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A New Oratorio Gives Voice to the Lake Erie Dredging Controversy

photo of Margaret Brouwer

Water frequently finds its way into classical music, whether it’s Handel’s iconic “Water Music” or Benjamin Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes.” Cleveland-based composer Margaret Brouwer has composed a piece inspired by Lake Erie. Specifically, the piece deals with the recent drama about what to do with toxic sediment dredged from the Cuyahoga River and surrounding channels.

WKSU’s Philip de Oliveira spoke with Brouwer about the music and the controversy that inspired it.

A love of water
Brouwer composed “Voice of the Lake” at her home in Cleveland Heights, about six miles from Lake Erie.

“It makes a good drama," Brouwer said. "It’s a great musical drama.”

Brouwer has had a lifelong fascination with water. Her First Symphony, written in 1997, invokes lake imagery through sparkling colors and free-flowing melodies.

“It has an opening that someone said to me afterwards, ‘That sounded just like loons over a lake,’" Brouwer said. "I hadn’t actually thought of that when I was writing it so I don’t know whether on some unconscious level I was imitating a sound I had heard at a lake.”

Opera, or oratorio?
“Voice of the Lake” is Brouwer’s first acquatically-inspired piece to use voices — namely, four soloists and a large chorus. Brouwer originally thought about writing an opera, but decided to write an oratorio instead.

“I would say one of the main differences is the big choral sections," Brouwer said. "In an opera, you wouldn’t have a big choir. Well, you might, depending on the opera company. But these are big sections with choir that I would do somewhat differently in the opera.”

Art imitating politics
In one section of the piece, the chorus members act as spectators at a 2016 hearing in which Democratic Congresswoman Marcia Fudge appeared before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“They’re commenting on certain words that she has," Brouwer said. "It’s very rhythmic, and it actually starts with the spectators at the beginning saying things like, ‘The citizens, we the citizens, we the citizens concerned …’”

Fudge herself makes an appearance, as Brouwer sets her actual statement before the Corps of Engineers to music.

“She says, ‘I again come before you as a representative of the 11th Congressional District of Ohio, and a citizen …’" Brouwer said. "And then the choir repeats, ‘A citizen, a citizen, a citizen.’”

At the actual hearing, Fudge urged the Corps of Engineers to stop dumping sediment into the lake. In Brouwer’s oratorio, the chorus and Fudge go back and forth until the music reaches a fever pitch.

“When the statement is done they sing in loud, big full chorus," Brouwer said. "They sing, ‘Don’t halt the wheels of progress or halt the decades of achievement in water quality.’ This is pretty impassioned singing with the orchestra playing these rhythmic figures with them.”

Of course, every drama needs two sides.

“The other point of view is represented here, too," Brouwer said. "After that whole part is finished, and the choir finishes their big part, then the representative from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is introduced.”

But Brouwer admits the controversy about what to do with the dredged waste moved her personally.

“I mean the whole thing was, they said there’s already PCBs at the bottom of Lake Erie, so why not put more in? And that didn’t make sense to me," Brouwer said.

Raising awareness
The Corps of Engineers recently changed its stance when it discovered it could save money by recycling the sediment instead of hauling it to a containment facility, or dumping it in the lake. Still, Brouwer hopes her piece will raise awareness about keeping Lake Erie clean and the water we get from it drinkable.

And she hopes to expand “Voice of the Lake” into a fully-staged opera.

“There’s a little talk about that, but nothing I should talk about yet," Brouwer said.