“Music Talks” is a series where Daily Music Writers give their takes on the biggest releases in new music. From picking best and worst tracks to asking what makes a record tick, the Music beat is here to give praise and give shit to music worth talking about.
These quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
At 30 years old, Caroline Shaw won a Pulitzer for her work, “Partita for Eight Voices,” and is still the youngest person ever to have won that prestigious award. She’s got degrees from Princeton and Yale, and she’s worked with everyone from Kanye West to Ben Folds. “Partita for Eight Voices” is a four-movement work written for Roomful of Teeth, an ensemble that Shaw is part of.
Jason Zhang, Daily Arts Writer: Welcome to “Music Talks” for Caroline Shaw’s “Partita for Eight Voices.” So I guess the first question I wanted to ask was, what were your initial thoughts? Just — what did you think of the piece?
Kai Bartol, Music Beat Editor: Initially, I guess initially, what I was thinking is that it sounded very mechanical or, digital. Of course, the strange vocal stuff was pretty unique to the performance. I was also very curious as to how that was written and composed to sound very artificial in that way.
Ryan Brace, Daily Arts Writer: Yeah, to build off that, I remember the elements of going from speech to sung word — it happens a decent amount during the piece. And it’s interesting how it’s coordinated from being what seems like rhythmic speech, right into, seamlessly, some sort of a part harmony.
Drew Gadbois, Daily Arts Writer: I kind of viewed it almost as moments of consonance and moments of dissonance, in terms of like: sometimes it’s very discreetly rhythmic, and other times it gets really arrhythmic in terms of the voices drifting off. And the same thing goes for the melody: it’s very distinctly melodic, and then it just shifts microtonally.
Bella Greenbacher, Daily Arts Writer: It was interesting that it was talking about shapes and directions, in the last movement and the first. And then it also seemed like dancing directions in the first one: I go to this dance camp every summer, and we know the dance “Allemande,” which is what it was called, the title of the song. And it was interesting that the music was very different from the music that we traditionally dance to with that dance move.
Conor Durkin, Daily Arts Writer: What was so impressive was its ability to replicate tonal ranges of classical music, where at times you forget you are listening to an entirely vocal piece. It’s able to imitate instrumental sounds and expressive ranges of an entire orchestra.
Rosa Sofia Kaminski, Senior Arts Editor: I think whenever things involve that kind of spoken word, especially when it’s spoken word that flows into song, the writer in me thinks very much about both what is being said and the shape, and feeling and sound of the words being said. And I think this piece definitely used content, word shape and sound very interestingly as part of the music.
Kaitlyn Fox, Daily Arts Writer: I thought it was cool how there is a common thread between all the movements. Just thinking back on it, the third one was probably my favorite. It felt really haunting but also a lot different than the first one. I think Kai was saying it was very mechanical; I thought it could be interpreted as like, panting like you’re running, which I thought was really interesting. Because in that movement, it just gave me the running-through-the woods type vibe.
Zhang: Were there any particular moments that stuck out to you, specifically, and like a specific movement or anything?
Brace: One of the parts that stuck out to me, I think it was at the beginning of the third song, it’s the part with all the heavy moaning and grunting and panting. I’m assuming that that is meant to signify something intimate or sexual, and it reminded me of stuff I’ve heard in hip hop before. Like, it reminded me of a Kendrick song or a Kanye song I’ve heard, and it was really interesting how a genre that’s not even close to that definitely had influence.
Jack Moeser, Daily Arts Writer: I think a moment that stuck out to me, it was the very end and all the voices came back and there was spoken word, because up till that point, I was kind of mesmerized and I’d forgotten these were voices. And hearing the cacophony of spoken words was kind of a reminder that they were voices.
Bartol: Yeah, there’s also a moment, I can’t remember which song it was. But it was where all eight voices were talking at once — and they were all talking about math things. And I was thinking about just the insane precision, just like a mathematical equation that went in to sync up all these disparate sentences together and create this really precise cacophony.
Gadbois: Yeah, I definitely noticed that too. And I think it’s almost, there’s almost like an algorithmic sort of aspect to the piece itself, because, even in the words, if you focus entirely on the words, they’re always in reference to something that’s going on within the piece, either in an abstract sense or in a very literal sense.
Zhang: What do you think stayed the same throughout all of it? And what do you think between the different movements changed? What kind of different moods did you get from the different movements or the piece as a whole?
Nora Lewis, Daily Arts Writer: Yeah, I just feel like the contrast, like how some people talked about it, the spoken word was mechanical in nature at some points. And that contrasted with maybe, the third movement, like what Kaitlyn was talking about, more of the cinematic kind of moments, like when they were singing.
