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decketh joy, water destroy

This is the current title of a new piece for soprano and chamber ensemble I'm working on. Ensemble Dal Niente will premiere it at UC Davis in the fall along with my fellow grad students. It's a meditation on the beauty, wonder, and destructive abilities of water. Perhaps most importantly, it is about humanity's relationship with water. Water has fascinated composers and artists for thousands of years, and it continues to mesmerize, both through the intrinsic beauty of its physicality and its complex and fundamental role in sustaining and threatening life on earth. In the twenty-first century, it means all of these things, as well as the crisis of climate change and rising oceans caused by our own careless abuse of the planet as humans.

The text comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson's aphoristic poem, "Water," written well over a century ago. I will just let him do the talking here:

The water understands

civilization well;

It wets my foot, but prettily,

It chills my life, but wittily

It is not disconcerted,

It is not broken-hearted:

Well used, it decketh joy,

Adorneth, doubleth joy:

Ill used, it will destroy,

In perfect time and measure

With a face of golden pleasure

Elegantly destroy.

I have always felt inspired and nourished by the beauty and wonder of the natural world... thinking about it, spending time in it, staring into it, contemplating its miraculous complexity and the delicate, shifting balance that lets it be what it is. That balance is falling apart fast, thanks our greedy capitalistic economic system.

Though I've always been worried about the looming environmental crisis, I only started feeling it on a visceral level when California was at the height of its historic drought. I began to study the issue more closely, and realized increasingly not just that it's happening now, but that we are witnessing and will continue to witness a catastrophic environmental collapse well within our lifetime.

When I visit the coast and stare off into the ocean, I feel a sense of joy and wonder taking in its aesthetic beauty and thinking of the mysteries it holds. It is deeply refreshing to look at something so ancient and so much greater than our measly, petty human selves. The oceans have existed long before us, and they will be here long after we're gone, constantly shifting, moving, transforming. They don't need us, nor do they care about us. On the geological timescale, our civilization amounts to very little. For me, this is very inspiring. At the same time, the oceans are getting hotter, filling with plastic, and rising closer to the shore each year. Animals are dying.

Difficult as it may seem, I want to embrace both feelings at the same time. Wonder and dread. While there's a lot to be upset about these days, the world is neither just horrible or just beautiful. That coexistence is part of what I hope to capture in this piece.


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