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Streams of Consciousness

In a new Vermont-made book, musicians pour forth on the mysteries of moisture


Published September 17, 2003 at 1:27 p.m.

Fifty thousand gallons of water are required to make the rayon for a single living room carpet, notes musician Paul Winter in the introduction to Water Music. And that's just one of many ways we humans squander our most important resource. As we poison our lakes, rivers and streams, bottled-water sales skyrocket. Recently, Winter says, the Boris scale has been developed to measure the vitality of water, comparing, for example, the treated stuff that comes through our faucets with water in the wild.

But science is not the focus of Water Music, a new book by Marjorie Ryerson, a photographer and professor at Castleton State College. Rather, it is about the beauty, the power and the ineffable mystery of water -- and the myriad ways it inspires us.

Ryerson conceived and orchestrated Water Music, a coffee-table volume featuring her own gorgeous, reverent photographs of water and text provided by 66 internationally known musicians. Though on the surface just another pretty picture book, Water Music in fact has a persuasive power of its own. And that's not only because it has a mission: Ryerson is donating net royalties from the book to the Water Music Fund, established for the United Nations Foundation to aid water purification efforts and to help provide clean drinking water for families around the globe.

The genius behind Water Music is hinted at in the title; Ryerson asked musicians to speak to the topic of water because, she suggests, the stuff is inherently musical. Water is always associated with sound -- cascading, bubbling, dripping, roaring. More than that, the movement of water parallels the variety of moods that can also be found in music. Ryerson, an amateur musician herself, intuitively arrived at the idea that a book about water ought to include musicians. "The book has felt like such a natural direction for me that I've often had the sense that I didn't even ‘create' Water Music, that I merely arrived at a point in my life in which the elements of my life had all come together to allow me to steer this big project forward," she told an interviewer for the University of Michigan. "The book has flowed, just like a river, at its own pace."

Three years in the making -- not including the photographs Ryerson has taken addictively over the course of many more years -- Water Music found its own level, as it were, in becoming a vehicle for not only celebrating water but trying to assist the endangered waterways of planet Earth. What Ryerson got from the participating musicians, however, gives her book the passion and profundity a mere collection of photos would lack. Not to mention celebrity appeal.

The musicians, while mostly from the classical and jazz arenas, run the gamut from opera diva Renee Fleming to Phish bassist Mike Gordon, from American folk legend Pete Seeger to Russian pianist-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. The text ranges from lengthy essays to haiku to scores for music inspired in some way by water.

Ryerson spent thousands of hours hunting down addresses for the musicians she sought. When they received her letter explaining the book's concept -- along with some sample photographs -- most were immediately enthralled. "I got many passionate and enthusiastic fan letters about my photos, to my absolute amazement and delight, from these astoundingly talented international stars," Ryerson marvels. "But those who joined the project also seemed to share my perspective in a variety of ways beyond concern for water."

Not surprisingly, some of the contributors are more eloquent than others; some share personal anecdotes while others wax philosophic, even mystical. Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau offers this: "Flowing water and music both teach us something about time. They remind us that time isn't a series of enclosed moments, but something more constant. ‘Beginning' and ‘end' are us -- our own fictions, our own mortality."

Classical pianist Emmanuel Ax makes the observation, "You never step into the same river twice" -- an adage referring to the constant flow of a river, and which serves as a perfect metaphor for the passage of time. "This is especially true for us musicians," he continues. "We spend so much of our lives in the process of deepening our understanding and, in the process, our love for great masterpieces. The notes remain the same, but the emotions they arouse, and the way we translate the notes, change ever so subtly over time; every performance is a process of change. Perhaps that is why so many composers have been inspired by water -- the eternal which is never the same."

Not all of the writers make reference to music. Kronos Quartet founder and violinist David Harrington reminds us that the Earth and its environment comprise an enclosed ecosystem in which water constantly renews itself -- falling, condensing, falling again. "On the surface of each drop of water one can imagine seeing reflected the mirror image of every form life has yet taken," he muses. "Water has seen it all, its molecules have been through it all, and yet water silently continues to hold the secrets of its immense past. Perhaps the next raindrop once moistened the eye of a browsing dinosaur. Wouldn't it be amazing to be able to know the entire history of a single drop of water, a bead of sweat or a tear?"

Amazing, indeed. Contemplating the subject of the world's water is nearly as heady as trying to wrap your mind around the universe. Perhaps humans respond and gravitate to water because the stuff comprises 97 percent of our own bodies. And, as Winter notes, we develop in an amniotic sea before birth.

Despite the profundity of the subject and the altruism behind the book, neither Ryerson nor her contributors get soapboxy in Water Music -- though many emphasize the preciousness of the life-giving fluid. What comes through most is a sense of genuine, universal awe, the kind of feeling we humans get in the presence of something bigger than ourselves. In this case, something that both literally reflects us and is indifferent to us.