Campaigning alumni take a musical and environmental odyssey along the Colorado River — and showcase the accompanying movie in video edited exclusively for Oxford Today.

Song of earth and waterBand members David Carel, Sarah Noyce, Ben Barron and James Mitchell at Shoshone Point, on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, filming Confluence

By Lindsey Harrad

When the Infamous Flapjack Affair started playing as a folk group at venues around Oxford in 2013, Oxford students and musicians David Carel (Exeter, 2013), Sarah Noyce (Worcester, 2009), Ben Barron (Worcester, 2013) and James Mitchell (Linacre, 2013) soon discovered they didn’t just make great music together – they shared a common interest in environmental issues too.

‘Before coming up to Oxford I had studied music at conservatory. I wanted to find a way to combine my interest in music and my studies in environmental sciences,’ says cellist James Mitchell, who came from Tulsa, Oklahoma to take an MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Policy. ‘While at conservatory, I had had an idea of travelling down the Colorado River and recording the Bach Cello Suites in natural soundscapes. I wasn’t quite able to make that happen in the summer of 2013, before moving to Oxford, but I floated the idea quite early on with the band, and it grew from there and quickly became a group project.’

Funded by donations from conservationists in the US, Confluence, a multimedia documentary project, emerged as the flagship venture of the Widewater Institute, a non-profit organisation formed by the foursome to create this and future projects fusing art and music with environmental and social messages. A documentary film follows the band on a journey through iconic national parks along the Colorado River. They learn about the people and places that depend on one of the most important and endangered river ecosystems on the planet – and they turn those experiences into original music.

Harnessing the publicity of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016, Confluence combines powerful storytelling, imagery and music to connect a generation of young people – increasingly urban, digital, and detached from the natural world – to the critical environmental challenges facing them.

The band partnered with special-interest film company National Parks Experience (NPX), and filming took place in September 2016. Along the way the band made appearances at festivals and small venues – some pre-planned, others spontaneous.

‘As far as experiences go, a couple of landscapes really did take my breath away,’ says Mitchell. ‘The first was the Grand Canyon, as I’d never been there and it was truly, truly spectacular. Then there was Canyon National Park, a lesser-known park in Utah, which I think equally as spectacular but in a more subtle way.

‘But I was perhaps most taken with the people we met along the way. From park rangers of the US National Park Service, who are so incredibly committed to what they are doing, to Dianna Uqualla, a Havasupai medicine woman whose tribe was forced out of the Grand Canyon when the national park was created, we’ve had so many fascinating encounters with interesting people.’

Song of earth and water

Following the launch of a new interactive website, along with a social media campaign to promote the project, the band plans to screen Confluence at a major film festival this summer, after which it will ‘become a tool to start a conversation around challenging issues related to the environment’ with young people through visits to schools and community groups across the US and Europe. The profile of the project has already been boosted by celebrity support from actor and environmentalist Robert Redford. ‘I do think his endorsement gives us legitimacy that it wouldn’t otherwise have,’ says Mitchell. ‘It also tells us we really are on the right track with this project.’

Like the rest of the band, Mitchell also holds down a regular job – in his case working in sustainable finance in the maritime shipping industry for the Carbon War Room – but he admits that if successful, Widewater projects may eventually become their main focus. ‘We have a million ideas of what we’d like to do next, so we have to see what’s possible.’

Band image courtesy of Confluence. Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River, by Daniel Harwardt via Shutterstock.