Music Monday: Shaw: Partita

So often, in the concert music world, we have a tendency to get caught up in the score. It's not hard to see why: Performances are fleeting and hard to pin down, whereas the printed score is physically there; you can look at it and pick it to pieces and study a given musical moment for hours without having to move on to the next. Still, at the end of the day, scores aren't music. Scores are instructions for making music. For some styles of music, Western notation provides a precise set of instructions indeed, but there are many sounds it's less adept at capturing, and pieces that incorporate them can be a resounding reminder that music lives in sounds heard, not ink printed.

Here is one such piece. Caroline Shaw was born in 1982 in Greenville, North Carolina, and began her musical training at age two with lessons on the violin. Looking at her academic record, you might think that this was her only musical outlet — she earned a Bachelor's from Rice and a Master's from Yale, both in Violin Performance, and she has continued to be an active performer in everything from contemporary groups to the Yale Baroque Ensemble — but she began singing in college and became a member of the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth in 2008. Over a series of summer residencies at Mass MoCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), she wrote a four-movement piece for that ensemble to sing, inspired in part by the line drawings of Sol LeWitt, especially Wall Drawing 305. The work in question, her Partita for 8 Voices, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, making her the youngest composer ever to win that award.

As you might suspect from my little preamble, it's not the most traditional piece. Since she was a member of the group she was writing the piece for, Shaw was able to take advantage of all of the numerous extended vocal techniques that Roomful of Teeth have been trained in, writing for specific voices that she knew intimately. I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a masterclass presentation by the ensemble on extended vocal techniques, and they showed us a few excerpts from the printed score — Shaw has devised numerous creative ways of notating the unusual sounds in the piece, but there are many places that are still ambiguous if you haven't actually heard them ahead of time. Indeed, she considers the 2012 recording to be an integral part of the score, tho she encourages other ensembles that wish to perform the piece not to take any one source as dogmatically prescriptive.

We begin with an allemande, but not with notes and chords like you might expect. Instead, the piece begins with the singers reciting square dance calls in strict rhythm, a tip of the hat both to the dance-movement basis of the partita genre and Sol LeWitt's technique of providing a set of instructions for creating his elaborate patterns instead of the finally realized patterns themselves. These chants begin to pile up and overlap until the ensemble bursts forth with a stridently bright wordless melody. After this timbral punch to the face, patches of recitation (now incorporating actual quotes from Sol LeWitt's instructions for Wall Drawing 305) are interlaced with reprises of this short melody, often marked by subtle microtonal inflections that push and pull against the stability of the consonant harmonies, sounding almost like unchecked electronic distortion or an error in the speed of an old-fashioned magnetic tape. About halfway thru (fittingly, given the traditional binary-form basis of the dances in a partita), this boils away into a sparer landscape of delicately intertwining melodic lines over a rich pillow of bass support. At last these too dissipate, leaving only a quiet undulation in their wake.

Calm, languid gestures inaugurate the sarabande, like a leaf or a butterfly flitting about in a gentle summer breeze. The voices become fixed in place for a moment, but the delicate entrance of a high male line seems to nudge them free again. Unexpectedly, the men together break forth into a brilliant melodic line, but it is not enough to dislodge the quiet gentle scooping, and the movement ends with a resonant lullaby of idle humming and overtones. Unpitched material returns in the courante, not in the form of spoken text but as sharp exhalations instead. There are doubtless hints of the erotic here, but as the movement unfolds, I hear them more and more as a celebration of the ecstasy that comes from fully embodying a musical gesture, from being part of the creation of beauty with every fibre in your being. Pitches sneak in gradually, first as held tones, then as mournful bass chanting, and ultimately as a quotation from George F Root's 1856 hymn, "Shining Shore". As in the opening of the allemande, these elements then begin to overlap and collapse upon one another — including a hair-raising passage in open harmonies for the lowest voices — and the entire edifice falls apart about five and a half minutes in. The breaths return, however, re-launching the rhythmic groove and ushering in a greatly elaborated version of the hymn tune ensconced in a much more richly detailed sonic environment. Even this exuberance cannot hold everything together for long, tho, and after a final upswelling of giddy activity, the movement ends with a cascade of exhalations.

After all these timbral excursions, the passacaglia starts with something of a respite. It's true, the harmonies are somewhat unusual, but they are presented using the most traditional choral oos and ahs. Soon, tho, these brighten into the stridency of the outburst in the allemande, blasting out a sequence of chords before melting into an otherworldly tapestry of buzzings and undulations. A few melodic gestures unfold over this before the Wall Drawing 305 instructions begin to return. For a while, these two textures coexist tranquilly, but soon the harmonies begin to decay and the texts to pile up, resulting in an incomprehensible wall of babbling. A few notes wink in and out of existence in the background, but none seem to be able to gain a real foothold until a massive surge of vocal fry swells up and re-proclaims the strident chords from earlier. This, in turn, gives way to purer vowels, and the piece ends with one final wink at the overtones of the harmonic series, releasing the work into the world without hammering its wide-ranging parts into any kind of forced stylistic unity. It is as if the work itself embodies Shaw's directive in her notes to the performers: "Be free, and live life fully."