I knew I'd heard the music that had just won the Pulitzer Prize somewhere and sometime before, but I couldn't pinpoint the memory.
It was April 2013, and Caroline Shaw's Partita for 8 voices had just taken the Pulitzer in music, making the Greenville, N.C., native the award's youngest-ever winner. The commendation typically goes to a senior composer—Steve Reich, Ornette Coleman, John Adams, David Lang—as a sort of lifetime achievement award. The committee's decision to honor an unknown 30-year-old, then, sent shock waves through the classical music world.
Written for the New England vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, of which Shaw is a member, Partita is a fascinating work. The Pulitzer committee called it "a highly polished and inventive a cappella work uniquely embracing speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects." But that paints only part of the picture.
Partita's four movements are based loosely on Baroque dance movements, though the character of those dances only lingers like shadows. The piece grapples with a vast range of unusual vocal techniques: brash Georgian choral harmonies, rich Tuvan throat singing, intentional vocal fry, intense yodeling, a cappella percussion, overlapping abstract texts and so on. Shaw situates those unusual sounds in deceptively simple harmonies and direct melodies, mixed with the unbridled joy that comes from a posse of people singing together. By writing for her own group, Shaw blurred the line between composer and performer and seemed to discover a new freedom in the liminal space. She could, and did, link disparate traditions and sounds.
At the end of Partita's last movement, for instance, Roomful of Teeth reaches a strange growl that dissolves into a pool of musical goo. In an instant, the sounds take shape as a stunning, open harmony. When the group performed the piece in Chapel Hill last fall, the audience actually gasped.
Still struggling to pinpoint the source of my sonic déjà vu, I listened again. Suddenly, the connection became clear: Three years earlier, in spring 2010, Shaw visited Durham as a prospective student in Duke's Ph.D. program in music composition. She presented some of her work, including a movement from Partita, to the current graduate students. We were all impressed and spent a few minutes discussing her notation. We came away hoping that this interesting young composer would come to Duke. She'd be in our seminars and workshops, and we could bounce ideas off of one another.
But Shaw chose to attend Princeton, and then the Pulitzer committee chose Shaw.
Much has changed for Shaw since that 2010 visit. She still plays violin in the American Contemporary Music Ensemble—known best as ACME—and sings alto in Roomful of Teeth. Thanks to the Pulitzer, however, she is no longer an unknown figure. ACME artistic director and cellist Clarice Jensen notes that Shaw is "more confident" as a composer since the win.
"I didn't think things would change very much," Shaw says of the prize. "But now I definitely write more music. I've had the opportunity to meet people that I wouldn't have gotten to meet before. I certainly have a little guilt: Why do I get to do some of these things that my colleagues don't? But I keep trying to share just as much as I can."
She does that through composing and performing. Shaw returns to Durham on Saturday with ACME for a concert of her chamber music, her third Triangle appearance in the past year. The program affords a rare opportunity to dig into Shaw's compositional approach. Her music is best when she writes for the groups in which she plays or for performers she knows well. She leaves an important space for specific musicians to shape exact aspects of her work, allowing for a certain flexibility in the finished result.
This isn't particularly novel in classical music, as its history is lined with composer-performers, composers who wrote for distinct players, and composers who made last-minute adjustments in response to elements that didn't work for an individual ensemble.
But the emphasis Shaw and her peers place on collaboration and the music that stems from it feels different. Together, they represent the crumbling divide between composer and performer, which leads to an open, extended set of possibilities for what a work can be. ACME has a high number of composer-performers—Shaw, pianist Timo Andres and violinist Caleb Burhans among them. This collective sensibility creates music that feels simultaneously individual and communal.
When the composer is part of the ensemble that plays the work, composition becomes inextricably tied to the cycle of rehearsal and performance. Shaw wrote herself into Lo, for instance, a recent orchestral commission—and Shaw's first—from the Cincinnati Symphony. She wanted to "be there as part of the putting together process. I try to keep things as personal as I can." (She'll perform the piece with the North Carolina Symphony in November.)
Ritornello, written for ACME, epitomizes this idea, as it seems to be in a constant state of Shaw-supervised evolution. She describes its current version as "a weird ambient opera about Rip Van Winkle," supported by stop-motion photography of her early performances of the piece mixed with video of New York City bridges. When composing the piece, Shaw kept the peculiarities of ACME in mind and geared it to their skill set.
"There's one section that says, 'We're going to alternate between these two chords and then get to a really crazy place,'" Shaw says. "I know what Clarice Jensen is capable of doing and the energy that she's going to put into it."
Jensen, too, remembers two instances in rehearsal when Shaw said, "Caleb [Burhans], what's that funny pizzicato thing you do? Why don't you do that here?"
The work exists in a number of parallel versions—the ACME form, an early solo take for her and a looping pedal, another for her to sing with Roomful of Teeth, and a shorter version without video written for the JACK Quartet. At one point, Roomful of Teeth and ACME even performed it together.
"I really wanted to dig deeper into what are these two very familiar performance arms and what's similar about them—what's vocal about string writing and what's stringy about the voice," she says. "It's still an experiment, and there's something deeper that I'm trying to find. Slowly, I'm finding it."
In the JACK version, it's easy to hear the interplay of "stringiness" and vocals. Everything is light, airy and unhurried. The piece begins with a series of chorales, using peacefully undulating chords and simple counterpoint. But there are flashes of Ravel's string quartet, Philip Glass-like arpeggios, boisterous English Baroque dances and echoes of fiddle tunes.
Inside all of that, it's hard to hear Rip Van Winkle. Maybe he's dozing in those peaceful chords? Or getting lost in the gaps of the stop-motion video?
"Right now, that's the residue that's disappeared," Shaw admits. "I'm still trying to find a writer who is attuned to this concept of time and memory and space and loss that the Rip Van Winkle story is part of. I've been finding inspiration in the strangest places, whether it's visual arts or sculpture, though lately it's been the writing of certain writers. Not necessarily the stories they're telling, but the way they're telling the story on the large scale as well as the small scale."
For Shaw, inspiration could be Rip Van Winkle, the layout of a garden or a Haydn string quartet, Baroque dances, old folk tunes or the sounds her friends make in rehearsal. Such openness seems to delight Shaw, whether in finding new sources for her works or ignoring codified divides between styles or roles.
"That's what's so great about being human," Shaw says. "We can create things out of nothing. It's incredible and bizarre and a wonderful way to be a human being—to take something that already exists and reimagine it so different from its original form is such a beautiful thing. I love that so much music comes out of that."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Out of order."