There is a value in simple things

An interview with composer-singer-violinist Caroline Shaw, performing next week with Third Angle

Whenever composers get together and talk about other composers, the topic inevitably drifts to Who’s The Most Important, a typical domesticated primate behavior which normally results in lists and fights (for the record, Pärt and Saariaho remain verifiably at the top). In terms of living U.S. composers, the question for us often takes the form, “who will be in future music history books?” The really big living names–the Adamses, Crumb, Elfman, Glass, Gordon, Higdon, Lang, Mackey, Monk, Reich, Riley, Tower, Whitacre, Williams, Wolfe, Zwilich–are already in the history books, so for this exercise we’d like to really dig down and focus on the rising generation of composers, the ones who are (let’s be generous) underfortyish.

Prediction’s a messy business, laden with personal biases and all the customary cultural baggage, but the present author would like to report that, in our experience, a handful of names nearly always make the speculative Future Music History Book list: Andy Akiho, Gabriela Lena Frank, Gabriel Kahane, Missy Mazzoli, Andrew Norman, and Caroline Shaw. My money’s on Frank and Shaw, who I think will be remembered as the Bartók and Stravinsky of this era. Frank as Bartók is an easy one, but don’t take our Shaw=Stravinsky equation too literally (sonically Norman is much closer). However we must note that if, as David Lang suggests, Riley’s In C premiere was his generation’s Rite of Spring premiere, then Shaw’s Pulitzer win for Partita for Eight Voices was quite likely ours.

In an important sense there has never been a composer like Caroline Shaw, who will be in town twice next month, starting with Third Angle’s “Caroline in the City” concerts March 5th and 6th. Brahms needed Joachim, Britten needed Pears, the Three Brothers of Minimalism (Phil and Steve and Terry) never could have existed without each other, ditto Bang on a Can’s Bizarre Love Triangle. But as near as I can tell, Shaw (like, say, Laurie Anderson) doesn’t actually need anyone else–and (again like Anderson) she has the generosity and collaborative spirit characteristic of such autonomous artists. We’re talking about a classical composer who can go on stage with a megastar like Kanye West and she makes him look cool. Suddenly Barbara Strozzi comes to mind.

But the main thing is that–as we’re constantly reminded by Shaw’s relentlessly good press (to which, yes, I am contributing)–she’s a Triple Threat, which in this case means she’s a composer who’s not afraid to get her hands dirty. As if that weren’t enough, the specific musical skill sets Shaw possesses (alongside writing black dots on staff paper) are violin and voice, putting one foot squarely in each camp of the ancient instrumental-vocal divide.

You know about that one, right? “Opera composers don’t compose symphonies” is the usual shorthand, and broadly speaking it’s historically rare for a composer to be equally at home in both worlds. Nobody knows why–possibly a quirk of sensory neurology leading to divergent communicative modes? We might also blame marketing, institutional strange attractors, or even the gods themselves.

In any case, integrating these hemispheres is the privilege of the true greats, the Bachs and the Brahmses, the Mahlers and the Mozarts, the Schuberts and the Stravinskys. Even Bartók and Bernstein and Beethoven never really sorted this one out, and we can still hear this divide today when we consider (for instance) the contrasting popularities of vocalist Kahane and instrumentalist Akiho. Now consider the first two albums of Shaw’s music: one entirely vocal (with Roomful of Teeth), the other entirely instrumental (with Attacca Quartet). And her next album, a set of songs she composed to perform with Sō Percussion, will combine them.

Shaw isn’t really alone here, of course. Kahane’s a triple threat too, as are Portland’s singer-violist-composer Kenji Bunch and singer-violinist-composer Joe Kye (the latter of whom you can hear with Resonance Ensemble this Sunday). And this reintegration of the vocal and the instrumental is another of those things the deconstructive 20th century made possible. Think about Stravinsky’s two greatest hits: the arc from Rite of Spring to Symphony of Psalms covers the exact process we’re talking about.

By the end of the century, Dennis Russell Davies was urging Philip Glass not to be “one of those opera composers who never writes a symphony” (resulting in the Low Symphony) while Michael Tilson Thomas did more or less the opposite for Steve Reich (resulting in The Desert Music, my generation’s Symphony of Psalms). Glass and Reich and most of the other big names we mentioned above have spent their long and illustrious careers bridging this same divide.

So we’re inclined to see Shaw as part of a rising trend toward post-genre polystilistic syncretism, or what we might call “open source composing” if we wanted to get all cute. It’s that fundamentally generous and honest musical attitude common to rock and rap and other folk musicks but all too lacking in the stately halls of symphonic tradition. After all, pretty much any time we watch a singer-songwriter perform we’re seeing essentially the same thing: a composer playing an instrument and singing their own music. You could choose from hundreds of shows like this just in Portland over a single weekend.

In other words, this is fundamentally a classical concern, and it’s significant that the classical composers we’re talking about are largely known through their albums–the “album” being a populist musical form borrowed by canny composers in the ‘70s, giving contemporary classical music a badly needed frame and focus (these are the same people who “saved tonality,” by the way). The Glass/Reich/Riley and Gordon/Lang/Wolfe consortia owe much of their successes to their albums, from Einstein on the Beach to Anthracite Fields, and a few even founded their own labels.

The present-day composers we’re talking about have been following in their footsteps: Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar and Vespers for a New Dark Age, Norman’s Play and Sustain, Akiho’s NO one To kNOW one and The War Below, and Kahane’s string of albums and EPs. Yes, dear reader: this is another of those living traditions we’ve been going on about lately.

So what makes Shaw special amidst all this generational creative churn? Nothing much–it’s just that, setting every other consideration aside, her music is the actual best.

