Explorations in Troubled Waters

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Continuing with the theme of how returning to regular piano practice is having interesting cross-fertilisations with my vocal-harmony musical brain, today I’m going to share some discoveries made while working on Margaret Bonds’ piece ‘Troubled Water’.

The piece is based on the spiritual ‘Wade in the Water’ and was originally conceived as one of a suite, though it has developed an independent life having been published as a stand-alone piece in 1967. The suite was finally published in its entirety in 2020. I have linked to Samantha Ege's recording;'Troubled Waters' is the 3rd movement, starting at 6:58.

One of the things I got interested in as I started to learn it was the instability of the 7th degree of the scale: sometimes it’s raised as in the harmonic minor, sometimes it appears as a modal flat 7th for a more blues feel. (Also, in a nice twist, the first time the sharp 7th is sounded in the melody, it’s actually in a flatII Aug6 chord – i.e. a tritone substitution for the cadential V7.) I’d noticed the same kind of instability in the music of her teacher, Florence Price, who likewise worked to develop a musical language that brought African American idioms into an art music context.

You have to wonder if this instability is an artefact of bringing music developed in one tradition into the norms of another. Of course we have no evidence of what spirituals sounded like in their original form. There were a few attempts to transcribe them in the later 19th century, as part of the wider project of ‘preserving’ traditional music (we note the role of Dvorak both sides of the Atlantic in this), but the people making the transcriptions admitted freely that their notation couldn’t capture very accurately what they heard. And the first audio recordings of this song didn’t turn up until the 1920s (more of those in a moment).

I turned for clues to two contemporary groups that have explicit commitments to this repertoire and its heritage. Sweet Honey in the Rock are a wonderful a cappella ensemble who combine deep knowledge with a gloriously creative approach to performance; if you get nothing else out of this post, listening to their performance is a good use of a bit of your life. The Fisk Jubilee Singers meanwhile are the heirs to the first ensemble to bring spirituals to the concert stage in 1871.

Sweet Honey in the Rock seem pretty much committed to the lowered 7th throughout. The Fisk Singers have a more ambiguous treatment. The very first time the melody climbs up to the top tonic there’s a very clear raised leading note; thereafter the 7ths are all lowered, though they move around a bit, sometimes bending up with a hint of cadential leading note, sometimes committing to a fully minor flavour. Not going to be able to do that on the piano, but it does shed some interesting light on Bonds’ harmonic choices to bring that flavour of bending the music into shapes that straighter harmonies couldn’t achieve.

I then turned my attention to early recordings of the spiritual. Whilst still decades away from the song’s origin, they’re nearer than we are, and they may also give some clues as to the soundscapes Bonds might have experienced in her formative years.

The first recording, by the Sunset Four Jubilee Singers in 1925, gives very clear raised leading notes at cadences, while harmonising the lowered 7ths in descending lines with the tonic minor. Does this represent a ‘domesticating’ of the African American idiom for a commercial idiom, or does it suggest that the modern groups committed to preserving this repertoire are choosing to amplify stylistic elements that differentiate it from Eurocentric traditions? Or indeed, both; the two are not mutually exclusive.

The next recording I’ve found, from 1928 by the Lincoln Four Quartette takes our story on a wild left turn. We have been developing a narrative around the 3rd of the dominant chord and its meanings, and now all of a sudden we have to start talking about the 3rd of the tonic chord. For this recording is, to my astonishment, in the major mode. To be fair, it doesn’t reveal this absolutely from the get-go as it starts with the melody unaccompanied, and the first melodic 3rd, on the second word, is ambiguous. But then on ‘water’ the singer ostentatiously slides up onto the major 3rd from underneath and the rest of the quartet pile in with a major triad to prove that he meant it.

I was not expecting this. Every version I had hitherto heard had been in the minor mode.

Except that I had been given a clue by Margaret Bonds. The central, slower and calmer, section of ‘Troubled Water’ is also in the major mode. It presents the melody in the kind of texture pianists would associate with Debussy in one of his more watery moods, and I had initially read this change of mode and feel as part of the processing of the material to create her distinctive hybrid musical world. But I now suspect it’s telling us something more interesting about the inhospitability of rationalised tonal frameworks to musics from other traditions that tune themselves differently. Not that Bonds’ music sounds uncomfortable in the major key, it is a passage of great beauty. But it’s not a piece that deals in simple answers either.

Anyway, we should not really be surprised to find ambiguity of 3rd in African-American music, because we have known for some time about blue notes, which are by definition all about tunings that confound the piano. But it does show the extent to which my experience of musics from that tradition has been filtered through the frame of a hegemonic major-minor system.

And this brings us onto the last recording I’m going to share with you today, in which my close-harmony and pianistic worlds fully intersect. Because how to handle blue notes in a major context is classic conundrum for the a cappella arranger. And the Birmingham Jubilee Singers,* recording in 1930, give us a masterclass in how to do this, primarily by using barbershop 7ths. Lowered melodic 7ths bring a delicious phnerty crunch to the tonic major chord, while IV7 is the go-to solution to the lowered 3rd. Listen and admire.

* It turns out that googling for ‘Birmingham quartet’ and ‘Birmingham Jubilee Singers’ when you live in Birmingham, UK and there has just been a royal jubilee gives you a lot more information about your local musical life than historical vocal groups…

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