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Clōta’s Song - Lisa Robertson

Updated: Apr 23, 2023

The initial stimulus for this piece occurred when I came across the origins of the River Clyde’s name. It is thought to have derived from the name of a goddess associated with the river, known to the Celtic people as ‘Clut’, or ‘Clywwd’, though the first recorded name, from the Roman historian Tacitus, was the Latinised ‘Clōta’, thought to mean ‘the cleanser’. This river once being considered a divine cleanser felt pertinent in the context of river pollution and the Upstream Battle campaign. The presence of Celtic water deities and other nature gods in Scotland, and in other Celtic counties, indicates that such past inhabitants had a deeply respectful and reverential attitude towards nature. Perhaps they had a more intimate relationship with nature than we often feel today, with human constructions, urban features and technology sometimes appearing to have a more direct influence over our survival and daily existence than the natural environment does. Now we can feel a sense of disconnect with nature, but they must have seen so clearly the evidence of how their survival depended on it, for example, how rivers sustained their supply of food and provided transportation. However, the human constructions we now shape our lives around are simply a smokescreen. We don’t always see it, but our survival still depends on our maintaining a healthy relationship with the natural environment. Sadly, today, this relationship has become broken. For example, our excessive lifestyles have led to rivers being polluted, with plastic flowing into the sea and inhibiting ocean life, which could be impactful for human survival too. Our survival now depends on our once again forging a healthy relationship with our natural environment. In doing this, I believe we can learn a lot from looking to the past, to the attitudes people once had towards our own land, and to how they lived symbiotically with it.

Seeking to reclaim and honour these past attitudes, especially considering what a respectful, reverential feeling towards rivers there must have once been to lead a belief in river deities, I imagined the voice of the goddess Clōta herself. I considered her reaction, on seeing the ways in which human attitudes towards the river have changed over time. Looking again to eco-conscious cultures of the past, whilst referencing another river with spiritual significance, my musical starting point for the piece was a recording of a traditional Gaelic song, Bruach Abhainn Iòrdain (River Jordan’s Bank) which I transcribed and then adapted.

The structure of the piece is based on river features. For example, the general pitch flows from high to low throughout the piece. The piece follows the characteristics of different parts of a river, beginning like dripping or trickling and being full of energy, like a river’s fast upper course. It gradually begins to meander, losing its initial high energy and being lulled into a gentler flow. The general dynamic builds as tributaries join the river. Through the process of erosion, a river gathers up pieces of the riverbank, which are swept up and join the flow of the river. Thus, the flow of the music gathers new pitches which are added one by one and become part of the overall current. These pitches, from the adapted Bruach Abhainn Iòrdain material, are introduced, gradually revealing more of the melody. I included ‘found objects’ in the piece which mimic river sounds. Before the first pitch is introduced, pine cones are used to create dripping sounds and bubble wrap is used to create some of a river’s white noise. I wanted to include a natural object as well as an item of plastic to signify a healthy relationship of intimacy with nature as well as an unhealthy, polluting, relationship.

Breaking the natural flow of the river, I introduce other elements of ‘musical pollution’. Harsh timbres and harmonies choke the river’s song, which stumbles, becoming pained, and struggles to maintain its fluid motion. By the end of the piece, Clōta, the Clyde, has sustained such pollution that by the time all of the pitches have been introduced and we finally hear the full rendition of melodic material, the river’s song is mournful, defeated and eventually dies away.

They called me the great cleanser,

the divine purifi􀀕er, Clōta - water goddess.

I washed clean the earth.

They called me the lifeblood of the earth-

its veins. I nourished life and prosperity,

Clōta, goddess of this river.

They built their ships upon my back.

They built their city by my side.

With my strength they powered their lives.

I sustained them as they thrived.

But, they no longer call me goddess.

Stained by their 'success', I cannot wash clean this earth.

Choked by their excess, I cannot nourish life.

I cannot prosper.

They no longer call me divine cleanser,

Now they just call me the Clyde.

Lisa Robertson

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