We spoke with Shaw by phone in anticipation of her upcoming concerts with Third Angle. Her answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

On Evergreen, commissioned by Third Angle New Music

Third Angle, we’ve known about each other for a while. Lisa, the director, came to a concert of mine six years ago in New York; we see each other every once in a while, and wanted to do something together. This felt like the right time.

I always like writing string quartets. I try to write one at least once a year, to check in on what I’m into right now, because they seem to reflect that over the years. I like looking back at the little string quartet children. [Valencia] is actually one of my earlier ones. You said that music isn’t about anything, and I agree with you, but there are jumping-off points, that initial impulse, and I like to have the history of that impulse in the title. Whether or not it sticks with that fully doesn’t really matter to me–I really want the music to be what it wants to be. But Valencia is about the beauty of an orange. I wrote that for some friends for a bookstore eight years ago now.

I usually tend to write 7-8 minutes pieces for quartet, but this new piece Evergreen is four movements, around 16-17 minutes. The movements are currently titled “Moss,” “Stem,” “Water,” and “Roots.” I wanted to write something that was directly inspired by nature, and–owning that and knowing that the piece is not sounding like a tree all the time–that’s my guide. In this particular case there’s a tree that I came upon during a walk in a forest on Galiano Island off the coast of Vancouver. The Pacific Northwest evergreen mossy forest, right after it snows so everything is wet, is such an amazing thing. Like when you take a walk and it slows you down in a beautiful way. It was very transforming.

It’s about that landscape, and that’s all I can say about it. Each movement definitely jumps off from these particular textures. The moss one is my favorite currently. There’s a certain rough quality, there’s the aleatoric notation that I’ve tried to figure out how to use for so long, to write music where the layers feel as calm as I feel in that forest. My nightmare would be to write music that is calm, and for me to be calm, but for the players to not be calm–and that’s a really tricky thing. I’m trying to design freedom into the music so that there’s these pizzicato clusters, these harmonics, but you don’t feel like you’re trying to fit into this neat timescale.

There’s something you can really sense in an audience, you can see it in the player’s bodies. In a string quartet, you can see it in the player’s bodies if they’re worried about falling apart and losing their place. A lot of shoulder-head-arm cueing is part of that process, and you can see it in the players. It’s a part of the musical experience. If you can make the same kind of sound, where it sounds random and natural but they’re happening at very calm, natural intervals of time–I just have to make sure that’s something that’s achievable. I could easily score this random-sounding pizzicato cloud section in 4/4 and put everything on the end of a quintuplet off the third beat. It would take me five minutes to write that piece and put everything exactly where I want it to be, but that would be a lot harder for the player and ultimately for the philosophy of the piece. I’m trying to create sound worlds that feel as calm and natural as being in a forest, not only for the audience but for the players as well. That’s why it takes so much time.

[Elliott] Carter can be quite calm for the listener but for the player it’s very different. It takes a lot of work for it to be calm for both parties. People think that if you don’t make it challenging then the players won’t have anything to think about, but it can become the deep work of meditation and nuance if the part is immediately easy to play. When you spend less time thinking about it then you have more space to be yourself in it. There is a value in simple things, but I always try not to go into the world of cheesy and fascicle, like some film music. I come very close to it, and probably overstep at times; I’m sure that will change in my life, but it’s one of those things that I’m concerned about. At the same time I don’t want to make something more complex just to avoid that pitfall.

Violin and voice

With violin I feel very comfortable. There’s also a sort of mask when you’re playing that doesn’t exist when you’re singing, and I’ve had to be bolder over the last few years. I’ve never had to think about this before. With Roomful of Teeth its mostly ensemble singing. A lot of the songs I’ve written are for other people.

It’s often pretty delicate: I like singing softly, with a microphone. If the voice is not really in shape it’s hard to physically get the vocal chords to come together. I’m taking care of myself a little bit more. I do joke that I don’t practice, and when you practice violin you really have to tear through things for hours. With singing there’s more planning, there’s the athleticism of planning your breath support, there’s a lot of mental work. It is really fun to actually live inside the song that I wrote for someone else, but then I find that I’d rather sing things another way–so I rewrite the melody either for my voice, or just in general if there was something awkward that I hadn’t realized writing it. It’s research for the composer.

For Third Angle I’ll do a few things on my own, a solo set, about twenty minutes, and I’ll use the Helicon VoiceLive, basically a guitar effects box. You see it every so often. I used it on the Kanye tour four years ago, I got familiar with it then. I don’t think I’ll do anything particularly extravagant with it. I’ll use some vocoder harmonizer, some effects. With the quartet I will sing “I’ll Fly Away” and “And So.”

The day we filmed “And So,” basically the day before with the quartet, I asked if they could read through this song I wrote for someone else. And they said it was great, and asked if we could record that for our video tomorrow. So the video is the first time I’m ever singing it in the history of the world. I do like the song, I’m pretty proud of it.

I just never really thought of myself as a person to write for. I didn’t sing solo. Even By and By was written for somebody else, and I guess I never really identified as a songwriter. A couple years ago I met Sara Bareilles, and I love her. And she had that hit song “Love Song” that was on the radio. She’s a songwriter and pop singer, she’s got some beautiful songs. A couple years ago I decided to think about the craft of songwriting, the structure of it. The way she sings is so natural and unaffected but incredibly well-supported, beautifully in tune at all times. Sometimes it just takes seeing someone you musically respect to try something yourself.

Direct songwriting is very new to me. Roomful of Teeth stuff, at least in the very beginning, there was no text. It was instrumental writing but for voice. Once you have text in there it really limits you in terms of what you can do. But there’s a project I’ve been working on for the last year with Sō Percussion, basically an album of ten songs. We performed a few of them a couple weeks ago, and we did the full set at Princeton on Saturday. This is an album we’ll release late spring, early summer, where I’m singing and they’re playing.

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