Rome Prize winner and New Orleans native Christopher Trapani's first portrait recording is in part inspired by Hurricane Katrina's devastation of his home town. Trapani found himself reaching towards the music of the deep South, particularly Delta Blues, and exploring ways to incorporate its distinctive stylistic elements into his own work. The other works on the album reflect a similarly voracious approach to style; drawing variously from aspects of Turkish makam, Conlon Nancarrow, Bob Dylan, and Hank Williams, Trapani displays a deft hand at exploring a wide range of aesthetics while faithfully integrating them into his work. Performers include Talea Ensemble with singer Lucy Dhegrae, Longleash Trio, pianist Marilyn Nonken, qanûn player Didem Başar, and JACK Quartet, in addition to Trapani himself on the hexaphonic electric guitar.
|Lucy Dhegrae, voice, Talea Ensemble, James Baker, conductor|
|01||I. Can't Feel at Home|
I. Can't Feel at Home
|02||II. Wild Water Blues|
II. Wild Water Blues
|03||III. Poor Boy Blues|
III. Poor Boy Blues
|04||IV. Devil Sent the Rain Blues|
IV. Devil Sent the Rain Blues
|05||V. Falling Rain Blues|
V. Falling Rain Blues
Passing Through, Staying Put
|06||I. Passing Through|
I. Passing Through
|07||II. Staying Put|
II. Staying Put
|08||Visions and Revisions|
Visions and Revisions
|09||The Silence of a Falling Star Lights Up a Purple Sky|
The Silence of a Falling Star Lights Up a Purple Sky
|Marilyn Nonken, piano||4:10|
|Didem Başar, qanûn, Christopher Trapani, hexaphonic guitar, Talea Ensemble, James Baker, conductor|
From the opening phrases of Christopher Trapani’s Waterlines, it is clear that we have ventured beyond “conventional” mixed ensemble contemporary music into the risky waters of stylistic hybridity. Inspired by the events of Hurricane Katrina and their impact on Trapani’s hometown of New Orleans, Waterlines is his attempt to come to terms with watching the tragedy unfold from afar. In that process of reckoning, Trapani found himself rediscovering some of the musical traditions he associated with home, while reconciling them with the myriad influences that he had been drawn to in his evolving career as a composer of contemporary concert music. The result is an utterly disarming work of five connected songs that merges the microtonally inflected worlds of Delta Blues and spectral music, Romantic lieder and cabaret, and New Orleans jazz funeral music and ambient soundscapes. Cognitive Consonance also engages with traditional material, though this time Trapani draws from Ottoman classical music, a tradition he spent a year in Istanbul studying on a Fulbright grant. He toggles back and forth between East and West in this work, highlighting two very distinct plucked string instruments. The opening movement, “Disorientation”, features a unique Turkish qanûn designed by French virtuoso Julien Jalâl Eddine Weiss, tailored to a microtonal system based on a Pythagorean (rather than tempered) framework. Trapani integrates the exotic world of this unique instrument into the ensemble through the use of microtonal scordatura in the strings along with electronics that articulate subtle gradations in pitch that mirror the qanûn.Read More
The ending of the opening movement spills over into an electronic interlude, before Trapani looks westward in the final movement. “Westering” focuses on the rich musical ecosystem of California, from Partch’s self-created musical universe to the folk-rock of Joni Mitchell to the hallucinogenic sounds of the rock bands of Haight-Ashbury. The solo instrument here is a “hexaphonic” electric guitar, customized by Trapani, which gives each string its own pickup, allowing him to separately process six signals. This divided pickup allows for an amazing degree of control over microtonal variations in pitch, subtle timbral distinctions, and the construction of independent layers of activity. Passing Through, Staying Put (first heard on Longleash’s excellent release “Passage” FCR180) is a short piano trio split into two movements, one exploring motion and the other stasis. The basis for Visions and Revisions is the 1965 Bob Dylan song, “Visions of Johanna”. Trapani preserves the verse structure of the song, pushing the ensemble into thornier harmonic territory with each repetition and variation. Throughout, we hear hints