By Zach Sheets. Before this weekend’s concert, I had the chance to sit down with vocalist Lucy Dhegrae and composers Christopher Trapani and Shawn Jaeger. Chris moved back to Astoria just ten days ago, after a year in Rome, and we spent the afternoon in his living room talking about inspiration, style, identity, and what’s at stake when we make music.
ZS: I’m wondering: In both of your works there are theatrical elements—or, at the very least, dramatic elements. For instance, Shawn, the idea of withholding breath at the end of a long line, almost gasping a little bit. Or Chris, in your case, the singer playing an auto-harp. As composers, how did you build that into the DNA of the works? Maybe already having a soloist in front of the ensemble is a bit theatrical, but do you see these things as quintessential to the life of the piece, or as features that grew out of specific moments in the music?
CT: In my case, I don’t know if I think of that as drama as much as instrumentation, again.
CT: Yeah, ok, no, I like the idea of the singer playing the autoharp (laughs). It’s a visual thing, but it’s also just the sound. I’m reflecting as we’re talking, and I’m thinking that one of the things that makes Waterlines the piece it is, is that I had no restrictions. I had no parameters when I was composing. If you don’t have any practical considerations, you tell yourself, well, why not put in a stroh violin part? Or, why not put in an autoharp? It’s not in danger of being performed anyway (laughs). So, I just kept adding things to the piece. I think because of that—in addition to the subject matter, which is very personal—the act of composing this piece was quite free in a way that’s unusal for me.
SJ: I think I was aware of the fact that the singer I was writing for, Dawn Upshaw, is a great communicator of text—and that I know it’s important to her to be able to relate strongly to the text and to the feeling that the music is coming out of the text. And so I probably wrote with that in mind, even more than I would have otherwise. The moment that you mentioned—that gasp at the end of the second song—it’s not necessarily that Dawn is an excellent “gasp-er” or anything. It’s just that I was thinking in all cases, how I could mostly clearly illustrate this text. It’s talking about holding your breath so long that you can almost literally (and metaphorically) see through to the other side of something. For me, this is the cold pane. It’s going to get frosted with your breath, and I put that directly into the music.
ZS: Lucy, I’m wondering if you can talk about that from the perspective of the soloist. I don’t know about you, but as I was listening that this morning that moment was amazing for me. I’m a flutist, and I felt my body tense up the way I do at the end of a long phrase, when I’m almost to the end and need to push a little farther. The pacing and the timing seems just right for it—do you find the same thing?
LD: I do try to push myself to the edge of breathing in that moment. It makes me think of Aperghis—of the final recitation from the 14 recitations, where you take one big breath and then do the whole piece on one breath. It’s extremely dramatic and visceral; if it’s done correctly and with a good actress, it rips your heart out to see someone making sound when they have no air left. They keep going, their eyes are watering— it’s very physical. For me it comes from this theory of acting, where emotion is not intellectual, but emotion comes from a physical gesture. You don’t have to add anything.
ZS: How do you think about that in the context of two pieces that come from such an emotional place for both Chris and Shawn? They’re very earnestly sharing something from their histories. What is the experience of singing from that perspective?
LD: Being a singer is a huge responsibility, and there’s nothing worse than someone taking really personal material and performing it in an overly dramatic way. There are two ends of a spectrum and both have their pitfalls: on one end, you’re not fully investing in the gestures of the piece, not bringing them from the deepest place they come from; and on the other you’re being overly dramatic and cheesy. In these pieces I find it particularly easy to connect and they mean a lot to me, they touch me very deeply. I would love to do Chris’ piece memorized, although I fear that might not be possible to do really well.
CT: I dunno, I think you got it by now (laughs)
LD: I probably have more than I think I do, but it would be cue-city for the conductor.
In Chris’ piece, I spent a lot of time learning about people’s experiences in Hurricane Katrina. We see floods and hurricanes on TV, but our typical response (if we haven’t experienced that ourselves) is a colder and more distant relating.
Being the voice of someone who’s been through a disaster is an important role as a singer. I take this really, really seriously. Singers do function almost as orators, channeling voices through your own voice. I’m not saying “I’m a vessel”. Not that. But, realizing that you are the voice of someone who has not had the opportunity to be heard: that’s a huge responsibility. I do everything I can just to be present in the moment and open those emotions.
