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: Maybe we can start by talking about Waterlines for a bit. Now that the piece was finished maybe five years ago, Chris, and you’ve come back to it again, can you talk more about its performance life? Maybe how your relationship to it has changed in the past five years?
CT: Well, it’s actually much older than that. I started writing it in 2005, so Waterlines had an extremely long gestation. And I wrote the first movement in its entirety and orchestrated it in 2005, basically unchanged in the full version. So, I think of Waterlines as one of several works from that time, when I was around 25 or 26, living in Paris. I wrote a whole bunch of music; a lot of it had to do with New Orleans, with Katrina, but also with folk or rock or jazz and R&B. Then, all this was fused with spectral music and things that I was uncovering in Paris around the same time. I’m not sure what I can say about how my relationship to the piece has changed over time, although it is a project that I came up with myself, and maybe the last project I came up with myself.
LD: What do you mean?
CT: Ever since, I write one commission, then another. I don’t get to decide the parameters. Here, I said, “ok, I’m going to use the dulcimer”, or, “ok, I’m going to have five movements”. And the trade-off was that it took years to have it performed. Only after I moved to New York and started talking with Talea, in fact; we got a commission to finish the piece from the JFund at the American Composers Forum.
ZS: It’s interesting to me the extent to which this project was a research and rediscovery of these musics. In some interviews I’ve seen with you, there’s a supposition that blues, jazz, or rock were always very close to you, growing up in New Orleans. But it seems like you’ve been pretty specific that rediscovery was a big part of the musical project with Waterlines: acquainting yourself with this narrow window of post-Mississippi flood, pre-depression era recordings.
CT: Yes. Of course I was familiar with blues and country tunes, and even some of the specific tunes I ended up using. I did do an exhaustive research from one book, a compendium of blues lyrics, called “Talkin to myself”, by Michael Taft. They’re organized in a rather hilarious way—not by the names of the musicians you would know, so, for instance, you have to look up “McTell, William”, to find Blind Willie McTell, and things like that. I just combed through these looking for artists or songs that referenced the flood, and discovered quite a few that way.
I sometimes get pigeonholed as the composer who “does Americana”. I’m proud that I’m able to work with part of my background and my heritage, but at the same time, it’s very one dimensional to think of it that way. I’ve written several pieces based ideas from on Turkish music, which has also become a big part of my heritage. But, of course no one looks at me and says “he does Turkish music”. This is true in Europe especially.
For me, composition has always been about synthesis. I want to bring things together, from different traditions, different locations. I am always interested in going someplace new, and discovering something else, but then tying it back in to other things, hopefully not always in a very obvious way. When I think about the composers and the writers and artists I admire, it’s the ones who are plugged into often multiple traditions but manage to synthesize something new out of them. But, I’m fully aware that’s not everyone’s goal.
ZS: Well, speaking of synthesis, I’d love to talk a bit about this question of notation and performing tradition, with Lucy. You’ve sung this before, right?
LD: Yes, on a Talea concert 2014, and then in Milwaukee a few weeks ago.
ZS: What was the process like—learning it the first time, but then working again with Chris and getting to know the piece better? I’m especially curious about understanding the conventions of blues & jazz traditions that Chris is drawing on in the music. Notation is obviously a big part of this, too. How do you work on incorporating your interpretation when in some cases such an iconic sound comes to the fore?
LD: At no point in my life was I ever a blues singer—I had jazz training and improvisation training; my parents are music lovers of all traditions, and folk music is huge in Michigan, so I definitely absorbed a lot of styles as a kid. I feel that one thing I do comfortably as a singer is switch between musical styles. Maybe that’s different from some contemporary or classically-trained vocalists, because a lot of times they don’t want to “compromise” their technique. I don’t feel like I’m compromising, and I wish I could sound less “classical” frankly. When I do what Chris wrote, the style comes out naturally. I’m not “adding” anything to the score, I’m just doing what’s on the page.
ZS: How did you guys work together? Did you spend a lot of time one-on-one?
LD: Mostly just in the rehearsal process.
CT: Well, let’s see, when did you start Resonant Bodies Festival? Lucy, when was that?
LD: 2013. Did you come to it the first year?
CT: I went to the first night.
LD: So you saw me?!
CT: Yeah, when it was you and Ariadne [Greif] and Charlotte [Mundy]. And Alex [Lipowski] was there, and we said to one another that night, “Lucy should sing Waterlines”. We were already looking for somebody, and come to think of it, it was probably because of Shawn’s piece that you sang.
ZS: Which one?
LD: In Old Virginny, a voice and double bass piece.