of the three-chord tonal structure of the original song, but through an increasingly distorted lens. The country legend Hank Williams’ death is the inspiration for The Silence of a Falling Star Lights Up a Purple Sky, performed here by pianist Marilyn Nonken. Trapani uses preparations in the middle register of the piano to echo a palm muted steel string guitar, in gestures that evoke the lazy lilt of a rhythm guitar in a blues. Building around those middle-register figures is a music that is markedly more expansive. The disparity between the cultivated control in these middle-register references to country blues and the immediacy of the large, vertical chords that slowly come to dominate the texture suggests a narrative dichotomy between stylized, regional elements and absolute, universal material. In fact, this duality is present in some form or another in most of the works on this engrossing portrait. Trapani’s encyclopedic command over a wide range of musical worlds allows his music to move effortlessly between them, held together by his keen understanding of the sonic nuts and bolts that make up each distinct style. But within those disparate worlds, we hear Trapani searching, and finding, the sounds and the expressive gestures that symbolize “home” for him. Those glimpses of what he is reaching towards give us the opportunity to learn about who Trapani is as an artist, a prodigious craftsman intent on reconnecting with his musical roots and sources of inspiration.
– D. Lippel
“There’s a piece by Christopher Trapani called Waterlines. He’s made something entirely new from a deep understanding of spectralism and Delta blues. This is not a crossover project, or blues songs with window dressings. He’s invented a new sound world and this gestural language that’s just amazing.” -- Tony Arnold, 21cm.org
“In Waterlines, Christopher Trapani achieves a seemingly impossible feat: reconciling the raw and indigenous essence of American folk and Delta blues within a sophisticated and complex classical song cycle. Yet Waterlines is the real thing, creating a powerful new music out of two disparate elements. Trapani manages to retain the hardscrabble qualities of this American music with writing for voice and plugged-in chamber ensemble that is startlingly original and often breathtaking in its brilliance and audacity.” -- Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
Produced by Christopher Trapani and Ryan Streber (tracks 1-5, 8, 10-12), Christopher Trapani (tracks 6-7, 9)
Engineer: Ryan Streber
Assistant Engineer: Nathan De Brine (tracks 1-5, 10-12), Jeffrey Svatek (tracks 6-7), Ryan Streber (track 8), Joe Patrych (track 9)
Waterlines recorded October 11, 2017 at Oktaven Audio (Mount Vernon, NY)
Passing Through, Staying Put recorded April 30, 2015 at EMPAC (Troy, NY)
Visions and Revisions recorded July 30, 2016 at Oktaven Audio (Mount Vernon, NY)
The Silence of a Falling Star Lights Up a Purple Sky recorded December 5, 2017 at Patrych Sound Studios (Bronx, NY)
Cognitive Consonance recorded October 11, 2017 at Oktaven Audio (Mount Vernon, NY) and December 5, 2017 at Columbia Computer Music Center (New York, NY)
CD design and layout by Chazwald Jones (New Orleans, LA)
All photos © Christopher Trapani, 2018
Cover art from The Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River by Harold Fisk, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (1944)
Figure courtesy of Julien Jalâl Eddine Weiss (p. 4) © Time and Place Music, 2018.
Winner of the 2016-17 Luciano Berio Rome Prize, Christopher Trapani is a composer with a genuine international trajectory. He maintains an active career in the United States, in the UK, and in Continental Europe. Commissions have come from the BBC, the JACK Quartet, Ensemble Modern, and Radio France, and his works have been heard at Carnegie Hall, the Venice Biennale, Southbank Centre, Ruhrtriennale, IRCAM, Ravenna Festival, and Wigmore Hall.
Christopher’s music weaves American and European stylistic strands into an organic personal aesthetic that defies easy classification. Snippets of Delta Blues, dance band foxtrots, Appalachian folk, and Turkish makam can be heard alongside spectral swells and meandering canons. As in Christopher’s hometown of New Orleans, diverse traditions coexist and intermingle, swirled into a rich melting pot.
