Down the Rivers of the Windfall Light
|IV.||Grave ("I sang in my chains like the sea")|
Down the Rivers of the Windfall Light draws both its title and structure from Dylan Thomas’s poem, Fern Hill, in which the author recalls—with evocative, elegiac poignancy—his childhood and retreat into an idyllic farm of the imagination. I stumbled upon this poem quite by accident during the summer of 2013 while—appropriately—vacationing on my girlfriend’s farm in Carleton Place, Ontario:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
Within seconds of reading the closing line of the first stanza (above), I knew that it would serve as both title and inspiration for my forthcoming orchestral work (although it would involve abandoning previous material that I had been incubating for several months prior!) I found myself drawn to the text’s vivid imagery, lilting rhythmic cadence, and ultimately its mysterious, melancholic sensibility—far before I was able to explicitly articulate its meaning.
Divided roughly into four movements which follow one another without pause, Down the Rivers of the Windfall Light is an attempt to reflect musically upon both the texture and imagery of Thomas’s words without precisely mirroring the structure of the poem itself. The first movement offers lush thematic material in the context of a wistful, backward-looking gaze into a deep and treasured memory. A series of ascending scales, overlapping one another like waves spurred on by wind, paves the road to the second movement. With its subterranean agitations tinged with splashes of colour (prominently featuring both upper and lower winds), this scherzo-like bridge styled like a ‘descent’ into a dream-world of ambiguous (and possibly menacing) affect. The third movement (“Soaring, Effervescent”) abounds with vaulting melodies and suspended, ‘magical’ textures; it is a portrait of a child’s imagination let loose. During the creative process, I have tried in this section to free my own inhibitions and to allow my “inner child” to dictate my musical choices; as a result, many of the moments represented here harken back to my oldest and most deeply-lodged musical influences.
The loss of innocence, expressed with such delicate simplicity in the final stanza, casts a haunting and occasionally ominous cloud over the fourth and final movement, titled after the final line of the poem (“Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”) The ‘wave’ motif returns in storm-tossed fashion, threatening to engulf the “farm forever fled from the childless land.” The opening of the work is reprised, briefly, before fading into a series of murky chords, sinking ever deeper into the depths of memory, while a faintly-glimpsed lullaby from the previous movement is heard one last time in the celesta. The final bars, which arrive like an abrupt awakening, are meant to render all that came before a strangely distant memory, like a rapidly fading dream.
- March 1, 2014 - Toronto Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Peter Oundjian. Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.
Commissions and Awards
- Commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, with generous support from the RBC Emerging Artists' Foundation.
- "The pleasant surprise of the evening was Kevin Lau’s Down The Rivers of the Windfall Light, a piece that more than held its own with the two other major works on the program. This is Lau’s second commission from the TSO as part of his RBC affiliate composer duties, and he is a very accomplished orchestral writer for someone just past 30. Time and again, Lau’s orchestral imagination produced sonorities and combinations of instruments, rhythms and textures that were original, very compelling, and relatable. His piece, which follows the contours of Thomas’s Fern Hill, alternated between joyous youthfulness, idyllic portraits of nature, and summertime thundery menace. Lau’s musical language leans heavily on filmic devices – there was more than a hint of John Williams in the piece – but Lau manages this language with real accomplishment and with more than a little originality. His is a voice worth listening to." - Robert Harris, Globe and Mail
- "Kevin Lau’s Down the Rivers of the Windfall Light, inspired by a poem by Dylan Thomas called Fern Hill, was a lush journey through the narrative of the poem, wherein an idyllic evocation of childhood turns into a mourning of a lost youth. The work was romantic, very cinematic in feeling, as if we the listeners were living the memories. Lau demonstrated an impressive ability to write melodic music, as well as an impressive eye for detail. The piece was clearly painstakingly constructed, every note having its place and necessary role to play." - Paolo Griffin, New Music Toronto