Waterfall glides from folk to spiritual in 'That Art Thou'

Linda Waterfall is known mostly in these parts as a sunny singer/songwriter/guitarist with a clarion voice, nimble left hand, milewide smile and a crusader's passion for organic produce.

But Waterfall — not a stage name, by the way — has a lesser-known ID that gradually has been making itself heard the past few years. She's a serious composer of art songs and choral music.

Next week, the University of Washington Chamber Singers, conducted by Geoffrey Boers, presents the Seattle premiere of Waterfall's eclectic new work, "That Art Thou: Songs from the Vedas." The concert is at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Meany Theater, on the University of Washington campus ($5-$8; 206-543-4880). A new recording of the piece, by the UW Chamber Singers, will be sold at the show.

"That Art Thou" consists of musical settings of five sacred Hindu texts, taken from what is called the Rig Veda and the Upanishads. The oldest written version of the Rig Veda dates from 1400-1200 B.C.; the Upanishads, also called the Vedanta, are considered the "summing up" of the Vedas.

Waterfall first read the Vedas when she was a student at Stanford, in the tumultuous 1960s. Though she adheres to no particular religious practice, the idea of doing something musical with these works has been in the back of her mind a long time.

"I discovered them sometime back when I was living in Palo Alto, in my mid-20s," explained the 52-year-old composer, whose early albums, "Mary's Garden" (1977, Windham Hill) and "My Heart Sings" (1979, Trout), brought her national acclaim on the coffeehouse circuit.

"I spent about three or four years as a student of Hari Das Baba and I also got initiated into TM (Transcendental Meditation) around 1969. Not a very original move on my part" — she laughs — "but that was my introduction to meditation, which has been a thread through my life. I studied Taoist literature, the Upanishads, all kinds of things. I get a lot of inspiration out of studying spiritual texts."

The immediate impetus for "That Art Thou," however, was a bout with breast cancer, which resulted in a yearlong (successful) battle for her health, and a period of recuperation. The singer still occasionally wears an elastic bandage on her left arm, to suppress lymph edema (swelling) caused by lymph-node removal, though she has no trouble playing guitar now.

"The timing of this project was kind of amazing," she said. "I had the surgery in August of '99, and about three weeks later, this thing comes from the Seattle Arts Commission (SAC). I'd totally forgotten that I'd applied — $7,500 — the biggest grant I've ever gotten! I knew immediately what I wanted to do."

Growing up outside Chicago, Waterfall had a grandly eclectic music education, which includes classical piano, composition and theory, as well as folk guitar and a lifelong love of rock 'n' roll. She played electric bass in a Seattle rock band, the Skyboys, and in 1991, courtesy of another SAC grant, set some Walt Whitman poems to music, which she recorded on "In the Presence of the Light" (Trout).

"That Art Thou" reflects her Whitmanic embrace of the American panorama, mixing vernacular and highbrow culture, and everything in between. Some parts suggest the obsessive world rhythms of Steve Reich, others, the sirening melodies of Stevie Wonder. The rich, thick choral voicings of the third movement, "Firestick," shimmer with the icy dissonance of the Bulgarian Women's Choir.

"I always feel a little funny, talking about spiritual things," confessed Waterfall, "because I don't want to impose on other people. But when I'm meditating, sometimes I feel the sort of pulsating, or vibrating thing. It's like a glowing, or an oscillation. I was trying to capture that experience."

Does she ever worry that she's confusing her audience, moving from folk songs to quasi-classical music? Waterfall answers that she's never been able to stay in one place for too long.

"I put out my first album on Windham Hill and then the next thing I did was join the Skyboys as a bass player," she responded. "People at the time said, 'What are you doing this for?' But the thing that is unique about American music is that we have all these traditions, from the intellectual, classical to the incredible contribution that's been made by African-American music and then all the other ethnic folk musics. It's all part of an education process."

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247; pdebarros@seattletimes.com