Christopher Trapani was born in New Orleans, Louisiana (USA). He earned a Bachelor’s degree from Harvard, then spent most of his twenties overseas: a year in London, working on a Master’s degree at the Royal College of Music with Julian Anderson; a year in Istanbul, studying microtonality in Ottoman music on a Fulbright grant; and seven years in Paris, where he studied with Philippe Leroux and worked at IRCAM with Yan Maresz. Since 2010, Christopher has lived in New York City, where he earned a doctorate at Columbia University, working with Tristan Murail, George Lewis, Georg Friedrich Haas, and Fred Lerdahl.
Christopher is the winner of the 2007 Gaudeamus Prize, as well as awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, ASCAP, and BMI, along with fellowships from Schloss Solitude and the Camargo Foundation. His scores have been performed by ICTUS, Yarn/Wire, ZWERM, Ekmeles, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and the Spektral Quartet, amongst others.http://www.christophertrapani.com
While it’s usually terrible when visa problems derail a concert, it was actually to my benefit when Talea Ensemble had to shift gears for their slot at last month’s Resonant Bodies festival. Instead of playing a world premiere by a European composer, the group decided to revisit Trapani’s Waterlines. As a board member of Talea, I saw this happening in real time but still had no idea what to expect as I had missed a previous performance of the piece.
“Home is the pull of a tonic chord,” Trapani writes in his liner notes for Waterlines, “Home is the warm glow of consonance, radiating through a hissing layer of noise.” He then goes on to describe the gestation of the piece, from being in Paris and watching Katrina hit his home city, to seeking solace in the old country and Delta blues records that animate this five-song cycle, especially ones about the great flood of 1927, to finding parallels between those old shellacs and the spectral music of Gerard Grisey and others.
I felt that pull and warmth right from the first strummed dulcimer chords that open the first song, "Can’t Feel At Home", a feeling that only increased when Lucy Dhegrae began singing with the perfect combination of real feeling, theatricality and classical control. Waterlines brought me back to the first time I heard Barstow by Harry Partch, to that feeling like it had been with me all my life. All five songs in Waterlines were riveting and I marveled at the fractured vernacular, the lean orchestration, which has a few unusual instruments (fretless Turkish banjo) but no gimmicks, the quotes from Mahler and others that somehow fit just right...before it was over I knew I was in the presence of an instant classic. Dhegrae was fantastic throughout and Talea's playing, led by conductor James Baker, was intricate, powerful, and immaculately balanced. And now we have this recording featuring the same forces and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
There are four other excellent works here as well. Passing Through, Staying Put is a tart piano trio stylishly played by Longleash, who put such a stamp of greatness on Scott Wollschleger's Soft Aberration last year. The JACK Quartet takes on Visions And Revisions, elucidating its harmonic and melodic ties to Dylan's Visions Of Johanna with what sounds like great affinity for the music. There's further magic in the way Marilyn Nonken's sparkling piano in The Silence Falling Star Lights Up A Purple Sky segues into the final work, Cognitive Consonance.
The longest piece on the album, it consists of two long movements for stringed instruments bookending a brief electronic interlude. Talea Ensemble also contributes here and the electronics were crafted at IRCAM, the electronic music incubator founded by Pierre Boulez. The first part, "Disorientation", uses a specially modified qanun (a kind of zither), played with extraordinary facility by Didem Basar, to explore a tactile landscape of immersive microtonality. I hung on every pluck and sweep of the strings, taking great pleasure from the way they interacted with the electronic textures. The second part, "Westering", is played by Trapani himself on a hexaphonic electric guitar, which has transposition controls for each string, each of which is amplified by its own pickup, allowing for great control of pitch, timbre, etc. But you won't need to think about any of that as you listen - just enjoy the journey, which has no shortage of mystery.
While Trapani's music has been played by many distinguished performers over the years, and included on some fine albums, "Waterlines" is the first album devoted solely to his work and its display of his scholarship, emotional depth and originality could not be more successful or musically satisfying. I can only imagine what he will do next.
