Waterlines: Five Songs about Storms and Floods (2005 / 12)
Lucy Dhegrae, soprano
Talea Ensemble, James Baker, conductor
live recording — Roulette, 26 September 2014, Brooklyn, NY
All lyrics public domain, compiled from recordings by the Carter Family, Kokomo Arnold, Bessie Smith, Ramblin' Thomas, Charley Patton, and Lonnie Johnson
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"You ever have one of those days," asked Jon Stewart, opening his first post-Sandy broadcast, "where everything you ever loved as a child was underwater?" Well, yes: I know the feeling. That immediate sensation of shock after the storm is still emblazoned in my mind: the fear of losing everything from the concrete to the intangible, from houses and photo albums to cultural traditions. My grandmother knew it too, growing up in the Delta town of Rolling Fork — a nine-year-old child when the Mississippi River burst its banks and floodwaters blanketed her town.
The 1927 Mississippi River flood, one of the most destructive natural disasters in American history, coincided with the heyday of commercial recording in the South — a last burst of enterprise before the great depression that fortuitously left us with several great records chronicling the disaster. In the months following Katrina, I began sifting through these old blues and country records for words and sounds that resonated, borrowing sonorities, couplets, and stylistic gestures and assembling them into a project with historical, musicological, and personal dimensions.
Waterlines is the result, a cycle influenced in equal measure by the Southern music I was discovering through my research and the spectral music I was hearing regularly in Paris. Before long I started seeing parallels: An oscillation between consonance and noise in spectral music started to seem like the sway between the tonic and dominant in the blues. I was struck by the use of microtonal inflections in both traditions, and more importantly by the emphasis on local detail in gesture and sonority. Grisey's chiseled orchestrations seemed as imbued with meaning as the intricately timed scoops of Son House's slide guitar.
Each of the five songs focuses on a specific aspect of the disaster. "Can't Feel at Home," was written first — seven years ago, in the fall following the storm. The lyrics are adapted from a hymn tune, a strophic text with hints of both linear and cyclical development. Likewise in the music, certain elements are constant, like a refrain — the steady diatonic ostinato of the Appalachian dulcimer, the tonal roots of the harmony — while others — like the slowly thickening orchestration, the incremental expansion of the harmonic complexity, and the incursion of pitchless sounds — are constantly evolving, shifting colors against a steady backdrop.
"Wild Water Blues" gives the narrative account — a fast-motion, first-person account of a storm sweeping through. "Poor Boy Blues" takes a step back, to a disoriented landscape where cultural propriety is jumbled and confused. A blues refrain is intercut with fragments of Romantic lieder — an intrusion from yet another, less explicably dear, tradition — whose themes (wandering, homelessness, boats) resonate with the imagery of the blues texts. "Devil Sent the Rain Blues" is a distillation of anger and frustration, the AAB blues form reworked into a distorted, microtonal dirge. The final song, featuring live electronics and a series of unusual instrumental timbres, transforms New Orleans native Lonnie Johnson's "Falling Rain Blues" into an outward spiral, a gradual accumulation of fading sounds — the slow transmutation of tragedy into memory.