Late last year, a gorgeous half-hour film appeared online, streamed by Emergence. Upstream is now back on the film festival circuit, and comes highly recommended, especially for those who enjoyed Esther Kokmeijer’s Stillness. The films share a slow-moving depth, an environmental tug and a wintry tone, enhanced by their snow-laced scores.
It’s tempting to call this trio a supergroup, although they work in different disciplines. Rob Petit is the patient filmmaker, Hauschka the composer and Robert Macfarlane the author of the poems. It’s only fair to add the speakers Niall Gordàn & Julie Fowlis and the bow artist Insa Schirmer. We’re already fans of Hauschka, but we’re also MacFarlane readers, so the collaboration comes as a bonus. Both readers – in Gaelic and English – add depth to MacFarlane’s words through resonant intonations, although it’s fair to note that the set takes half an hour to arrive at its poetic juncture. Prior to this are the quarter hour movements one and two, echoing the images of the film.
The film traces the journey of Scotland’s River Dee, recalling Annea Lockwood’s disc A Sound Map of the Hudson River and Craig Vear’s ESK. But while those sound works were field recording based, Hauschka’s score revolves around cello, even more than the artist’s signature prepared piano. As such, it’s a much darker work than one is used to hearing from the artist, a welcome expansion of his timbre. Slowly the camera pans overhead; slowly the music unfurls, mirroring the mysterious nature of the River Dee. The vast white is cut by channels of translucent black. Mountains loom on every side. Shades of grey hold their ground. The occasional synth signals hidden danger. Toward the end of the first movement, Fowlis’ bow grows turgid, the water unbound, seeking the sea.
Hauschka holds back at the beginning of the second movement, thoughtfully tapping a single key, awaiting the river’s resuscitation. The impression is that of movement under ice, nature finding a way. The percussive taps at the center of the movement are like creatures struggling beneath the sheet, hoping to break through. The river is traced back to its source in the Cairngorn Mountains, reversing time, tumbling from activity to suspension, an unintentional metaphor that matches our modern era. And then it is time for poetry, accompanied only by cello and the sounds of the river, surging to the forefront of the sound field. The closing (digital only) “Here the Heart Fills” makes the connection to winter through alliterative word. Birds chirp in the background, harbingers of spring, moving in one direction while the poet moves in another, tracing the snow and ice to their origins on a distant planet, before the mountain, before the river, before the Big Bang and the very concept of time. Winter is undone not by spring, but by an even deeper cold. (Richard Allen)