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Timeline: Elements - Water

Created by Emily Alfin Johnson and James Stewart

Our series, Timeline: Elementscontinues as we explore the source of life: water.

Enjoy the podcast and experience the video of Timeline: Elements Live recorded in VPR's Stetson Studio One.


TAN DUN: Everything is a circle. The flowing water is a circle and a life is one too.

JAMES: That is the voice of composer Tan Dun. You might recognize his name and his music from the scores of the popular films Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. Along with film scores, Dun also composes what he calls “Organic Music.”

TAN DUN: Organic music is natural songs and the human voice combined as one.

JAMES: These works call for the use of materials such as paper, stone or water.

TAN DUN: What is water?

JAMES: You're hearing an excerpt from his first piece of “Organic Music,” written in 1998: "Water Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra." A recording barely does this work justice. In performance, the solo percussionist has bowls of water and unusual instruments like flip flops, ping pong paddles and strainers. They literally play in the water. The result is fascinating and theatrical. It reminds me of my childhood, playing in the river, the pool or the sprinkler in the backyard. I mean, I hear the sound of water and I am instantly transported back in time and (more importantly) outside, into nature.

Tan Dun has written many pieces for water. He says that his connection to water is tied to his childhood and his desire to go back to something simple and clean. The problem is so many of the waterways, rivers and streams of his youth are now polluted.

TAN DUN: Sometimes you feel water is the voice of birth or rebirth, but now I feel like water is like tears, the tears of nature.

On Timeline we are exploring the elements of antiquity: fire, water, earth and air. We are discovering how these elements intersect with art and music. In this episode we’ll explore this source and sustainer of life: water.

Explore the full Timeline archive: Apple Podcasts | Google Play Music | Stitcher | VPR web app

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Picture a wide oceanic abyss, an endless sea, formless, without border or shape. This is the image that begins many creation stories from cultures around the world. In Ancient Egypt the waters of Nun flow timeless and the world began as the first sun rose over this endless sea. In the book of Genesis, the Spirit of God hovers over the face of formless waters before anything is made. The Greeks called this chaos and out of chaos came the first of the gods. So many stories of the origin of life start here with a primordial, cosmic ocean.

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NASA's image of the Lovejoy Comet seen from orbit. Comets are believed to be rocks of ice traveling through our solar system.

Water itself is a phenomenal molecule, made up of some of the most plentiful elements in the cosmos: hydrogen and oxygen. Water is abundant in our solar system and beyond. There are asteroids, comets, clouds and vast oceans of ice. Water is everywhere. What is far less common is liquid water. Scientists are looking for liquid water because according to our understanding of life and its origins, water is the incubator of all living things. We believe there might be liquid oceans under the icy surface of some of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons, and there is evidence that liquid water once flowed over the surface of Mars. But there is no place like home.

Water covers over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. Here we can find it in all three physical states: steam, liquid and ice. Water is the main ingredient to make you! An adult human is more than 60 percent water. And here’s the most fascinating thing about water: Anywhere we’ve found liquid water on this planet, we’ve found life. From the highest mountain to the deepest cave, where there is water, there is life.

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Deep ocean vents like this are believed to be the first incubators of life on this planet.

Imagine with me, the Earth as it was 3.5 billion years ago. Our planet was still cooling and forming. Craters and volcanos marked the land. The air was a toxic mixture of chemicals. The damaging rays of the sun bombarded the Earth. There was no ozone layer, no atmosphere to protect the surface. However, there was water. Where the water came from is a matter of debate, but it is fascinating to realize that there is just as much water on our planet now, as when it first cooled. Hidden, protected deep within these primordial waters, gathered around geothermal vents, the first microbes of life emerged. It’s here that life on this planet was born and thrived for eons before ever venturing onto the land or into the sky. Every species of every type, from the smallest bacteria to the largest tree to you and me are descendants of this first life, born deep within the primordial sea. In light of this thought, the creation stories of our ancestors don’t seem too farfetched now, do they?

Water equals life. Our oceans, lakes, rivers and streams are teeming with amazing diversity. There are creatures under the water that seem almost otherworldly and strange to us surface-dwellers. Angler fish with glowing lures, jelly fish with beautiful translucent bodies, octopi that can rapidly change color to avoid detection. Under the sea it’s like another world. Yet there is still something familiar here, as well. Music.

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No one is quite sure why Humpback whales sing.

You are hearing a song sung by the humpback whale, a fellow mammal like you and me. No one knows exactly how these whales sing. They don’t have to exhale to make sound like you and I do. The song just emerges from them.

Sound travels four times faster in water than it does through air, which also means it has a much greater range. In fact, the low frequencies of whale song can travel more than 10,000 miles given the right conditions. Humans didn’t start researching whale song until the 1950s, when scientists turned the tools used to locate enemy submarines during war to listen to the music, the songs, filling the ocean.

