Christopher Trapani’s “Waterlines”

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WATERLINES / TRAPANI: Waterlines: 5 Songs About Storms & Floods / Lucy Dhegrae, voc; Talea Ensemble; James Baker, cond / Passing Through, Staying Put / Longleash / Visions and Revisions / JACK Quartet / The Silence of a Falling Star Lights Up a Purple Sky / Marilyn Nonken, pno / Cognitive Consonance / Didem Başar, quanûn; Christopher Trapani, hexaphonic el-gtr; Talea Ensemble / New Focus Recordings FCR 200

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!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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