By now, you may have heard that this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Music has gone to Caroline Shaw for her vocal work, Partita for 8 Voices. In the recent past, media and musicians alike would take notice at how that year’s winner stood apart from the dusty old names of previous generations. Shaw, however, appears to have so many non-traditional aspects about her that observers are spending most of their time simply rattling off the reasons why she’s not like all the rest–Zachary Woolfe’s New York Times article seemed to enjoy putting her Twitter-made quote “I don’t really call myself a composer” right up front.
While it is easy to point out the many surface-level differences between Shaw and her predecessors in the Pulitzer clubhouse (She’s young–and a ‘she’–and a student–and a performing instrumentalist–and a singer!), I’d like to take the opportunity to make some observations about the piece itself, consider what makes Shaw truly stand out as a composer, and close with some thoughts on the bigger picture from my vantage point out here in the hinterlands of western New York.
“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.”
One might be tempted to take Shaw’s statement about the work’s simplicity as a self-aware ruse, but Partita for 8 Voices is, from my perspective, an intentionally simple piece made up of simple materials. Each movement introduces its elements in a straightforward manner that comes across as being both honest and without embarrassment, much like the artwork that inspired the piece.
The “front matter” of the score, where composers give instructions to their performers, does not go into great detail about the construction of the work, but rather nods in several directions to the various ingredients within the score. Shaw’s clear explanation of the various non-traditional notations in the score illustrates the variety of styles that she chose to utilize, including yodeling, Korean p’ansori techniques, Georgian intonation inflections, as well as Inuit throat games and three different styles of Tuvan vocal practice–xöömei, kargyraa, and sygyt. (Check out this YouTube video of Alexander Glenfield for a demonstration of the techniques.)
Finally, another paragraph in the front matter gives insight into the composer’s mindset–not only about the piece itself, but about her thoughts on the limits of printed notation, the use of recordings as interpretive tools, and her own flexibility as a creative artist:
“The 2012 recording by Roomful of Teeth can be considered an essential part of the score. Many sounds and gestures cannot be notated in a conventional way, and the composer encourages drawing on a variety of sources available with today’s technology to realize this piece with other ensembles in the future. However, no single document should ever be treated as ultimately prescriptive. Be free, and live life fully.”
The first movement, “Allemande”, does not wait to hint at Shaw’s sense of humor; she begins the Baroque dance suite with each singer handing off square dance calls spoken in rhythm to one another while the lowest bass calls out “two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight” (ubiquitous in dance studios throughout the country). Spoken word soon morphs into the first sung musical statement, sung not with text, but rather with standard IPA vowel nomenclature. Ringing with a very bright timbre reminiscent of the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, the initial material is delivered pentatonically, harmonized in open 5ths and set in two uneven phrases before it quickly fades underneath more spoken word statements. The “fade,” in fact, is one of the points of interest, as Shaw utilizes a subtle yet random intonation fluctuation on the penultimate chord, and a separate but equally fascinating technique that the Roomful of Teeth ensemble created called “e.y.s.” or “eat your sound” (described in the score as “a multi-step tongue filter”).
The movement is divided in two parts–the first, longer section alternates between various iterations of spoken word (incorporating text from “Wall Drawing 305”) and variations on the initial thematic material, while a second section, imitative and lyrical, floats freely over shifting drones before finally closing on what should be a straightforward tonic chord made colorful through slight intonation fluctuations. The Pulitzer panel mentioned that “she changes gears so quickly and so easily, and every turn is so unexpected…”, and this movement is a case in point. Shaw actually uses a very limited amount of melodic material throughout “Allemande”, but two aspects of her style keep the elements from becoming stale–variation (she repeats material but continually varies the textures, key areas, affectations, etc.) and drama (for instance, the transition between the first and second section, starting at 2:39 on the Roomful of Teeth track, is very effective in its use of sung rhythmic counterpoint on top of the first instance of harmonic motion with a scalar bass line).
Shaw introduces the listener to a relatively unused vocal technique of scooping a hummed pitch quickly down-then-up as a pick up into each one of a series of lush chords; she describes it as an abstraction of a Korean p’ansori articulation. Under the third iteration of the chord progression in the women’s voices, she adds all four male voices in unison with a simple melodic line (above which at least one singer is to freely sing a twisting obbligato line) which leads to a brash new line by the unison men in a very high register–easily one of the most powerful points in the entire work. The movement ends very quietly but with the addition of a repeated motive of harmonics using a Tuvan throat singing technique.
