Based in New York City, Christopher Trapani creates works that defy simple categorization. Weaving American and European stylistic strands into a personal aesthetic, he draws on Delta blues, Appalachian folk, dance-band foxtrots and Turkish makam, These roots-music influences can be heard alongside the spectral swells and meandering canons of his contemporary classical compositions. In April, Trapani was named one of this year’s recipients of the prestigious Rome Prize, which includes a yearlong residency at the American Academy in Rome.
His song cycle Waterlines, about nature’s indifference and potential destructiveness, will be performed May 9 as part of the MusicNOW program titled “Spring or Some Such Thing.” The following is a transcript of a conversation between Trapani and Elizabeth Ogonek, the CSO’s Mead co-composer-in-residence.
Elizabeth Ogonek: When was Waterlines written?
Christopher Trapani: If you look at the score, it has two dates: 2005 and 2012. That’s because I wrote the first movement, as a whole, in the fall of 2005, right after [Hurricane Katrina]. And then it sat there for a while as I looked for the right circumstances to assign to the piece. It finally happened in 2012, when I wrote the rest of it.
EO: You’re from New Orleans, and Waterlines is a very personal piece. Can you tell us a little bit about where the ideas behind the piece came from and how you brought them to life?
CT: Well, it’s really a piece about Hurricane Katrina. That was the impetus. I struggled with how I would address that life-changing event in my music. This was in 2005 of course — I was living in Paris, and I felt this enormous sense of distance from back home. At the same time, I started getting very interested in the music of the South. I was reading Greil Marcus and listening to Harry Smith’s Anthology [of American Folk Music], and becoming very interested in American folk music. It just so happens that before Katrina the biggest disaster in the Mississippi Delta was a flood in 1927, which coincides with the heyday of commercial recording in the South. So we have all of these great songs from the era that — just by luck of history — were preserved. I decided I wanted to create a parallel between the 1927 flood and Hurricane Katrina by setting some blues and country texts from that era.
EO: Is Waterlines a piece that you needed to write, or that you wanted to write, or both?
CT: That’s funny, because I remember when I found the first text, “Can’t Feel at Home,” which is a song that was recorded by the Carter Family, it did sort of become an obsession. I wrote the vocal line on very small bits of manuscript paper. I remember being on the subway in Paris — on my way to work teaching English — and writing out the vocal line by hand. So yeah, it is one of those pieces that didn’t have any practical performance prospects. It just descended upon me and needed to be written.
EO: It sounds like you took that process to heart, starting it in 2005 and waiting until the right period to finish it in 2012.
CT: Mostly, it was a practical consideration. I didn’t really want to have the piece performed in Paris. It needed the right singer, and it needed the right context. It’s a piece that requires a singer who has some familiarity with American folk traditions and who can imitate certain stylistic gestures of blues and country music, but in a sincere way.
EO: When did the piece receive its premiere, and where?
CT: The piece was premiered in two parts. Two movements were premiered in 2012, and the full premiere was in 2014 at Roulette in Brooklyn. Both were with Talea Ensemble.
EO: Can you tell us a little bit about the instrumentation?
CT: The piece is for one singer, seven instruments, and there’s a sort of second soloist who plays only plucked strings. There’s an acoustic guitar, a steel-string guitar, and an electric guitar. But there are also two slightly more exotic instruments: a fretless Turkish banjo called the cümbüş, and an Appalachian dulcimer — the kind that you play on your lap with a dowel. The dulcimer is a modal instrument, so it’s very restricted. It plays throughout the first movement. My initial ideas about the piece reflected on change and continuity. How can country music, Southern music, be so emotionally charged and expressive within a very narrow framework of harmony and movement? So I took the dulcimer — this continuous drone instrument — as an element that pervades the entire first movement of the piece. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of chaotic change happening around that [static] baseline.
Maybe I can go back and say something else about my personal connection to the piece.
CT: The 1927 flood was something that my grandmother lived through. She was from a small town: Rolling Fork, in the Mississippi Delta. She would share memories throughout her life of being stranded by the water there. So there is a very personal connection to both the 1927 flood and Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed my father’s house. The house I grew up in had about seven feet of water in it. It [the hurricane] was another devastating event, so this piece draws a parallel between the two.
EO: I wanted to ask you about musical influences. This piece obviously has a lot of influences — I think that comes across very clearly — and I was wondering 1) if you could talk about them, and 2) if this variety of influence is specific to Waterlines, if this is a kind of idiom that you are working in these days, or if the influences exist in your previous work as well.
CT: Great question. Often when I compose, I’m looking for some kind of external spark, something that I can transform and make my own in the frame of a composition. With Waterlines, the spark was the Southern music that I was exposed to when I was younger, and that I would play myself. Actually, the dulcimer part was written for me to play, which I did in the first performance.
So, yes, very often in my music I’m exploring different types of folk influences. But the influences are not limited to the ones I encountered growing up. I also have a very strong interest in music from the Balkans and from Turkey, and I’ve incorporated those [influences] into other pieces of mine. However, and this is something that frustrates me a little bit, Waterlines is taken as more “authentic” because I am from the South myself and I’m treating music from the South. But I’m not sure.
EO: Excellent, thank you. So, going off of that: You’ve lived in a lot of places and moved around a lot. I suppose that has been alluded to and has probably influenced your music just as much as the music you grew up with. Can you talk a little bit about that? It might be a repetition of what you just said, but…
CT: No, no, it’d be very good if I could say something about spectralism and its connection with Waterlines. I have traveled a lot, and I’d like to think that it happened organically, that I was sort of chasing my interests at various points. I always felt a very strong connection to French music — to Ravel, Debussy, Messiaen — and so when I was looking for a place to live at age 23, Paris held the strongest attraction for me. I didn’t know a lot about contemporary French music, and I also didn’t have any interest in electronics at the time. So it’s very funny that both of those became a big part of my identity.
When I was living in Paris in my early 20s, I started discovering spectral music, and a lot of Waterlines comes out of a meditation on some common elements between the blues and spectralism. There’s a sense of home, or tonic or consonance, a polarity that you move toward and against. Microtonality is also something that both the blues and spectralism make extensive use of. But more generally, it was just me thinking, “How can I translate blues patterns into a contemporary context?”
EO: Can you explain what spectralism is?
CT: Spectralism is a current of French music — very popular since the 1970s — that uses analysis techniques to look at sound, and at the core materials of sound itself. [Spectralists] create sometimes very consonant and colorful works based on a close investigation of sound.
The last movement of Waterlines, which is called “Falling Rain Blues,” is a setting of a song by Lonnie Johnson, who was both a fantastic guitarist and a fiddle player, born in New Orleans. Throughout the entire song, there’s a layer of electronics, which are ambient sounds. They are a mix of recordings of rain with the pops from old records. It’s a bit of a nod to a Tristan Murail piece, Ethers, in which there’s a constant layer of noise over the music. In that piece, it’s a set of maracas that are playing. But it’s the same experience you have when you listen to old records. There’s an ambiguity there. Is this something new pulled from spectralism, or is this a nod to something much older?