-Jeremy Shatan, 10.7.2018, An Earful
Christopher Trapani is a composer from New Orleans. ‘Waterlines’ is the first CD dedicated entirely to his compositions. The cd consists of five works, composed between 2005 and 2013. The CD opens with Waterlines: Five Songs about the Storms and Floods, referring to the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. Trapani takes influences from blues and country for his eclectic songs arranged for voice and a small ensemble. For Visions and Revisions, Bob Dylan’s 1965 song ‘Visions of Johanna’ was a departing point. Instead of reducing, Trapani tries to maximize aspects of popular music, in order “to capture the richness of sonority”, as he explains. It is a beautiful composition; powerful and eloquent. Illustrating that Trapani is a very interesting composer with a strong voice and an original musical vision.
-Dolf Mulder, 12.3.2018, Vital Weekly
Rising flood waters in New Orleans as the theme. Alternate tunings, guitar vs. zither. The incomparable Longleash and JACK being given plenty of extended techniques to dig their teeth (and fingers) into. Lucy Dhegrae singing spectralism-inflected blues songs as only she can. Trapani has a thousand and one good ideas and has enlisted a fantastic slate of performers to realize them. This CD may be one of the few positives to come out of meditating on the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina.
-Christian Carey, 12.24.18, Sequenza21
This first disc devoted to the music of US composer Christopher Trapani highlights the diversity of his outlook. It’s tempting to look at the Blues throwbacks and allusions at the core of Waterlines (a work lamenting the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), the anonymous networks of fierce attacks that make up the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Passing Through, Staying Put and the internalised overlapping melodic strains of string quartet Visions and Revisions and wonder whether Trapani’s aim is to create as disparate an oeuvre as possible. Yet what unites them is a powerful lyrical impulse, which regardless of whether it sings with a literal voice (as in Waterlines) or articulates itself in non-verbal ways nonetheless communicates ideas that always resound with deep emotive conviction. This finds the most extravagantly delicious expression in the three movements of Cognitive Consonance, where a collection of geographically disjunct instruments improbably come together to play, in every sense of that word. Trapani gradually opens out the piece and the players from quasi-warm-up exercises to increasingly extended bursts of high floridity to introspective episodes of microtonal closeness, culminating in a very different immersion from the tragic one that opens the disc, surrounding us in the most gorgeously dreamy and fragrant opulence.
-5 Against 4, 12.30.18
Delta blues meets avant-garde in works inspired by ideas of home in the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina. Cognitive Consonance offers the most vivid sonorities.
-Michael Beek, 12.28.18, BBC Music Magazine
Christopher Trapani is a composer who enjoys working in microtonal and other non-traditional tuning systems. His music uses a wide range of instruments that can produce such sounds, particularly strings (and, in the opening work, the human voice) as well as his “hexaphonic” electric guitar and the quanûn, in fact two quanûns, the second a microtonal instrument devised by Frenchman Julian Jalâl Eddine Weiss. This quanûn uses a system of 15 accidentals based on a Pythagorean system in each of its strings. Pretty out-there stuff!
In addition, the opening work, inspired by the devastation that befell New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (caused, at least in part, by FEMA’s ill-advised decision to break the levees, which poured thousands of gallons of water on an already-flooded city), uses the inspiration of Delta blues records made in the late 1920s in the aftermath of the 1927 Mississippi River flood. The end result is a strange mixture of the blues, with its bent notes within an essentially diatonic scale, sung against the sliding microtonalism of the Talea Ensemble. The opening song, "I Can’t Feel at Home", sounds only somewhat strange through its first half, but the downward gravitic pull of the shifting harmonics eventually affect one’s mood and the character of the music. By the second song, "Wild Water Blues", we clearly aren’t in Kansas anymore. I was a bit put off by what seemed to me a bit of rock influence, but the music clearly encapsulates a feeling of panic and helplessness in the midst of disaster. Trapani cleverly vacillates between tonal, blues and microtonal modes throughout the suite; in "Poor Boy Blues", he tosses in a lick from Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer. In "Falling Rain Blues", he introduces a sound like an old 78-rpm record scratch in the background of the opening music. It’s a very interesting piece. Singer Lucy Dhegrae has a pure soprano voice with good diction, but clearly doesn’t sound like a Delta blues singer despite her blues inflections.