We call it song because these sounds are strikingly similar to human music. There is syntax here, structure. Marine biologists break down the structure of whale song much in the same way that musicologists analyze a symphony by Haydn. Small units of sound are like notes that link together to form phrases, which become themes that repeat with regular pattern. The whales start a session by presenting a song, a theme, and then developing it. The song may be anywhere from seven to 20 minutes in length, but this session of musical composition could last as long as 20 hours. And I’m not being facetious when I use the word composition. Scientists use that exact term for what these whales do as they take the phrases and themes and change them over and over again, finding endless variation. The whales will even form a “chorus” joining together to sing the same song, sometimes even in canon, starting at different times.

It seems that each group of humpback whales has its own style of song. By identifying that song, biologists can follow the migration habits of these aquatic composers. The songs themselves travel as well. Scientists have observed the transmission of song from one population to the next. Certain phrases and sounds become popular and are shared across the ocean.

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It seems that Humpback whales both dance and sing together.

But why, why do the whales sing? Biologists have observed more complex songs during the mating season and migration, and there is probably some connection to communication involved as well. It’s thought that singing bonds the group together as a unit, but the truth is we really don’t know why these whales spend so much time composing songs under the sea. It’s my personal opinion that they simply enjoy it and they create for the sake of creating. And why not? Why can’t we share this desire to create music with other animals, especially since we all come from the same place? The sea.

Sea Fever By John Masefield
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by; And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking. I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied; And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying. I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife; And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

The sea has a voice and call all its own. Humans don’t need sirens to lure us onto the waves; the water has captured the imaginations of explorers and artists for all of our history. Composers have been particularly inspired by bodies of water. From Handel writing music to be played on the river Thames to Bedrich Smetana immortalizing the flow of the river Vltava through his homeland, every generation, almost every composer, has their “water” piece. That is especially true of the artists of French Impressionism. The painter Claude Monet was fascinated by the dance of color and light on the surface of water.

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"Hokusai's Wave" was featured on the cover of the 1905 edition of Debussy's "La Mer."

The music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel sought to find an analog to this visual art movement, portraying in sound what Monet was painting on a canvas. There is much of Debussy’s music inspired by water, including a piece referencing the folk tale of a French castle rising from the River Y’s., "The Engulfed Cathedral." Yet there is one masterpiece that stands apart from the others: La Mer.

What sets La Mer apart is what it doesn’t reference. Most of the other examples of “water music” depict specific bodies of water tied to a nation, a national identity or some mythological tale. They evoke cultural pride, folk songs, specific locations or the story of some literary figure. Debussy makes no such allusion in this symphonic suite. There’s no program, no story; he’s not even depicting a boat or ship on the waves. The subject of this music is water itself.

The moving structure, the explosion of sounds, mark it as different from anything ever written before. Constant interruptions of rhythm create an impression of ebb and flow.

Debussy’s symphony for sea … It’s like the water is alive with a character, a personality all its own.

I spent so many summer afternoons of my childhood playing with water. Perhaps it was because I grew up in the American South and it was the easiest way to beat the heat. I remember swimming in pools, lakes and streams. I remember jumping in and out of garden sprinklers and gliding along a slip and slide.

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Have you ever done this with the garden hose in your backyard?

But perhaps my favorite thing to do as a child was just play with the hose in the backyard.

I’m sure most of you have played with a garden hose. Left on its own it releases water in a steady stream, but if you put your thumb over the opening you can build the pressure and force the water to come out in a spray or a jet. We used to see how far we could make the water go, how high it could fly. We would entertain ourselves by making our own water fountain.

There are water fountains in cities around the world. The Burj Khalifa Fountain in Dubai is 900 feet long and shoots water over 500 feet into the air. The Magic Fountain of Montjuic in Barcelona marries the play of water with light and music. The Nations Friendship Fountain in Moscow is surrounded by 16 gold-plated statues. However, there’s nothing quite like the Bellagio Fountain in Las Vegas. This $40 million water, light and sound display puts on a show every 30 minutes with jets powerful enough to shoot water 1,000 feet into the air. We humans love to play in the water.

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We humans love to play with water and sound.

Canadian researcher and inventor Steve Mann has been developing new ways to play with water and sound.

STEVE: OK. So, this is a hydraulophone, an underwater pipe organ.

JAMES: Mann is a professor at the University of Toronto and holds a Ph.D. in Media Arts from MIT, and has many inventions pushing the boundaries of interactive technology and computer interface. With the design of the hydraulophone, Mann has found a way to turn the jets of a water fountain into an expressive musical instrument. Imagine a tube with many holes, laid out like the keys of a piano. Each hole is emitting a jet of water.

STEVE: You take your finger and you place it on one of the water jets and you block that water jet. So, that is the way that you play different musical notes. And what that does, it forces the water back inside the instrument into the sounding mechanism, the sounding chamber, and then it resonates. These instruments appeal, obviously, to the deaf [and] blind because there is a tactile element where you are touching and also you can feel the vibrations of the instrument. We also sold one to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind for special needs children to develop their tactile sense.

JAMES: While Steve Mann has been experimenting with instruments that use liquid water, other musicians and inventors have been playing with solid water. Since 1999, Norwegian percussionist and composer Terje Isungset has been pioneering what he calls "Ice Music."

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Terje uses glaciers as a backdrops for his performances.