CT: Your voice just seemed to have the qualities we were looking for. That was how that started. And, now I can barely remember what kind of preparation we did, other than sharing recordings. It was mostly in rehearsal.
LD: I rehearsed with Jim [Baker]. One does not always have adequate lead time to prep new pieces, but I really worked my butt off for that first performance, so now I’m thinking “thank you self from 2014”—any work I am doing on it now is just adding depth, and that’s a wonderful place to be with a relatively complex piece.
CT: I think what I did when I was notating the vocal part is what I do a lot of the time. For instance, I just wrote a piece for viola d’amore & electronics. And the entire piece is based on Turkish Kemençe tradition. I listened to hours and hours of these recordings and I tried to transcribe the gestures. But I think I didn’t realize just how much time I invested in Waterlines, because I had the idea floating around in my head for 6 or 7 years before I finished it. I hadn’t realized just how much I had subconsciously absorbed, just in terms of listening and always thinking: that’s unique—and how would I notate that?
ZS: I was looking at the score this morning, and at the end of the day it’s actually quite simply notated, really. I don’t mean that dismissively—it’s quite elegant. Maybe the trap to fall into when trying to reproduce the flexibility you’d hear in blues music, as someone who’s trained in classical music, would be to reach for always more complex rhythms.
CT: Yeah, the fourth movement is the one that has the highest degree of microtonality, and definitely the most complicated rhythms and tempo changes. It’s also, interestingly, I was realizing today, the only one based entirely on blues progressions. Did you notice that? The lyrics are all blues couplets, but that’s the only one that repeats them, the way you would the blues. Anyway…
ZS: Well, I guess I’m curious: there’s something very special for me in both your vocal writing, in that I always have the sense the voice is floating above the texture of the music. It has a free quality, and I think you both arrive at that in very different ways. I’m wondering if you can talk how you approached the notation of rhythm, especially. The thing that strikes me about Shawn’s piece is that the rhythms feel to me to rub just a little bit against the grid of how I would expect the pulse to flow, and yet the vocal part is very clear and very free.
SJ: Well, the sense of a floating line is definitely something I was after, and one way that I achieve that is through different rhythmic layers in the ensemble. There’s a certain rate of motion that occurs in one voice that doesn’t occur in another voice, and that helps to create a floating thing very generally. You mentioned Baptist Hymnody, which I’m inspired by; there, it’s a group of people singing together, and although there’s coordination, it’s very flexible. They’re not working from notation, so one of the things I’ve thought about for a long time is how to translate that sound in notation. In the case of this piece, it’s often attempted by having moments that line up and coalesce, and usually the vocal part bounces off, either responding to that moment where we feel a strong rhythmic event—or anticipating it. But, there isn’t a lot of alignment in the music.
ZS: Right—these moments of coalescence are in fact quite rare. Where everything arrives on a “hit”? It’s quite infrequent, actually.
SJ: The movement that’s most inspired by Baptist Hymnody is probably the second one, and that’s the one that paradoxically has the most clear hits in it. But the other movements have these stratified lines. I think not so much about tempo changes as a way to get at a sense of floating, but more like beats stretching and compressing. It ends up being more via meter—it’s a kind of written-out tempo change—than a metronome value changing.
ZS: When you’re performing Shawn’s piece, Lucy, to what extent are you really subdividing very carefully in all of these metrical changes and irregular groupings? Or, to what extent do you just trust a certain proportion and internalized pacing?
LD: I don’t know how Shawn feels about this, but since I’ve performed it with Contemporaneous a few times—and David Bloom and I have a mutual trust—I did it memorized at Shawn’s portrait concert at Roulette in May 2016. I felt I was very much floating on top, and probably doing some things exactly and some things more approximately, but since the idea is precisely that the voice is floating on top—and I knew the moments to bounce off of the bass line—I really enjoyed that. With Shawn’s music, I’m comfortable to float around— but what do you think, Shawn?
SJ: (laughs) No, you always get the spirit of it, and it’s not so important to me if a quintuplet is exactly right here or there. I probably end up notating things more from a sense of my own time—singing through it or imagining it being sung. It’s not like those rhythms are coming out of some sort of durational scheme that would make them need to be spot-on for me to feel like my design was coming through. It’s a translation of a spontaneous effect.
LD: I give it a lot of spontaneous effect. (laughs)
ZS: It sounds like that’s a working method for both you and Chris. We were talking about refining and arriving at the specific ways you notate. Chris was talking about listening to a lot of Turkish music, or in the case of Waterlines a lot of blues music, and transcribing ideas and gestures. Is this something you do frequently in your music?