One could be forgiven if one thought the beginning of “Courante”, with it’s extensive use of quick intakes and exhaling of breath, had erotic connotations, but soon enough the elaborate rhythmic interplay between the breaths transforms into something best described as “air percussion” that creates a groove upon which other ingredients are added. As that groove wanes, we are introduced to the only music not composed by Caroline Shaw–a women’s chorale setting of George F. Root’s 1856 hymn “Shining Shore”. This seeming non-sequitur actually works quite well–it’s a contrast with everything that came before it (especially the relatively quick rate of harmonic change)–and after some metric modulation the groove returns at a much faster pace with the chorale on top. After the groove peaks and disappears this second time, the women both sing higher and with more complex chromatic harmonic progressions than in the entire work combined. The men try their best to start the groove a third time, but soon both quartets vocally collapse and dissipate in a fluttering of quick breaths.
“Passacaglia”, while programmed last in the series of movements, was actually the first movement Shaw composed back in 2009. Shaw mentioned in the Times article that her thought was, “All I want to hear is just one chord.” She does indeed start with a single chord–a D major triad, to be precise–and constructs a simple yet attractive 10-measure chordal progression that evolves each time it repeats with subtle timbral changes, including alternating chest and head voice between two chords, and asking for the choir to “belt” followed by a “pitched exhale.” As the choir divides from four to eight parts, she quietly shifts the harmony to the dominant (followed by a tasty tritone sub of the dominant) while the voices pull apart from their chorale formation to a slightly more complex texture (including throat singing) upon which the spoken word recitation from Lewitt’s work “returns” until the entire ensemble is speaking on top of each other. Slowly the Passacaglia is re-incorporated pointillistically until a short but brilliant transition using “vocal fry” brings back the initial progression in the tonic key at full volume. I mentioned drama before–this spot is by far the most dramatic of the entire piece–and it creates anticipation for a second climax only to pull back at the last second for a quiet yet unresolved conclusion.
Roomful of Teeth
Before I come back to Caroline Shaw, I’d like to make mention of Roomful of Teeth. Investigating their website, it’s obvious that they have a very special and unique concept for a vocal ensemble. It’s not often that one finds a list of “experts” who have been brought in as coaches over the years to train the singers in the many techniques that Caroline incorporated into her work. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, from the sound of it I would posit that Partita would not–could not–exist without Roomful of Teeth. In the same way that Duke Ellington could not have made his masterpieces without Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Cootie Williams, Sam Nanton, and Harry Carney, I’m going to guess that Caroline would not have been able to write such a work without the support and talents of this special ensemble. I say this not to diminish Caroline’s composition, but more to celebrate the fact that collaboration between composer and performer(s) can be so strong as to allow for the creation of something special like this.
When I first heard that Caroline won the Pulitzer, I was pretty surprised—I’ve been trying hard to keep track of living composers for several years now and I will freely admit that I didn’t know her. I was even more surprised, however, when I realized that not only had I heard Caroline play– I’d heard her play a piece of mine. She, along with her colleagues of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), performed a movement from my string quartet Speedvisions at Joe’s Pub for a Sequenza 21 concert. I had witnessed Caroline in her element–with an ensemble, playing an inner part rather than soloing out front. If one looks at the lion’s share of her work as a violinist and a singer, much of it is within the context of playing in an ensemble, as a member of a team.
I mention this because of a quote that she gave Anastasia Tsioulcas for NPR a few days ago:
She noted that she sent in the piece for Pulitzer consideration—not that she thought that there was much chance of winning, but because she wanted more recognition for Roomful of Teeth’s work. “I thought,” she says, “‘Well, I might as well see what they think.'”
As I mentioned before, Caroline Shaw is different in many ways from previous Pulitzer winners, but it is the sense of enjoyment in being a part of something bigger than oneself that, in my humble opinion, makes her stand out. We composers are ultimately a solitary lot when it comes to our work—’tis the gig, as it were—but that can also engender a tendency to become myopic within one’s own career path. Caroline belongs to the new generation of artists who seem to thrive in a community of their own making, playing in each others’ groups, and helping and supporting one other because they remember when that option did not seem to be possible earlier in their careers. If there’s anything to be gleaned from this gift to Caroline, it’s that this generation has indeed found its place.
This does not mean, however, that I am content to fold Caroline into that generation as one of many. She may not have the assumed pedigree or portfolio that is typical for recognition at the level of the Pulitzer Prize, but she wrote a musical work that, while indeed “simple,” is also touching, playful, and extremely nuanced in its sense of voice and sense of self. Caroline did not win the Pulitzer because of who she is or where she studied, but for the piece of music that she created, and that should give us all hope.