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Once things clear out, what do you hear?

I just have to tell you about this song I’ve had stuck in my head for the last nine months.

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I just have to tell you about this song I’ve had stuck in my head for the last nine months, rattling around my quarantined brain ever since my personal Last Concert from the Before Times.

It was Friday, March 6th (an obligingly dark and stormy night), two days before the state-of-emergency declaration, and Third Angle New Music Artistic Director Sarah Tiedemann was standing in the dimly lit Studio 2 at New Expressive Works on Southeast Belmont, starting the second night of 3A’s Caroline in the City concert with a Ram Dass quote:

When you go out into the woods, and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.

The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying “You are too this, or I’m too this.” That judgment mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.

Caroline Shaw performing at New Expressive Works in March 2020. Photo by Kenton Waltz.
Caroline Shaw performing at New Expressive Works in March 2020. Photo by Kenton Waltz/Third Angle New Music.

And so Caroline Shaw came out from the back, violin in hand, and glided to her technology in the center of the room, where she began laying down layers of looped pizzicato and started singing her “Will there be any stars in my crown.” And then, tuning her violin up, joking about how “those Bartók pizzicatos really throw the violin out of tune,” sharing the Carter family origins of the preceding song’s lyrics, talking about the next piece, the Tallis-inspired In Manus Tuas, and how when she composed it as a “secular solo cello compline service” for cellist Hannah Collins to perform in the nave of an old Connecticut church, she “imagined this piece twirling up into the rafters and getting stuck up there, until only shards remain.”

And then we got to “Other Song,” what Shaw calls “the first song I really wrote.” It was originally composed for her to sing with Sarah Bareilles and Ben Folds, but the composer had a different vocal ensemble in mind that night in March: us. She got everyone humming a Bb drone and proceeded to sing the most deceptively simple bitonality I’ve heard in concert since the last time Uday Bhawalkar was in town. The harmony never strayed into dissonance for long, it just stretched and warped a little, the sort of tonal freedom you can get into when the room is holding down The One for you.

You’ll being hearing about this moment again, dear reader, because it’s the sort of thing we’re likely to bring up again two years from now–with some snappy line like “back in 2020 Caroline Shaw got a Portland audience to hum a drone for her like a hive of happy bees, and it was so musically satisfying we’re still talking about it two years later.”

The master who makes the grass ever green

And then the Third Angle strings performed two of Shaw’s quartets: Valencia, off of Attacca Quartet’s Grammy-winning album Orange (now available on 180-gram orange vinyl, naturally); and Evergreen, which 3A co-commissioned and which Shaw finished that Monday. Head over to Bandcamp to hear the former, with its sonic translation of color and texture and sweetness and tartness–the latter of which Shaw described at the concert as “a difficult quality to translate into music.” But you won’t get a chance to hear Evergreen until someone records and releases it.

And so you missed out, dear reader. As Shaw explained at the post-show Q&A (and in our follow-up interview below), Evergreen represents the beginning of a new phase for the composer–perhaps future music historians will even describe this era as “Shaw’s passage from the Orange Phase into the Green,” with all the psychic and musical resonances such a shift implies. “My early stuff moved at the pace of a good conversation,” she told the audience in March. “The new one is different, on purpose: slower pace, slower change.”

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Third Angle string quartet performing Caroline Shaw's Evergreen in March 2020. Photo by Kenton Waltz.
Third Angle string quartet performing Evergreen in March 2020. Photo by Kenton Waltz/Third Angle New Music.

The four movements of Evergreen flow through four realms reflecting aspects of not only the familiar botanical category, but a more vitally abstract state of evergreen-ness. “Moss” comes on all sparse at first, with intermittent chord sequences bursting into strange beautiful patches of colorful consonance; “Stem” follows with creeping drones and glissandi before coalescing into the rushing droplets of “Water.” With “Root” the whole thing expands outward into the deep soil, simple triads opening into seventh chords and contracting again, rhythms stretching and overlapping, all of it twisting into a long, dense fade out.

“How long was that?” I wondered at the end. It could have been five minutes or an hour. The last time I took a musical walk in the woods like that was with the ExTradition gang.

