Am Grabe Memphis Minnies

for solo guitar

James Erber

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for solo guitar

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Composer James Erber
Year of Composition 1997
Duration 7'10"
Categories (all composers) , ,
Catalogue ID ce-je1agmm1


Am Grabe Memphis Minnies was initially intended as a centenary tribute to the Louisiana-born blues singer Lizzie Douglas (known as Memphis Minnie), and was inspired by a documentary programme about her on BBC Radio 3. Particularly moving, for me, were the beginning and end of the programme, recorded at the dedication of her gravestone, nearly 25 years after her death in 1973.

The piece is a two-part invention, in which two versions of a single rhythmic grid are each subjected throughout to different variative processes. The resulting music is divided into five sections, which between them inhabit two different sound-worlds. Sections 1, 3 and 5, which form the bulk of the piece, use performance techniques that give the instrument a more percussive, less pitch-specific quality, suggestive of the sound produced by many blues guitarists in the 1930’s and 40’s (the period when Memphis Minnie’s career was at its height). Sections 2 and 4 form points of rest in the midst of this activity, permitting the listener to take stock of the way the work is unfolding. These sections are dominated by the sound of harmonics. The fourth section gives prominence to a single harmonic (on A”), its bell-like sonority underlining the work’s funerary associations. While working on the piece, it occurred to me that 1997 was also the 300th anniversary of the birth of Franz Schubert, and decided that in these two, rather more gentle sections I would pay homage to him. This, in its turn, suggested my title, which, I like to think, neatly combine references to the two figures, whose work lies at the heart of this music.

Am Grabe Memphis Minnies was commissioned by the guitarist Paul Søgaard, with funds kindly made available by a group of anonymous donors. It is dedicated to him and his wife, Dani (‘for 02/08/1997’). Paul Søgaard gave the first performance on 15th March 1998 at the Magleås Kursus Center, Birkerød, Denmark.