ZS: A kind of forthrightness?
LD: Yeah, forthright—it’s just being a human. Being present on stage is the same thing as being present in your life. It’s just that it’s very visible on stage—to many people at once—how well I’m doing.
ZS: I’d love to hear from you two about the experience of writing it—I imagine it’s a huge responsibility for you as well. Especially in your case, Chris, when you’re dealing with an event that was such a part of our national awareness.
CT: I mean… it pretty much just threw over my entire life for several months, if not longer, so there was no way that I wasn’t going to write about it. There was no way to avoid it. I was living abroad, which was a strange, maybe lucky, experience. And, I just really couldn’t think about anything else. So, I also couldn’t write music about anything else. And, for the space of a year, the first movement of Waterlines would be the only thing I composed.
ZS: And, for you, Shawn, the Cold Pane deals with events in your family. In your artistic practice do you often work things that have happened in your life?
SJ: Well, I just think that vocal music invites these kinds of questions, because you have text. So, there’s a question of “what am I going to say and why am I speaking?” What do people need to hear, or what’s a reason to speak? Lamentation in song is really powerful, and when I came across the poem from the fourth song, I realized it was speaking to a very specific experience my dad had. It was strange to see that written out—I couldn’t have described it more specifically, myself. Seeing my own experience reflected in that was really striking, and I think singers like to feel like the stakes are high for singing.
SJ: It’s not that instrumental music isn’t also profound and important, but I think singers really want to understand the motivation and reason for what they’re doing. So, I felt like I should go with a very personal story.
CT: I was thinking about the question that you mentioned in your email about influences and tradition. I know that the composer who influenced me the most—who not a lot of people point out—is George Crumb. For me that’s the paragon of American composer who writes with folk instruments and has a regional voice in what he does. I was heartened to discover that Tristan Murail really likes George Crumb, since Murail was prized in the spectral scene that was influencing me at the time.
SJ: It sounds like you’ve been a fan of Crumb for longer than I have (I came to him later) but my idea of a sort of regionalism came more out of literary influences than musical ones. But what I love so much about your music—and maybe I’m just seeing myself reflected in it—is that you hear traditional music as being, I think, avant-garde in some ways. Or as having these weird things about it that are sophisticated and strange, and you amplify those in your compositions, and that’s the way I hear a lot folk music. It’s, “man, that is so different than other things”, and there’s all this subtlety there that I really want to engage with, and our notational system—to connect it back to Zach’s question from before—is usually so poorly set-up to engage with that. Chris, you manage to capture all these nuances of timbre and style really effectively.
CT: Well, it’s something that I’ve often thought about as I was a student and I was learning about notation and seeing fetishistic notation happening around Paris. I would think to myself, yeah, but you can’t even listen to what’s on a Charley Patton record and put it down. It doesn’t do it justice. I don’t think I’ve always found the solution, but it’s still something I think about a lot. How do you get at what is subtle and weird about these old records?
SJ: And sometimes it’s not always the most direct route, just something that gets you closest. Like, the way you use noise might not immediately seem so connected to those records or those sounds—say, Charley Patton—but in a way it seems to honor it more truthfully.
CT: The literary reference / touchstone for me was Greil Marcus’ book Invisible Republic, now called The Old, Weird America. It’s about the Basement Tapes, and about the Harry Smith Anthology, which I have to admit I discovered through Greil Marcus. And, again, this whole world of weird Americana…. There’s this whole really great chapter about Doc Boggs in it, and how weird his music is. Do you know the book?
SJ: I’ve never read it, but I know Greil Marcus, the Basement Tapes, & the Smith Anthology.
ZS: Well, it’s interesting: both of you talked in your own way about this idea of time and multiple layers. I think that’s something we definitely find in Crumb, and in the two composers I mentioned in my email: Ives and Nancarrow. This was an observation I had never thought about until today. Do you think there’s something in Americana tradition that inspires a desire work with multiple layers of motion? It would certainly also be something we think about with Steve Reich, for example.
CT: I don’t know. First of all, I think of Nancarrow as very different than the other two. Not so much polystylistic as he is a genius of proportion and invention. But, Crumb is not so far from Ives, really, in terms of polystylism, superimposition, and quotation. Even their weird notational fetishes, too. I don’t know if it’s uniquely American. It makes me think of Faulkner, and of course he wasn’t acting in a bubble, either.
