The Arno: a thoughtful companion

Interview with Stephen Davismoon

Michelle Davis
November 4, 2016 - 11:03

Struggling with the billowing undercurrents of a life-threatening illness, at the beginning of the 2000s British scholar and contemporary musician Stephen Davismoon found shelter in the waters of Tuscany’s Arno. His field-recording oeuvre Towards the Water’s Edge is a touching sonorous testimony comprising thousands of samples documented as he studied the river’s course, from source to mouth, following its long journey from the Apennine Mountains to the Mediterranean Sea. These days Stephen’s health is much improved and he works as head of performing arts at Lancashire’s Edge Hill University, but his mind still goes back to those days spent along the Arno’s riverbed.

Ponte San Niccolò | Ph. Marco Castelli Ponte San Niccolò | Ph. Marco Castelli

Michelle Davis: Tell us a bit about your work with the Arno and how this idea turned into reality.
Stephen Davismoon: In 2002 I was very ill and receiving treatment. Some friends told me to pretend that I was somewhere where I wanted to be. I had always wanted to trace the life of a river, so I pictured the Arno valley and its beautiful countryside. As I got better this vision became more and more real, especially thanks to a residency I was awarded in 2004 by Tempo Reale in Florence. Having once read that fire and water are quite difficult to capture sonically, I decided to rise to the challenge. I had very crude equipment at the time, which meant I had to get right up close to the river’s body to record it. This taught me something simple but eye-opening: running water has infinite variations—it will never sound the same. 


MD: What struck you the most during these recording sessions?
SD: To this day, listening to the piece I still recognize certain areas: Stia, Poppi, Pontassieve, Florence, Marina di Pisa. I remember the time I slipped into the river in Incisa, for example! But yes, there were a few elements that really made everything come full circle. When recording in Empoli I stumbled across a plaque that marked the birthplace of renowned virtuoso composer Ferruccio Busoni, one of the pillars of contemporary music, mentor to Varèse and Schoenberg. I explored the Valdarno where medieval music theorist Guido d’Arezzo invented modern musical notation, not to mention Florence, once hotbed of The Florentine Camerata, predecessor of the opera. So in many respects, the Arno is a river of music history. Without it, Western culture wouldn’t have been what it is today.

MD: Did you ever feel like you had understood something deeper and more “intimate” about the Arno?
SD: Although multifaceted and unpredictable, I thought of the Arno as a thoughtful companion, an older and wiser friend. As if mindful of its musical qualities, the river was playful in its infinite variations, bubbling percussively over pebbles or flowing in a seemingly stagnant summertime silence. This experience was cathartic. My illness had been potentially lethal and there’s nothing more life-returning than water.

MD: It’s interesting that you associate the river with the concept of “life”, since in this issue of The Florentine we are commemorating a somewhat opposite aspect—the destructive force that left the city bewildered and damaged in 1966.
SD: One time, as I climbed the mountains near Stia, although not far from its source, the Arno had already swelled into a raging mass that kept me at a fearful distance. I had never heard a river so forceful, so I can only imagine how terrifying it must have been.

MD: What projects are you working on now? Are you planning on coming back to Italy?
SD: My most recent work is a commemoration piece commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic in remembrance of the Battle of Somme, the worst day in British military history. It will be aired on BBC Radio on Remembrance Day, at midnight UK time. I have been invited by Francesco Giomi of Tempo Reale to perform in Bologna, so hopefully I will be able to pop by and say hello to the Arno!


Listen to Stephen Davismoon's "Towards the Water's Edge" here.

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