Back in the day, specialization in music was unheard of. To be a musician was to be a composer, performer, multi-instrumentalist (hello, Mozart), improviser, and/or impresario. If you played the oboe in a Baroque orchestra, for example, you probably also played the recorder, and you may have sung as well. Caroline Shaw is a modern-day incarnation of this ideal—a remarkably versatile musician who is expert at many things. She is a violinist, singer, and composer (winning the Pulitzer Prize at the ripe old age of 30, in 2013.) Here is an example of her work that I recently came across. Shaw has a penchant for choral and ensemble writing—her Pulitzer was for Partita for Eight Voices—and I particularly love the mesmerizing counterpoint of this simple round. And it’s an example of audience participation, a genre that usually makes me run for the hills, that actually works. It’s a live performance so not every moment is picture-perfect, but the joy that radiates from the piece is palpable. Here Shaw builds a community with just a few simple lines of melody.
One morning you wake up and a schoolmate of yours just won a Pulitzer. Another morning, you wake up and a bunch of your friends (and their friends) just won a Grammy. That second event might happen more than once if your friends are in the Grammy-award-winning-vocal-band Roomful of Teeth. I’m saying these things partially to talk about how cool my friends are, partially so that you know I’m not JUST posting this song because it’s by my friends, and partially because god I have cool friends.
Shaw’s Pulitzer-winning composition is called Partita for Eight Voices. The voices in question are those of the members of Roomful of Teeth, an a cappella vocal band that fuses styles from all over the globe into contemporary classical music. It’s tough to describe, but seeing them live feels like going to one of the best rock concerts you’ve ever attended in a little club, except it’s also one of the best new music concerts you’ve ever attended, except they’re blending Western classical vocal technique with belting, yodeling, Tuvan throat singing, and Korean P’ansori (among others) while managing to avoid cultural appropriation and tokenization, as far as I can tell. Like I said, tough to describe. You’d better just listen.
In her suite, Shaw riffs on baroque dance forms, stripping them down to core elements and stretching them onto new frames. The spoken text in this movement, Allemande, is taken from directions for American square dancing: “allemande left,” for example. Clever, right? It’s hard to say whether it counts as a song, exactly—does it count if you need more than one singer to perform it?—but I think it does, because I put it on my headphones and sing along all the time.
Contemporary music is my favorite genre to perform.
I recall the time I first had that feeling and even felt some pride in the epiphany. Being unique or different suddenly seemed empowering. I loved that audiences never knew what to expect, literally couldn’t arrive comparing it to past performances or whatever performance practice or the various ‘great singers’ who did it better. I relished the element of surprise and thereby, freedom. I would start to say it in interviews—more than anything else, I love singing contemporary music etc. That relationship would later change somewhat and with time, I’d discover the hardships that sometimes come along with singing too many premieres in one season, for instance, or learning music that wasn’t always as ‘vocal’ as I’d like. Maybe this is why I think there are very few composers who understand and write well for the voice. But back then, I had started my graduate degree at Juilliard and it had a certain glow. Whether it was the composer colleagues I’d met, many of whom asked me to learn their music, often with about a week’s notice in advance, or Joel Sachs who introduced me to surprising composers like Beeson, Schnittke, Dallapiccola or Erikson, I suddenly was busy with many notes to learn! I also had the life-changing privilege of meeting Steve Blier and beginning what would be weekly sessions with him over my two years there. That time together also gave birth to an incredible friendship, one that has kept me afloat over the years. Steve has been an anchor emotionally, musically and spiritually and our sushi dates have gone on for ten years now. But around the time we met, he had a cancellation on one of the NYFOS programs and I got to step in! Talk about an introduction to NYFOS. Not only did I get to sing alongside Carolyn Betty, Bill Sharp, Michael and Steve (!), but I met Ned Rorem after the performance, met Jamie Bernstein, discovered Paul Bowles’ music and lived the unique, intimate journey of what it’s like to work with NYFOS—my life changed and quickly so. Following that, through NYFOS, I would also meet Bill Bolcom, John Corigliano, Mark Adamo, John Musto, Harold Meltzer, Paul Moravec, and Mohammed Fairouz among others. As fate would have it, my epiphany was immediately rewarded. And with Steve, I experienced so many amazing musical epiphanies, life-changing ones, many of which involved new music.
Long story short, or long story long, this week I thought it would be nice to celebrate that love and bring to the fore a few composers with truly unique and ‘vocal’ voices that HAVEN’T yet been featured on NYFOS programs. That also helps me simplify my list since NYFOS has done so many contemporary works and premieres! 🙂 So let me start with Caroline Shaw. I can have the fan girl moment and say we went to Rice together—same class actually, back when she was just incredibly brilliant and a violinist. Now a Grammy-winner and the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer, Caroline is doing unbelievable, truly revelatory things with music. She won the Pulitzer in 2013 for “Partita for 8 Voices” written for the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. I highly recommend you listen to the whole work and after you hear this movement, I doubt you’ll be able to resist. The piece speaks for itself but to use Caroline’s words, “Partita is a simple piece. Born of a love of surface and structure, of the human voice, of dancing and tired ligaments, of music, and of our basic desire to draw a line from one point to another.” During our Baroque music history class at Rice, it should be noted that our prof insisted we learn the dance component on our feet—literally a bunch of music majors divining the difference between the Allemande, Sarabande, Courante and Passacaglia—the titles of the four movements in Caroline’s amazing piece. As a singer, I can’t help but pay special attention to composers whose music and lyricism naturally unwind or spin outwards. The best composers for voice make you forget they’re composing at all. I believe if we are thinking about the vocal writing, then it didn’t work. It should be raw, emotional and human rather than mechanical, intellectual or “innovative.”
The song is surprising when you don’t know how they’re achieving it, but it’s also fascinating to ‘watch’ the process…
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