The short piano trio, Passing Through, Staying Put, uses downward chromatic string portamento against the piano, playing four-note chords using “voice-leading principles.” It’s interesting music but not particularly cogent to my ears. In the string quartet Visions and Revisions, microtonalism seems to meet a bluegrass sensibility, based on a Bob Dylan song titled Visions of Johanna. Essentially, the music sounds like a string quartet that is falling apart, with the players trying desperately to replace the strings as they break.
Next comes the atonal piano piece, The Silence of a Falling Star Lights Up a Purple Sky, its strange progression somehow meant to convey the sadness felt in the death of country legend Hank Williams. The pianist apparently plays a prepared piano, as there is a lot of string-twanging involved.
Cognitive Consonance is a tighter-constructed piece, written for a diverse group of instruments including the afore-mentioned quanûns (one the standard trapezoidal zither, the second the “prepared” microtonal instrument) and Trapani himself on “hexaphonic electric guitar.” The music sounds somewhat disjointed because of the microtonal base but is in fact very well- constructed. A third of the way through part 2, “Westering,” the music takes on an almost Indian feel. This is an exceptionally creative piece, and I really liked it.
A strange album, then, with some really remarkable music in it. Definitely worth hearing!
-Lynn René Bayley, 9.25.2018, The Art Music Lounge
Waterlines comprises a handful of contempo/new music works by composer/NY resident Christopher Trapani, whose CV includes obtaining a masters at the Royal College of London, working with IRCAM, Paris, and also with spectralist types George Friedrich Haas and Tristan Murail. His scores, meanwhile, have been performed by the sinister sounding ICTUS, ZWERM and the more innocuous BBC Scottish Symphony Ork amongst others. The collection’s flagship opener and title track is built around the tragedy of 2005’s ‘Hurricane Katrina’ which, if memory serves, was largely ignored by the George Dubyah administration. A major catastrophe that wasn’t catastrophic enough obviously. As New Orleans was the focus of this storm, it only seems right and proper that the blues, the state’s first musical language, should be used in the construction of this piece. That involved Trapani sifting through pre-/post-war blues and country recordings for a telling couplet or a particularly meaningful stylistic device or two. Those expecting dreadful cut ‘n’ paste hackwork a la Moby’s hijacking of blues records some time back needn’t reach for the tranquilisers. Instead, standing centre stage is soprano Lucy Dhegrae’ backed by the twenty-strong N.Y.-based Talea Ensemble.
Now it’s not that tight-assed/overly formalised as that set-up might suggest as Lucy’s folk-shaded tones show a sure-footed empathy for the twelve-bar genre and that really comes to life with ‘Devil Sent the Rain Blues’ (with text by pre-war blues legend Charlie Patton and the Lonnie Johnson-derived ‘Falling Rain Blues’ with its perfect backdrop of digital haze and stray electric crackle. Being considerably more of a statement piece (as mentioned before…) the title track does put some of the other compositions in the shade somewhat. However, ‘Visions and Revisions’ has enough high-register neurosis to warm the cockles of Bernard (Psycho) Herrmann’s heart and then there’s also the ectoplasmic trails of ghostly piano on ‘Passing Through, Staying Put’. But it’s ‘Cognitive Consonance’ that easily secures this disc’s silver medal and again showcases The Talea Ensemble, conducted by James Baker. Employing customised and traditionally constructed Turkish zithers, elements of classic ethnic-tinged Krautrock, Limbus 4, mid-period Embryo and even Kalacakra crowd the mind, bringing this to a pleasing and somewhat surprising conclusion, all things considered…
-Steve Pescott, 1.18.19, Adverse Effect Magazine
Waterlines is Christopher Trapani’s premier portrait release, consisting of five pieces composed between 2005 and 2013. Master performers abound, JACK Quartet, vocalist Lucy Dhegrae, pianist Marilyn Nonken, and Longleash are featured, among others.