And then “And So,” which Shaw told the audience in March is “about thinking about what the world looks like after we’re gone”–a sentiment which turned oddly appropriate when the rest of her scheduled Portland concerts got cancelled, making this the last song of the residency.

Caroline Shaw with Third Angle New Music in March 2020. Photo by Kenton Waltz.
Shaw with Third Angle in March 2020. Photo by Kenton Waltz/Third Angle New Music.

Song is a song is a song is a song

You know how it is when you hear a song on the radio (remember radio?) or in the car or the grocery store (remember cars? remember stores?)–and then you’d get that song stuck in your head for the rest of the day? But then sometimes that’s the last thing you hear before going on a road trip or getting stuck in an elevator or lost in the forest or whatever, and in the absence of any other stimulation you end up with that same song rattling around your brain for hours, days, weeks, months? Or is that just me?

Anyways, I consider myself lucky that I ended up with “And So” stuck in my head for the rest of the year. It’s full of cool little moments: the poppy chords and catchy melody, almost New Order-level wistful, on the opening line “would a song by any other name sound as sweet and true?”; the aching melodic turn on “will we still tune our violins? will we still sing of roses?”; and the haunting closing line, “and so we stay on borrowed time,” with spooky pizzicato ostinati skittering off into the distance (a Shaw signature also heard in To The Hands, Entr’acte, etc.)

But it’s more generally that sweet-and-sour combo of old-fashioned consonance and edgy post-tonality that really kills me, the sonic and emotional complexity of it all, and above all the cathartic Kurt Weill vibe when the creepy chorus chords come back around on that repeated Stein line, the famous telescoping tautology which is the whole point of the whole point of the thing.

And yes, dear reader, this song has been immortalized. You can hear it (performed with Attacca in 2019) right here:

And so, several weeks later, still humming “a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” into my face mask, I got an email in response to my indolence-inciting essay “Don’t just do something, sit there!:

I recently came across OR Artswatch because of an alert for Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. I loved the article that included them. Do you have interest in hearing their latest recording featuring a new work from Caroline Shaw?

The recording features the oratorio The Listener, Shaw’s first major work for chorus and period instrument orchestra. It is a response to the Golden Record which was carried by the Voyager spacecraft in 1977, and is still traveling through space today. The libretto, compiled by Shaw, spans five centuries of poetry from Whitman, William Drummond of Hawthornden, Lord Tennyson as well as a speech by Carl Sagan, among others.

The second work Is a Rose is a song trilogy written for Anne Sophie von Otter and juxtaposes poetry from the 18th and 21st centuries.

And so here I sit, nine months after my Last Concert from the Before Times. I’ve spent what feels like a lifetime hearing “a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” and suddenly I get word that the album Shaw’s been working on with Sō Percussion, Dawn Upshaw, and Gilbert Kalish–Narrow Sea–will be released by Nonesuch Records in January.

And now I have a new song stuck in my head.

We caught up with Safe and Sound Shaw a few weeks after the concert, and spoke by phone about gear, theory, drone humming, adaptation, and her own favorite composers. Her answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

Common tones

I think with a lot of my music, not consciously, I enjoy common-tone chords: find a harmony, find another that shares pitches. It’s a little puzzle as you find how to get back to it. And then laying with the tension of how that pitch that remains consistent–is it always in the chord, does it become a seventh, a dissonance, how long do you sit on that? And “Other Song” I wrote as a song form, verse and chorus, two-chord progression. I’ve done it in so many ways and keys.

I like the feeling of making sound in the room together as a way to start something, which is a nod to Pauline Oliveros. My art sensibilities are so different, but it’s something I find really important and moving; I always want to put harmony on top of things. There’s a shared thing, a common tone of communal music making, allowing things to be dissonant and consonant and not judge them, just to see if we can hold something. Once things clear out, what do you hear?

Caroline Shaw performing at New Expressive Works in March 2020. Photo by Kenton Waltz.
Photo by Kenton Waltz/Third Angle New Music.

That’s one of the things I like about doing the drone for that song. Especially if people are humming at the end when I pull out all the sound. People laugh when it’s still there. It’s a moment of total delight to look up and hear people still humming. It’s hard to get people to sing in a room together if they aren’t used to it, and we don’t do that in American culture very much. You can have your mouth closed with humming while still participating. People did a great job.

