You, the water and the music

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River with a sound wave

Wade [Music for River & People], Rivive! Nashville’s new interactive music installment lets you experience rivers in a completely new way.

Why I created Wade [Music for River & People]

I fell in love with Nashville’s waterways shortly after moving to town for school.

I came to study music, and took a job at an outdoor retailer to help pay the bills. Soon after, I started exploring the area with a few friends piled into my jeep and a few kayaks anchored on top—finding the the quiet nooks where mist lifted around us after the rains and the not-so-quiet pools where rope swings had been hung from branches and ladders leaned up trunks.

There’s nothing like getting to know a new home by floating the arteries that water its land and sustain its people.

Later, after enrolling in a religious studies program, one of my professors assigned what he called a ‘remix project’. We were tasked with devising a creative project as a way to study the topics of the class. Water has a significant place in many traditions around the world, and my mind went directly to the moments shared with those close to me on the rivers of the area, the changing face of Nashville, and the relationship we have with the waters around us. The initial drops for Wade [Music for River and People] started to swell.

As I began to conceive the piece, I searched for the building blocks that would bring the work to life. Sounds and instruments are obviously important to a piece of music, but I didn’t want to put notes on paper for this one. I wanted something unique that would help tell the stories of the tangible world around us.

As a paddler, one of the tools that I use before heading out with my boat is the river flow monitoring system made available through the U.S. Geological Survey. It helps me know what to expect about the river before I settle into it. I wanted to figure out a way to use this data for the piece. To somehow help the rivers themselves write the music.

While it may seem strange to use the hard numbers of science as part of an artistic experience, there are more connections than appear on the surface. Music has a long history of being analyzed and understood through numbers and processes, and musical analysis sometimes ends up looking like a lot like a statistical spreadsheet.

Wade essentially reverses that processes, takes numbers from a spreadsheet and translates them into musical notes. For this installation, it specifically uses numbers from the Cumberland River, the Harpeth River, and Richland Creek.

Pedestrians also participate in the composition

I also wanted to bring the audience into the creation of the work. We don’t live independently of the rivers we cross over every day. We are part of an ecosystem with them. The interactivity of the work functions in essentially the same way as the initial musical creation. Cameras pick up the motion of people on the bridge and uses that information to shift the notes of the rivers and to add new musical elements. The more movement, the greater the change. It is a mirror to the impact that we have on the waterways that we rely on.

One of the things that I love about this type of composition is that it takes charts, graphs, and piles of hard numbers—typically used for thoughtful decision making and intellectual understanding—and transcribes them into a more sensual form. It shifts data and information from something of the mind to something that invites an emotional understanding. Rather than cognitively understanding what’s happening to the rivers around us, we can hear them breathing, growing, declining, and changing.

Aaron Hoke Doenges exploring Nashville’s waterways in his kayak.

My hope is that if we can feel the life the rivers contain, we will approach them differently. We can love and appreciate them as living beings that we relate to rather than try to control them as entertainment venues and occasional problems to be solved. They do, after all, provide the water that we drink, that grows our food, and that sustains our city. If we can take just a moment to reflect on the idea of it being a mutual relationship—that we depend on the waterways around us, and they on us—then maybe we will start to take better care of them.

That’s what I want from Wade. I hope it helps you to understand that we must work with the rivers around us to create something beautiful and ongoing. And I hope that together we can love our waterways a little better each day.

Join the movement

Lastly, one of the things that I appreciate about the Rivive! Nashville movement is that it gives us tangible ways that we can collectively achieve that goal. Being a steward of our surroundings seems like such a monumental task on an individual level. But through the feasible steps that Rivive! provides, we can each have a significant impact.

Please consider joining the Rivive! Nashville movement by taking the One Degree Pledge, learn about how our rivers are doing, and help protect our city’s well being for ourselves and our future generations.

Be well these days.

Wade [Music for River and People]

When: April 5, 2018 – April 29, 2018
Where: John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, Nashville, TN

Created by Aaron Hoke Doenges
Sponsored by Nashville Metro Arts & Rivive! Nashville

About the author

Aaron Hoke Doenges is an interactive composer and sound artist. Based in Nashville, TN, his work has been showcased nationally and internationally. Learn more by visiting