SJ: Yeah, it could be that it has some uniquely American quality. I think the music that influenced me to write that way was actually not American music, though. I was probably thinking more about Ligeti. But then, Ligeti was listening to a lot of Reich and early minimalism…
ZS: And Nancarrow, right?
SJ: Yes, and Nancarrow. Anyway, I think that’s where I first started to see that you could think in many layers of time. That was probably my first route into that. But Ives is certainly an early example of that, and really does it in fabulous ways.
CT: Ives is definitely a strong influence for me too, but it will always feel like a certain amount of distance, to me, since it’s such a protestant Northern culture that’s really not my own culture. When I was 17, actually, I had a job to play piano and organ in a Methodist church, and that’s how I learned these tunes that I would see in Charles Ives. But, you know, it doesn’t feel like a natural mode of discovery, to me.
ZS: Well, something you said a minute ago brings us to the last thing I was curious about. That is, your remark that you always feel a little bit distant from Ives, not being from the north. But, for me, as a Vermonter, Ives has always felt almost too natural. Everything we think of when we think of Ives—there’s the town green and the gazebo, the congregational church, etc—was just the daily work of going to school.
Anyway, in your last interview with Talea you asked a rhetorical question about the idea of regional style in America in music. In writing or in visual art we still think about idea of regional style, but in composition we tend to much less. But, this weekend’s concert is all composers who are from a similar region of the world and who have similar fascinations. Do you want to take stab at answering your own question?
SJ: Well, I like thinking about this, and I think that certain cities and ensembles and educational institutions have “house styles”. A group of people congregate around those institutions and inspire each other, and that can lead to certain trends. But, more broadly, in terms of regionalism, I think this is typically outlined as a coastal thing, which of course ignores everything in between and to the north and south. There is an inherent cosmopolitanism in classical music, because that’s where the funding centers and institutions that support it are.
But I think with that oftentimes comes an urge not to seem provincial, and I think that’s sad, because then it can lead to reinforcing this bicoastal attitude. And, it might also contribute to a sense of people outside of the coasts feeling alienated from classical music. So, I have consciously tried to engage with music and literature from Kentucky.
CT: I think the answer is that I want to be able to engage with it but not exclusively with it.
CT: I do get asked often if Waterlines has been performed in New Orleans. It has been performed in Ghent or in Brugges, but not in New Orleans. It’s maybe part of the attitude Shawn just pointed out.
SJ: I like what you said about not wanting to be defined by a certain style that you’re interested in engaging with. I think the opposite of that is folks who, because so much music is so easily available to us, engage with so many things that they do so in a very cursory way. So, thinking regionally is one way to be specific. It’s not the only way, but I think specificity and attention to detail is important to me. So, by limiting myself somewhat arbitrarily to this group of cultural things, I can be more specific in what I take away from them and what I hear from them, but it’s not by any means the only thing that I’m interested in or inspired by.
CT: In any event, it’s a great program.
ZS: Do you have something like that as a performer, Lucy? Either a singer who you think of as very close to your artistic practice, or some aspect of your upbringing that you feel really informs the way you approach music?
LD: I can think of two vocalists who really influenced my life. The first is Pat Madden, who was my school music teacher. Each week she would come to our class with her guitar and we would sing Pete Seeger songs, and so forth. She just had the most gorgeous voice… She was a folk singer and sang folk music in the area. And she was just so honest and her singing was so… I hate to use the word pure, but it was just from her heart. There wasn’t any ego in it. There was just beauty.
And it’s the same thing with Dawn Upshaw. There’s an egoless presence that feels very connected to the text and the music and the other people on stage. For me, it’s not even as much about what it sounds like as it is about the on-stage “politics”: how you conduct yourself with the ensemble and with the audience. We want to see that you’re human. We want to see that you’re vulnerable. There’s not this big wall up where you’re a “performer.”
I very much hope to come on stage as Lucy Dhegrae and sing pieces from a place that goes beyond my own body. I want the singing experience to change me in some way, to move me. When that happens, it’s an almost spiritual experience for me—it’s a feeling of connectedness to everyone on stage, to the composer, to the author of the text, to each and every word—that feeling of oneness is one of the most beautiful things that music lays bare.