Gina Scaccia plays the waterphone, which she will play in “Carissa’s Lament,” her composition based on the New Carissa, which ran aground near Coos Bay in 1999. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Jim Craven

Lament for an ill-fated ship

The instrument Gina Scaccia is holding looks like a metallic jellyfish from an alien world. When she strokes it with a cello bow the air is full of otherworldly moaning and a chorus of spooky creaking.

"I'm getting in touch with my inner Jimmy Page," Scaccia says, referring to the rock guitarist known for playing guitar with a violin bow.

Scaccia will play the instrument, known as a waterphone, Friday in the premiere of "Carissa's Lament," her 22-minute composition based on the saga of the New Carissa, the freighter that ran aground on a beach near Coos Bay in February 1999.

SOU music professor and percussion maven Terry Longshore suggested to Scaccia that the piece demanded the use of the waterphone, which belongs to Todd Barton, the resident composer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He even demonstrated it.

"That's the sound," Scaccia said.

It's a sound that evokes, say, Titanic with its abyssal creatures, or maybe Sigourney Weaver's space derelict in "Alien" — and now the New Carissa.

Inspired by Tibetan water drums, the atonal instrument consists of a stainless steel resonator bowl with a "neck" that can hold water and brass rods around the bowl's rim. Waterphones have been used in "The Matrix," "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and other films.

Scaccia, 47, of Ashland, grew up in Illinois and Florida and did hair for 23 years. She'll graduate June 6 from Southern Oregon University with a music degree with an emphasis on composition.

Her obsession with music dates from age 4, when she got a toy piano.

"What do you want to play?" her father asked.

"The harp," the little girl said.

After a pause, her dad said, "What's your second choice?"

She learned flute, guitar and Hammond organ while she cut hair and started at SOU in 2005. A singer-songwriter who has written dozens of songs in a bluesy rock/jazz vein, she's played around Ashland a bit as a solo act. She said she's putting together a new band, which she hopes to take on club gigs, but her dream job would be to write scores for movies.

Scaccia's compositions were heard in the just-concluded "Love's Not Time's Fool," in which RCC's Ron Danko dramatized several dozen of Shakespeare's sonnets. The production played this month to good crowds in RCC's downtown Warehouse Theatre in Medford.

Scaccia set 10 of the sonnets to original music, a tricky proposition since the sonnets have five beats to the line. She wrote literally dozens of musical transitions for the poems in the show (to hear some of her songs visit

"We couldn't have done the show without her," Danko said. "It was that big a thing. We had singers, but it was difficult to find somebody to do the music. At an emotional level, it underlined the importance of the language."

Scaccia actually had written the first part of what would become "Carissa's Lament" a decade ago, when the ill-fated ship first sailed into the waters — and the consciousness — of Oregon.

"It was one of those songs that come to you in 10 minutes," she said.

The 600-foot, Japanese-owned freighter was bound for a cargo of wood chips but found disaster instead. Early attempts to remove her failed. Her bow was eventually towed out to sea and sunk, but the stern remained aground until it was dismantled in 2008.

Scaccia imagined the story as a tragedy in which the central character was the spirit of the ship. She wrote most of the music on a 12-string guitar, then scored it for trombone, harp and flute.

The piece has a rather Celtic mood, modulating from major to minor keys and back. The waterphone won't be the only unusual instrument. A scuba tank will stand in for a buoy bell.

The first movement, "Spiritus," evokes the storm that will drive the ship ashore. A flute is a following bird. The ship voices her fears with a recurrent four-note motif.

In the second movement, "Tempestas," the craft battles the storm. It's here that the waterphone enters as the hull of the doomed ship crying out as she drifts toward disaster. The final two movements represent the ship's determination not to be buried in the sand and her final descent into the depths after being towed to sea.

"I hope the people that hear it will feel what I felt," Scaccia says.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at

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