaterOrgan.

Mark Zygadlo, WaterOrgan at Norham, Lower Tweed, 2023

Mark Zygadlo's WaterOrgan at Norham, Lower Tweed, 2023

Let’s eddy back in time to 2023, when artist Mark Zygadlo and sound engineer Jamie Grier launched their craft along the Tweed. The WaterOrgan is a boat that travels along the waterline – half in water, half in air; liminally – trailing sensors below which gather data about temperature, water speed, turbidity, direction, depth, and so on. An onboard computer processes this input and generates instructions about the type of sound that should issue from two pipe organs on deck, on the airside of the vessel. Colder water temperatures, for example, are converted into notes in a minor key, to be broadcast, ice-cream-van-fashion, to the riparian audience.

That was the first, algorithmic use of data from the river being processed into sound. Harradine’s involvement takes the matter further, as he examined data gathered at his three, chosen time-places. Sometimes his score makes direct use of WaterOrgan data. For example, presented with a graph that depicts a line gradually ascending a short distance then plummeting down, he might translate this into the pitch of a musical phrase, with one note slowly rising to the next before a sudden drop to a lower note. Or the influence might be less visual, more allusive and subtle; he might, say, incorporate multiple key changes as a response to the fact that, at Norham, the banks of the Tweed take a big turn. The river, and any voyager on it, is constantly curving here, facing a new direction.

There’s something pleasing about Norham being the third way-station on Harradine’s geographical and music journey, as it’s the village to which painter JMW Turner returned, throughout his life, to make pictures of Norham Castle, its stones still standing above the river after all this time. From sharp-lined mezzotints to the hazy sunrise visions of his late, light-filled period, Turner kept coming back to the same river; art allows for a certain persistence of vision. Though what the audience experiences alters greatly.

And what does Flux Alluvia sound like, for the listener immersed in the music? The first movement has prancing snippets, phrases that glint from one player to another, with pizzicato like little bubbles, or with smooth currents in the rare moments when all six are bowing together. (Amici sway as they play, like water weeds.) Sometimes there is a solid pulse from the cellos, then a tremulous sound above, rills and ripples of melody. There is a sense of riding above the flow, all coursing downriver, until a climax of cinematic surround-sound.

In the second movement the melody is more stern, a longer, plaintive call from the cello dissipating to the other instruments, then the main melody from the violin comes in over the top, in a single thread of sound, winding through, gradually brightening. The music moves with a more heavy or deliberate pace.

And in The River Will Be, there are swirling eddies, a running rhythm as speed picks up. It reminds me of white horses coursing along, the sun appearing through rain clouds, sudden bursts of light and moments of velocity.A plop! An object, jumping or falling, makes a sudden ripple, breaks the surface. An event – literary, watery, or musical – changes the appearance, and our perception, of things. There’s a splash – and then it’s gone. For now.

Greg Harradine's Flux Alluvia was commissioned by Connecting Threads and first performed at Kelso Old Parish Church, 17th March 2024.

The Edinburgh-dwelling Melissa McCarthy’s writing frequently considers matters that are watery, maritime, semi-submerged, and at the tideline. Recent books include Photo, Phyto, Proto, Nitro (2023) and Exceptional Subjects (2024), a collaboration with photographer Norman McBeath. For more on her writing and radio works, see sharksillustrated.org.