Adapting music, adapting text

I like the intersection of pragmatism and art making. I think they’re part of each other, and I like writing to a specific situation, designing something for what’s there. I think about Bach a lot, because he wrote for the people who were there. I always feel like there’s a sensibility in his music where you can substitute. Whichever instrument can play that treble line can play it. It’s also fun to realize the essence or bones of a piece through creating a new variation of it.

I have done some regular setting of existing poems; the pieces for either solo singer or chorus are like that. I do that because I love a particular poem. It feels like a bit of a safer choice. But I like the puzzle of creating a lyric myself. And in this case I think I started with the puzzle of “and so,” the feeling of building something that’s riffing on this little bit of a phrase that is very common. I’m not exactly sure how I did it exactly!

I finished that text and changed it while I was on an airplane with a notebook, rapidly playing with words and rhymes and pauses, and then writing the melody and the words at the same time. You find the right feel. It’s less important to me that it’s coherent prose than that it is brain-tickling word play, and something honest and emotional at the same time. That’s the sweet spot.

I was also thinking of several different poems and texts at the same time. The Robert Burns “Red Red Rose” was the song I did with Philharmonia Baroque. So I wanted to make a new song that’s related to that but slightly different. Obviously there’s these texts about roses, and the Gertrude Stein, I love how it just flows. I decided to riff on that and go on forever. She’s always playing with words in such an interesting way, and at the same time she would never write lyrics to a song how I would. She’s interested in the same game. And so over time you start to erase the parts that you don’t need or aren’t essential for what you’re trying to do.

A new direction

"Evergreen." Photo by Caroline Shaw.
“Evergreen.” Photo by Caroline Shaw.

I think I’m interested in music that doesn’t–not necessarily minimalism, which does just one process and that’s the piece. That’s never really how I’ve worked. But looking at that, more single-process oriented or single-concept music. That’s what I love about that, and how I live with it, and what it can do for my music.

I’ve just been wondering what my music would sound like if I just slowed it down a bit and also allowed myself to just write music that is something that I’d want to listen to on headphones. I wouldn’t want to listen to Three Essays in the woods. I like them a lot, but I wouldn’t want to listen to them in the woods. The music of the outside, or music for a slower pace, or for a different kind of thinking, or as a canvas for thinking rather than directing your attention.

That was a little bit what I was interested in when writing Evergreen, and I was very conscious that it has a cinematic quality–and that’s another thing I’m interested in. If I was going to score my walk, what would I want to hear? What would be the soundtrack to my walk through this particular forest? If I thought of my music as a gift for a tree, it would be quite different.

So those are the parameters I set up when I started writing the piece. Just that concept: where does that take your brain, where does that shift your priorities, if you’re writing something for a being that has a longer sense of time than we do? And I really enjoyed writing the piece, because I had a little bit more freedom to hear these fuzzy harmonies for a long time. I just wanna hear a beautiful chord progression that goes from this place to that, something that sits there for a while.

Bach, Lang, Pärt

With Bach I like everything, but especially the solo pieces like the cello suites, the violin partitas and sonatas, and the solo keyboard works. The efficiency of what he’s able to do with one musician on one instrument is beautiful, and it really speaks to my pragmatic sense of not what’s the biggest and most expensive thing to write but what do you make that’s deeply profound and beautiful and complex with the simplest of means. So I have a deep relationship with those.

There’s a violinist named Johnny Gandelsman who plays with Brooklyn Rider, and he’s doing the cello suites on a five-string violin along with the sonatas and partitas in the same evening. I once took a bus four hours back from DC to New York to hear him play that. It was a deeply spiritual experience, and the way he plays is so individual and so himself. And that’s what I love, when someone isn’t trying to play everything correctly, the most perfect Bach, but reveals what it means to them. Johnny just tears into it in such a cool way.

For David Lang I just like his sensibility in life and a lot of his music. There’s some solo piano works, but again it’s more of the economy of means that I really like, and the directness that I appreciate.

And for Pärt, oh man. I haven’t listened to him in years, but I had some deeply moving moments in my early twenties with his music that will be with me forever. There’s one piece that’s for voices and string trio, Stabat Mater. We sat on the floor in the dark listening to it.

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About the author
Editor / Correspondent | Website

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful. An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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