Photos set course for 'Chicago River'
Composer Orbert Davis has drawn inspiration for movements of “The Chicago River,” his new jazz symphony, from particular images in “The Lost Panoramas” by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams. Here is a guide to the five movements of Davis' work, and a key image Davis drew upon for each one, with commentary from Davis, Cahan and Williams. — Howard Reich

Movement 5: ‘The Seventh Wonder'

“This being the seventh engineering wonder of the world, this picture (is) about the growth of Chicago around the river,” says Davis. “This is the one picture where we now have an audience. It's basically saying: ‘OK you guys, the work is over, let's check out what you've done.' … It's the culmination. Now we marvel at the ideas, the work, the vision and even the loss of what has happened to this point.”

Or, as the authors write in the closing paragraph of the book: “in these lost panoramas, a part of historic Illinois is documented forever. Depending on your point of view, these images may inspire you or haunt you. Or both.”

Movement 4: ‘Fortress of Solitude'

The composer says he focused on no specific image for this movement, instead looking inward, to his boyhood. “I drew my inspiration here more from my personal experience (by) the Kankakee River, the concept of the river, just having water there, the resources of the listener's mind.”

Movement 3: ‘Retrograde'

This movement “focuses on images of people,” says Davis. “People working, the mechanics of the process of changing the river. … It shows man over nature … men and machines.”

Starting in 1893, the first full year of the engineering project, “People came from all over the world to see what we were doing,” says Cahan, with international visitors to the World's Columbian Exposition and Chicagoans alike flocking to see the digging of the canal. “People were thrilled by it and amazed by it. It was the feeling in those years that engineers ruled, they knew best.”

Adds Williams, “It was a circus atmosphere. One person was killed watching. At that time, anything would go in Chicago. … There was a human cost.” Indeed, the Tribune reported that 279 people were killed by the time the $33 million canal had been built.

Movement No. 2:‘Brewing the Toxic Stew'

“This is a stretch on the Near North Side that was lined with tanneries — you probably had 10 or 15 in a row dumping this kind of waste,” says Williams. “There were no environmental impact studies. Nobody thought through how this (reversal) would affect (the ecosystem). This was solving Chicago's problem.”

Says Cahan: “The city couldn't just come in and say, ‘You can't use this (river as a dumping ground).' They were dependent on this river and the distilleries and tanneries — that's what was making Chicago the special place it was. It gave them an outlet for disposal. Build a factory, just get rid of anything in the factory — there were no rules against pollution. … ‘Dilution is the solution to pollution' was the saying. (They believed) rivers are magical — drop it in the river, and it would go away.”

In composing this movement, Davis contemplated “all the different factories, what goes into building furniture, the waste from the paint and turpentine, then human waste and the stockyards' (overflow). Imagine this being a stew, all (ultimately) discarded in a place where we would obtain our drinking water.”

Movement No. 1: ‘A Lost Panorama'

“When I look at this picture,” says Williams, “I think of how Rich (Cahan) and I were trying to go to this point and discover where it was … (but) this entire island no longer exists — it's under 7 or 10 feet of water. And it illustrates the whole idea of the impact our reversal (of the Chicago River) had on the environment downstream.”

Says composer Davis — who was born in Chicago, grew up in Momence and often practiced his trumpet at water's edge — “This is similar to my scene (growing up) at the Kankakee River, the concept of looking … at the past of what has happened here.”