(This is not a review about an Ictus concert — even if WATERLINES has been played several times by our ensemble. This is a smart review about a MusicNow concert with musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, May 2016, Harris Theater, Chicago)
Since George Gershwin sat down at the piano in New York’s Aeolian Hall to give the first performance of Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, there have been countless attempts to blend popular music with the classical tradition. Yet almost a century after that historic event, you can still count on one hand the composers who managed that successful fusion of classical with jazz, folk or rock: Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and John Adams.
Until now. In his Waterlines, performed at the MusicNOW concert Monday night at the Harris Theater, Christopher Trapani achieves a seemingly impossible feat: reconciling the raw and indigenous essence of American folk and Delta blues within a sophisticated and complex classical song cycle.
There are some successful–and wildly overrated–composers of Trapani’s generation who are feted for blending American vernacular music with the classical tradition when in reality the two genres stay in distinctly separate spheres.
Yet Waterlines is the real thing, creating a powerful new music out of two disparate elements. Trapani manages to retain the hardscrabble qualities of this American music with writing for voice and plugged-in chamber ensemble that is startlingly original and often breathtaking in its brilliance and audacity.
Born in New Orleans, Trapani was deeply affected by the flooding of that great city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. His grandmother had told him stories of having lived through the 1927 Mississippi River flood, and in 2005 the house in which the composer grew up was itself destroyed by the rising waters of the Katrina disaster. Around that time Trapani began digging through archival recordings of Southern blues and country artists contemporary with the 1927 flood–people like Bessie Smith, Charley Patton, Lonnie Johnson and the Carter Family.
Waterlines is the result of that personal odyssey, a cycle of five songs for soprano, chamber ensemble and electronics. Trapani has crafted original music for the songs with texts drawn from existing folk and blues material dealing with rain, water and dislocation. The result is a powerful and even ground-breaking work, with songs that have the populist flavor and melodic contour of the blues blended with the pitch-weaving and unsettled tonality of spectral music.