This piece draws its material from the song "Backwater Blues" by Bessie Smith and from the historically articulated performance practice that has accrued to it.  In order to interrogate said materials, six recordings by different musicians were chosen and meticulously transcribed.  The opening choruses of each performance were then superimposed (correcting for differences in tempo and pitch), temporally expanded, and orchestrated for string quartet.  Between the sections that contain vocal material, the underlying harmonic progression was spectrally elaborated.  Finally, the phonemic content of the song's lyrics was then transposed onto the string instruments as timbral modulations.

This is not an attempt to arrange or translate Smith's original song into a new medium.  It is an excavation of the sedimentary accumulations of practices on top of the originary text.  Although not present in an immediately recognizable form, the original appears as a nexus of musical possibilities, a vector of individuation within a field of abstract practices and procedures.

The recordings that were used a source material were made by the following artists: Bessie Smith, Skip James, Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee, and Dinah Washington.  The transcriptions of their performances are available here.


Backwater Blues (after Bessie Smith) was premiered by the Spektral Quartet on August 31st, 2013 at Chicago's Empty Bottle.