Terje carves his instruments out of huge blocks of ice, sometimes with a chainsaw. Each concert features new, freshly made instruments. No one concert is like any other. Picture trumpets of clear ice, calling out and slowly melting and changing in the performer’s hands. There are cellos and violins with crystalline bodies in the familiar shapes we recognize. There are xylophones of ice blocks and various percussion instruments that utilize the hardness and brittle nature of ice to generate sound.

You’re hearing a 2014 recording of Isungset performing with vocalist Lena Nymark within a natural cave of a Norwegian glacier.

The sound created feels other worldly, or perhaps rather ancient, as if calling to a type of music that has been with humanity and the earth since the beginning. In Isungset’s words…

The ice music project is a commentary on environmental issues. We have to be careful, and show respect and humility for nature. There is ice on Earth today that is over 140,000 years old. Ice existed well before people did.
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Insects, like the water strider, use surface tension to walk on water.

Water has amazing properties that are almost magical, defying the known laws of physics. First, water attracts water. This cohesion creates powerful surface tension. It’s why water forms into droplets and it also allows for insects such as water striders to actually walk along its surface. Water adheres to other molecules as well, allowing it to climb against gravity. This capillary action is how a tree is able to bring water from the ground, through its trunk, to its branches and leaves. Water holds its temperature and helps to insulate the planet, keeping a steady balance for the fragile creatures that live on the Earth’s surface. Water is also a powerful solvent, allowing for the dispersion of important nutrients and chemicals throughout the oceans and our bodies. Water within us purifies our blood stream, lubricates our muscles and regulates our body temperature. It is the main ingredient of our internal organs. A human adult needs over 2 liters of water a day for survival.

Water is gentle, yet powerful. One drop of rain travels over 2 kilometers before it hits the ground, your umbrella or the top of your head. It doesn’t cause too much pain or discomfort. However, collect the rain into a stream or river and you have a source of the power to cut rock and topple mountains.

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The Grand Canyon was carved by the consistent flow of the Colorado River.

You’re hearing an excerpt of The Grand Canyon Suite by American composer Frede Gorfe. This is the third movement called “On the Trail,” which portrays riding a burro down into the depths of the canyon. It would be quite a trip. The Grand Canyon is over 270 miles long, 10 miles wide and over a mile deep in some locations. It was carved out of the Arizona dirt over 5 million years by the Colorado River.

Water erodes mountains and shapes our coast lines. It does this through the constant flow of a current or the bombardment of waves over time. Little by little, water changes and affects its surroundings, carving new beds, carrying soil and seed, transforming all the land it touches. The key ingredient for this change is time.

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An example of a water clock from ancient Persia.

Humanity has recognized this connection between water and time for eons. Thousands of years ago the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Babylonia were using water as a time-telling device. A water clock uses two containers, two jars. One jar has a hole drilled near the bottom, allowing the water to flow at a predictable rate into the second jar.  This second jar would be marked with minutes and hours, like a liquid hourglass. The depth of the water read the passing of time. Many cultures used this method of time keeping. We discovered water clocks in China that date back over 6,000 years.

The Greek Philosopher Heraclitus also used this constant flow of water to describe the flow of time in a less literal sense. He observed, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” Water is always changing shape, depth and flow. Time flows in much the same way. Heraclitus is reminding us that now is a unique moment, now will never come again. You will never be the same person you are right now.

Music, water and time are connected in this sense. Music is a temporal art, experienced over the course of time. It is revealed moment by moment to our ears. The sound is constantly flowing and changing. You can listen to the same piece by the same composer, performed by the same orchestra over and over again and it will still be different in some way, shape or form. Music changes because we change.

I remember as a child listening to the song “All My Life” by the Beatles. As a kid, I thought it was a nice love song with a catchy melody. Today, when I hear that song (even the same recording, the same copy of the same LP) I have a completely different experience. Now that song seems to be saying much more about the people and places that we leave behind, how much things change. I get the same feeling when I hear Joni Mitchell’s 1969 “Both Sides, Now.” Life experiences, the flow time, brings change. Time changes our view of clouds, love and life.

Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell But now old friends they’re acting strange, They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed. Well something’s lost, but something’s gained, In living every day.

This brings us back to Ancient Greece once again. Remember what Greek mythology called the endless, formless ocean of creation before even the birth of the gods … They called it chaos. Chaos is a word we use to describe when something is out of control, out of our hands. But in the last hundred years, mathematicians have embraced Chaos Theory as a means of understanding complex, dynamic systems. One little change to the initial conditions can affect the outcome, the behavior of that system. We’ve heard it described as the "butterfly effect."

That’s you and me, we flow like water, we are complex systems subject to chaos. As Heraclitus wrote almost 2,500 years ago, “All entities move and nothing stays still … Everything changes and nothing remains … We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and we are not.” Everything flows.

Explore the rest of Timeline: Elements.

Credits (in order of appearance): Tan Dun, Jane Lindholm, and Steve Mann.

Timeline, hosted by James Stewart, is a program from VPR Classical, a service of Vermont Public Radio. Special thanks to Kari Anderson for her support of this project. Learn more and follow the Timeline at VPR.net/timeline.

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