CT: I think what enchants me about a lot of the music that I like is the small details—the surface. I think that’s an idea that crosses certain boundaries. The minutiae in the execution of Turkish Taqsim improvisations is what makes the entire experience. There’s not going to be anything revolutionary about the pitch content: it’s only little expressive gestures. And I feel the same way about the blues, to some extent. So, I listen with an ear to: what are the gestures that are making this music? But then to realize it takes a really certain approach and talent, because you have to give an impression that there’s a skeleton behind it that you’re not hearing.
LD: We were talking about timbre earlier, but the timbres I’m choosing for different notes—when to be a little harsher, when to be rounder and gentler—are not just a dynamic thing… or even a range thing. It’s more led by the text and what the text is doing and what the gesture is—the emotion of it.
SJ: I like the idea of a straight structure that’s never actually presented but is there. It’s like a deviation from a norm that doesn’t exist. Personally, I do a lot of transcribing as composition—not even as pre-composition. As background research for this piece, I did some transcriptions of Baptist Hymnody, but composing by transcribing is something I’ve done more recently. The third movement is quite literally a sequence of raindrops, but I had a scheme for accelerating rhythmic values. It may be contrived, but it’s to get at something that would sound free, spontaneous, and natural.
ZS: So, yeah, let’s talk about timbre for a minute. Starting with the composers, how did you work to incorporate both (1) iconic sounds like raindrops and (2) such particular instruments? Several have such a distinctive sound that I think a lot of us in the audience won’t be able to help but call to mind a specific cultural context and musical convention. What’s different than what’s at stake if you were just writing a string quartet, or something?
CT: I think Waterlines is really influenced by spectral music. I spent a lot of time looking at the blues, in relationship to other music, let’s say, and how you could translate certain concepts of the blues to something else. Certain things are repeated, certain things are constant, other things are always breaking in. But, ok, that’s more of a concept of structure than of timbre. I would just say that I thought of this idea in spectral music, of a continuum between noise and pure consonance.
SJ: Well, it seems like this question is geared at least partly toward instrumentation. For instance, the cultural references that Chris’ stroh fiddle or other instruments have.
ZS: But, I think what Chris was just saying about the continuum between noise and pitch, and how to incorporate noise into an otherwise pitched or consonant context is maybe a bit analogous to how to incorporate an instrument that’s very different than the others on stage.
CT: I can’t remember where I got the idea to use the dulcimer, in the first place. But, I knew it would have such limitations that I felt what I wanted to do was counter it with more extreme timbres, but still not hide its timbre—to let the dulcimer be a dulcimer. To have it play a constant rhythm in 3/4 and have everything else circle around that. (Click to listen to this moment of Waterlines)
SJ: The instrumentation for my piece is more conventional than Chris’, but I do have a mandolin, which occupies a kind of “in-between” space between vernacular and classical music. And, I wanted to suggest but not explicitly have a bluegrass band instrumentation.
There’s a brittleness, too, because the text is talking about winter. I was quite literally trying to capture that in sound by having instruments play in these uncomfortably high registers. So, I was as interested in the noisy timbre that that created as I was the pitch itself. It’s really three high voices and one low voice, and that’s probably because I wanted to have this sense of 3 instrumental voices with the vocalist to create a kind of choir, or an analogue to a congregational hymnody—where they could blur and echo each other.
ZS: Well, speaking of voices following each other—Lucy, as a soloist, can you talk a bit more about your approach to timbre?
LD: In the beginning of Shawn’s piece, it’s so light that I can have any number of textures/timbres, which is such a gift. And in Chris’ piece, because it’s amplified, I have this huge range of vocal qualities I can work with. With Shawn’s piece, there is sometimes a need to project—to tap into that more classical way of singing and how that technique helps a singer project over the instruments. Shawn’s music is well-balanced instrumentally, which allows me to go all the way to extreme timbres— a really breathy or delicate quality—that’s fun.
I really do feel like my job as a vocalist is to offer a wide selection of vocal qualities—this is maybe the opposite of classical vocal music which encourages a uniform golden tone 99% of the time. So, this is probably one of my favorite concerts that I’ve ever done because not only do I love these two pieces just as pieces, but also because of how many different tricks I get to take out of my bag.
Chris’ piece is all about subtlety. It’s about microtones, slides, and virtuosic dynamic changes, to me. There are only a few moments where I really want a particular note to sound “beautiful” and those are special moments. In Shawn’s piece, I really do want it to be beautiful most of the time, which is a much more classical way of singing.