Caroline Shaw is the biggest name in classical music right now. This makes her a sufficiently obscure figure for the purposes of this column.
She’s a composer, as well as a singer and violinist, making her the classical equivalent of a singer-songwriter. Her compositions, which range from long choral pieces in multiple movements to short percussion performances on clay flower pots, have been performed all over the world and recorded by some of the classical music world’s most prominent ensembles. She’s worked with pop stars like Kanye and helped found a vocal ensemble, Roomful of Teeth. And she’s the youngest-ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
But I don’t want to talk about that. Instead, I want to focus on the way her music works, because she uses some of the most fantastic and outrageous techniques to produce the kinds of sounds that you’d never imagine coming from a proper classical musician.
Her biggest piece—the one that won her the Pulitzer—is a choral piece called Partita for 8 Voices, and when you listen to it you can hear how she has some unconventional ways of using the voice. In the first movement, she blurs repeated spoken text with a low, throaty hum. That hum comes from Tuvan Throat Singing, and it’s absolutely wild.
To get into the weeds for a moment, it’s really important to understand how impressive it is that she uses the voice this way. Most classical singers are trained in a very rigid ‘bel canto’ style; this is what you’re probably picturing when you think about classical music, and it sounds like this.
So when Shaw wants to do something unconventional, like Tuvan Throat Singing, or even when she wants to get a different tone out of the singers, she has to work very intensely to get outside the traditional bounds of classical music. In fact, as you can hear in this podcast, she was involved with a small group of singers that actually met with Tuvan artists to learn those techniques from the real masters of the form.
All of this so to say that, in the Partita, Shaw demonstrates a kind of brilliance and adventurism that transcends form and genre; it’s well worth your time, and if you like it, you should give the rest of her work a listen.
Now, let’s talk about that other work. In her second major work, called To the Hands, she uses a lot of the same techniques, and if you want to listen to the two pieces back-to-back, you’ll get a pretty good idea of her style. To The Hands, which focuses on homelessness and hunger, is a combination piece for vocal and strings ensemble.
You can hear how Shaw uses a lot of the same vocal tricks in both pieces: things like repeated spoken text, long lines of rhythmically free humming and ‘ooh-ing,’ and sweeping, sudden crescendos that add a kind of visceral excitement to any listening experience.
The way she works with the strings is also really impressive. Because she’s also a violinist, she understands how to get the most out of a string instrument in terms of different sounds. Listening to the piece, you can hear scraping, rattles, knocks that sound almost like percussion instruments, and long lines of dry quavers that seem like they come out of the morning mist.
Shaw manages to do all this by employing ‘extended techniques,’ or unusual ways of handling the instrument. For example, she uses a lot of different ways of handling the bow—at various times, she’ll instruct the players to play ‘sul ponticello,’ where they scrape along the end of the bridge of the instrument to get that quiet quavering sound. Other times, they’ll play a passage ‘col legno,’ which involves smacking the wooden end of their bow against the strings to make a sharp hitting sound. Using all these techniques gives the piece a much wider emotional range than the standard weeping violins of romantic music—and it makes for a piece that seems to float from out of nowhere and towards nowhere, caught on the winds and curving through the air according to some strange and mysterious pattern.
If you like those pieces, you can go on to some of her other work, including short pieces like Boris Kerner which, yes, include people playing on flower pots.