Trapani draws from a respectable array of influences from folk forms and Bob Dylan to spectral composition and microtonal approaches. He composes for combinations of traditional acoustic and electronic instruments, voice, and folk instruments and idiosyncratic string instruments. To be honest, this all reads as “sounds that could be particularly offensive to me”, and as such, I approached Waterlines with great caution. Even so, I came to enjoy Trapani’s aesthetic more and more with each successive listen.
I am particularly taken with the disc’s two lengthiest pieces, “Waterlines” and “Cognitive Consonance”. “Waterlines”, written in response to Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of Trapini’s hometown of New Orleans, features settings of five songs about flooding from the delta blues cannon. One senses reverence for the source material rather than a sort of musical gentrification on these recordings, a pleasant surprise to say the least, due in no small part to the artistry of Dhegrae and Talea Ensemble / James Baker. “Cognitive Consonance”, the jewel in the crown of Waterlines, also references source material, this time traditional Ottoman classical music, as studied by Trapani while in Istanbul. Featured on the piece are seemingly disparate elements Turkish qanûn performed by Didem Başar, icy and spectral electronics, and compelling and tripped-out micro-tonalities courtesy one hexaphonic electric guitar that Trapani himself plays on this recording.
Despite reservations, I’m so glad I gave Waterlines a fair shake, uncovering a massive and unique talent in Trapani, and one I will continue to follow. I anticipate that many of you who choose to dive in will feel similarly.
-Kevin Coultas, 1.21.19, In On the Corner
American composer from New Orleans, Christopher Trapani studied at Harvard, at Columbia University with Tristan Murail and Georg Friedrich Haas, as well as in London with Julian Anderson and in Paris with Philippe Leroux and Yan Maresz. His music plays with strongly defined and contrasting material from multiple sources (drawn from many voyages around the world), woven together with extraordinary mastery into phantasmagoric storylines, hyperkinetic, rich with vivid detail, built with periodic structures, limpid harmonies, and extended instrumental techniques.
In Waterlines (2005-2012), inspired by his hometown’s devastation by Hurricane Katrina, musical traditions from Louisiana, which the composer associates with a sense of “home,” are mixed with a myriad of varied musical influences: it features five songs (Can’t Feel at Home, Wild Water Blues, Poor Boy Blues, Devil Sent the Rain Blues, Falling Rain Blues), richly orchestrated (bringing Berio’s Folk Songs to mind), blending Delta Blues and spectral music, lieder and New Orleans jazz, cabaret and echoes of Mahler, in an electrifying and imaginative mixture, invigorated by the extraordinary interpretation of soprano Lucy Dhegrae and the Talea Ensemble.
Ottoman classical music, on the other hand, inspires Cognitive Consonance, a piece for ensemble from 2010, composed after a period of study in Istanbul: the first, “oriental” movement, dominated by the sound of the qanûn (a zither with 78 strings from the Arabic classical tradition) fades into a second “Californian” movement, with a solo electric guitar (whose pickup emits six separate signals, generating subtle microtonal variations), with echoes of Harry Partch, Joni Mitchell’s folk, the psychedelic rock bands of the Haight-Ashbury. The lazy cadence of a blues guitar seems to peep out also in The Silence of a Falling Star Lights Up a Purple Sky (2005) for piano (dedicated to Hank Williams, an icon of country and rock’n’roll), but it is in fact an effect obtained by preparing the middle register of the instrument. A Bob Dylan song, Visions of Johanna, is the basis of Visions and Revisions (2013) for string quartet (remarkably performed by the JACK Quartet), which keeps the formal and tonal structure of the song, but more distorted and disharmonious with each repetition.
-Gianluigi Mattietti, 2.2019, Classic Voice