Tomáš Niesner ~ Bečvou

Remember if you will a beautiful river that was part of your childhood.  Perhaps you played alongside the riverbanks, sent paper boats downstream, hopped across the rocks, splashed water to cool or tease.  You may have fished in this river.  You may have brought dates, enjoyed picnics, or simply strolled the shore.

Now imagine that some chemical company leaked hazardous materials in the water and killed 40 tons of wildlife.  Imagine the shock, the horror, the smell, the sense of betrayal.  This is what happened to the Czech Republic’s Bečva River, beloved by the young Tomáš Niesner and still, amazingly, loved now.  The artist decided to walk the length of the river, 100 km to Morava, recording all the way.  Upon his return, he folded the field recordings into a gorgeous longform piece (separated into ten tracks on the album, blurring into the next like water around a bend), where zither, guitar and modular synthesizer play like shiny fish in the stream.  The album is an expression of love and loss, sorrow and hope, a time capsule of the Polluted Time, a prayer for renewal, the artist’s stream-colored shirt a symbol of interrelated fate.

The river is heard immediately, the main character of the project quietly established in the mix.  Niesner’s finger-style guitar is pensive, taking inventory of the situation step by step, attempting to reflect the stream itself rather than the anger over its violation.  And then the sound of birds, sweet birds, still alive, still singing, an early sign that the Bečva may not be done.  The field recordings are heard most clearly between tracks, but remain a constant presence like the thought of nature even when one has left nature.

Step by step Niesner walks, alone with his thoughts, a travel journalist whose language is music. Without breaks, the journey would take at least 40 hours.  With stops and sleep, we suspect it took a week: enough time for perspective to set in, for memories to surface, for the artist to notice little things: the scars in the grass or the persistence of the water, continuing to flow despite obstacles, despite irradiation.  As drones begin to wash over the recording, one thinks of a cloud of despair, an inescapable muck, the drowning of childhood joy.  And on the river flows, and on.

Halfway through, organ tones rise to the foreground, a reminder of churches, of hymns lost and found.  One cannot help but think that Niesner is composing an elegy, as the tone turns funereal.  Salvation arises in a bubbly synth motif, happily joined by a jaunty guitar tune, a respite before the choral ghosts.  The old river is gone.  A new river arises in its place.

In the final minutes of the piece, the artist seems restored as well.  His guitar grows calmer as he nears Morava.  The music exudes a sense of gratitude for the past and present; even in its current state, the river can, and does, offer peace.  This reconciliation is a minor miracle: not where many of us might be given the same circumstances.  The composition ~ as well as Niesner’s own journey ~ is a wonder. (Richard Allen)

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