Christopher Trapani, Waterlines (2005-12) | Chicago premiere

    Duration: 22 minutes
    Instrumentation: Voice, large ensemble and electronics
    Premiered by Talea Ensemble with soprano Lucy Dhegrae on Sept. 26, 2014, in New York City
    Texts from recordings by the Carter Family, Kokomo Arnold, Bessie Smith, Ramblin’ Thomas, Charley Patton and Lonnie Johnson
    Copyright/publisher: Time and Place Music (ASCAP)

    The composer writes:
    “‘You ever have one of those days,’ asked [talk-show host] Jon Stewart, opening his first post-Sandy broadcast, ‘where everything you ever loved as a child was underwater?’ Well, yes. I know the feeling. That immediate sensation of shock after the storm is still emblazoned in my mind: the fear of losing everything from the concrete to the intangible, from houses and photo albums to cultural traditions. My grandmother knew it, too, growing up in the Delta town of Rolling Fork; she was a 9-year-old child when the Mississippi River burst its banks and floodwaters blanketed her town. The 1927 Mississippi River flood, one of the most destructive natural disasters in American history, coincided with the heyday of commercial recording in the South — a last burst of enterprise before the Great Depression that fortuitously left us with several great records chronicling the disaster.

    “In the months following Katrina, I began sifting through these old blues and country records for words and sounds that resonated, borrowing sonorities, couplets and stylistic gestures, and assembling them into a project with historical, musicological and personal dimensions. Waterlines is the result, a cycle influenced in equal measure by the Southern music I was discovering through my research and the spectral music I was hearing regularly in Paris. Before long I started seeing parallels: an oscillation between consonance and noise in spectral music started to seem like the sway between the tonic and dominant in the blues. I was struck by the use of microtonal inflections in both traditions, and more importantly by the emphasis on local detail in gesture and sonority. Grisey’s chiseled orchestrations seemed as imbued with meaning as the intricately timed scoops of Son House’s slide guitar.

    “Each of the five songs focuses on a specific aspect of the disaster. ‘Can’t Feel at Home’ was written first, in the fall following the storm. The lyrics are adapted from a hymn, a strophic text with hints of both linear and cyclical development. Likewise in the music, certain elements are constant, like a refrain — the steady diatonic ostinato of the Appalachian dulcimer, the tonal roots of the harmony — while others, like the slowly thickening orchestration, the incremental expansion of the harmonic complexity and the incursion of pitch less sounds, are constantly evolving, shifting colors against a steady backdrop.

    “’Wild Water Blues’ gives the narrative account — a fast-motion, first-person account of a storm sweeping through. ‘Poor Boy Blues’ takes a step back to a disoriented landscape where cultural propriety is jumbled and confused. A blues refrain is intercut with fragments of Romantic lieder — an intrusion from yet another, less explicably dear, tradition — whose themes (wandering, homelessness, boats) resonate with the imagery of the blues texts. ‘Devil Sent the Rain Blues’ is a distillation of anger and frustration, the A–A–B blues form reworked into a distorted, microtonal dirge. The final song, featuring live electronics and a series of unusual instrumental timbres, transforms New Orleans native Lonnie Johnson’s ‘Falling Rain Blues’ into an outward spiral, a gradual accumulation of fading sounds — the slow transmutation of tragedy into memory.”

    About the composer:
    Christopher Trapani was born in New Orleans. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, then spent most of his 20s 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. Since 2010, Trapani has been based in New York City; he is currently completing a doctorate at Columbia University, where he has worked with Fred Lerdahl, George Lewis, Tristan Murail and Georg Friedrich Haas.

    Trapani is the winner of the Gaudeamus Prize (2007), the Julius F. Ježek Prize (2013), as well as awards from ASCAP, BMI and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is the recipient of fellowships and residencies from Copland House (New York), Akademie Schloss Solitude (Stuttgart) and Les Récollets (Paris). His scores have been performed by Ensemble Modern, ICTUS, Nieuw Ensemble, Talea Ensemble, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Yarn/Wire and the JACK Quartet, among others. Current projects include a Chamber Music America commission for the vocal ensemble Ekmeles and a new large ensemble work for the combined forces of ICE and Ensemble L’Itinéraire.



    This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.
    My treasures and my hopes are all beyond the blue.
    Where many friends and kindred have gone on before.
    And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

    Over in glory land, there is no dying there.
    The saints are shouting victory, there’s singing everywhere.
    I hear the voice of them that I have heard before.
    And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

    Oh, lord, you know I have no friend like you.
    If heaven’s not my home, oh, lord what would I do?
    Angels beckon me to heaven’s open door.
    And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

    Heaven’s expecting me, that’s one I know.
    I fixed it up with Jesus a long time ago.
    He will take me through though I am weak and poor.
    And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

    Oh, I have a loving mother over in glory land.
    I don’t expect to stop until I shake her hand.
    She’s gone on before just waiting at heaven’s door.
    And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.


    I woke up this morning, I couldn’t even get out of my door.
    Said this wild water got me covered, and I ain’t got no place to go.

    I was sitting in my kitchen, looking way out across the sky.
    I thought the world was ending; I started to cry.

    The wind was howling, the buildings beginning to fall.
    I seen that mean old twister coming just like a cannonball.

    Now I hear my mama crying, but I just can’t help myself.
    Now this wild water keep on rising, I got to get help from someone else.

    Now good morning, Mister Wild Water, why did you stop in my front door?
    Says you reaches from Cairo clean down into the Gulf of Mexico.

    When it thunders and lightning, and the wind begin to blow.
    There’s thousands of people ain’t got nowhere to go.

    Then I went and stood up on some high and lonesome hill.
    And looked down on the house where I used to live.

    Mmm, I can’t move no more.

    Now look a-here, Mister Wild Water, why do you treat me so doggone mean?
    Says you took my house out of Cairo, carried it down in New Orleans.


    I was down in Louisiana, doing as I please.
    Now I’m in Texas, I got to work or leave.

    Poor boy, poor boy, poor boy long ways from home.

    If your home in Louisiana, what you doing over here?
    Said my home ain’t in Texas, and I sure don’t care.

    Poor boy, poor boy, poor boy long ways from home.

    I don’t care if the boat don’t never land,
    ‘Cause I can stay on the water as long as any man.

    Poor boy, poor boy, poor boy long ways from home.

    And my boat comes a-rocking, just like a drunken man.
    And my home’s on the water, and I sure don’t like land.

    Poor boy, poor boy, poor boy long ways from home.


    Good Lord send the sunshine, Devil he send the rain.
    I will be here tomorrow on the morning train.

    You don’t know, sure don’t know my mind.
    I don’t show you my ticket, and you don’t know where I’m going.

    I been to the ocean, peeped down the deep blue sea,
    I didn’t see nobody looked like my sweet mama to me.

    I’m going away, mama, don’t you want to go?


    Storm is rising, the rains begin to fall.
    I’m all alone by myself, no one to love me at all.

    My blues at midnight and don’t leave me until day.
    I’ve got no sweet woman to drive my blues away.

    Blues falling like showers of rain,
    Every once in a while, think I hear my baby call my name