Durkin: I felt like the techniques of the manipulation of the voice constraining what range of tones it can express was something that was fitting to whatever the movement wanted to convey, what mood it was trying to capture.
Zhang: I’m just curious, how many of you listen to this with headphones? Okay, so everyone except for Ryan and me. But the spatial element, especially because this is a piece that is performed live, is really cool. Especially with the panning and fading in and out.
Gadbois: I actually found the panning to be subtle. I don’t know if that was just me, but I find it extremely subtle to the point where like, I had to wonder if the sensation of it moving was from the words themselves, or from the actual channel use, which I actually think was better. I actually like that, because it sort of forces you to get in your own head right from the beginning.
Trame: Similar to that, I feel like any time in music where they kind of do this panning and spatial thing, I feel like it makes it so much more personal. Because, if you’re just listening to a stereo where it’s just the same throughout, it’s very easy to drown. And so I think with headphones, that helps also, but I think even seeing this live, you would be forced to pay attention, but also feels like it’s directed towards you.
Zhang: That was super insightful. Because, at least to me, this piece did feel pretty intimate. When you listened to this, did you kind of imagine this as just kind of a standalone thing by itself? Or could you imagine this accompanying some other art form?
Trame: I could see this because I feel like this just reminds me of a lot of art exhibitions where it’s a room of sound. And they like, do this while you stand in the middle. I don’t see it accompanying a video or anything, but alongside some sort of curated thing to guide you.
Durkin: Yeah, I almost wish I was able to walk around while listening to this. As though it were a 3D space I could navigate myself. So I could imagine it being like that in an art gallery. But its own separate piece in which different instances of the room had different vocals or different aspects of the piece louder than others.
Bartol: I think there’s a lot of really artsy movies that sort of take this general spoken word idea and sort of incorporate it, like when I heard the third movement with the moans immediately, the first thing I thought of was the “Midsommar” sex scene and that soundtrack.
Gadbois: Yeah, I completely second that. Not necessarily the sex scene, but I get what you’re saying. I really think this, like any of these movements, would work really well with establishing shots at the beginning of movies. I think there is kind of an overwhelming tone that each of them set. And a presence I think that, depending on the movie, would fit very well.
Zhang: And to finish, did you like it or not? Why? Would you listen to something like this again?
Gadbois: Yes, I really liked it. I really like Caroline Shaw. I think she’s doing something. She’s changing the game of modern classical, I think. And I do enjoy this type of music. So I would be very interested in finding more of it.
Fox: I did like it. Because I mean, in high school, I was in choir and stuff. So I just really appreciated the fact that the composer was one of the performers and that it was written for these people. You could just tell that, like the vocals are just so crisp, and just really well done.
Kaminski: I think I appreciated it. I don’t know if it’s something that I was like, “oh yeah, let me turn this on” and listen to it casually. And I feel like other pieces like that, I wouldn’t like to listen to them casually, but I think they’re very interesting to listen to, and I can appreciate them, I don’t know, that feels like a different thing to me than liking it necessarily.
Brace: I think I’m also on Team Appreciate, because it’s pretty obvious that it’s really well thought out, really well done, high-quality art, even if it might not be something that I’d throw on, on like a Sunday afternoon. I think there’s definitely something to be said for this, and it’s definitely top-tier art for sure.
Moeser: Yeah, I think for the most part I liked it. I really liked the different vocal texture she achieved, that was just really incredible. And a lot of them sounded really great. I think it’s an ambient work, it was just kind of cool to just kind of let my thoughts wander as I listened to it. I will say some parts were kind of annoying, honestly. But I think overall it was really solid.
Bartol: I really loved it. I thought it toed the line between like barely being held together, and almost falling apart, and then also being one of the most beautiful vocal performances I’ve ever heard. I thought it did that really perfectly. What I don’t like is all the friends I’m going to lose when I bump Caroline Shaw’s “Partita for Eight Voices” in the car. So yeah, I really liked it.
Greenbacher: I also really liked it. I thought the vocals were super experimental and interesting. It was cool to see how she blurred the lines between vocals and instruments. I don’t know when I would listen to this, but I’m thinking maybe on a long walk, like a rainy day, maybe later today.
Lewis: Yeah, I thought it was super cool. I don’t know if, Roomful of Teeth, do they perform? Yeah, I listened to some of their stuff in high school, in choir class, also. And so, super cool to hear that come back again. I’d like to listen to them again. I’d kind of forgotten about them. But yeah, I thought it was just like a super engaging piece.
Trame: I’ve just been getting more into understanding how music comes together. Like I’ve been watching a lot of live modular synthesizer sets, which are so just hypnotizing, and this kind of gave me that. I think it was just crazy how you can make something very experimental within the traditional, and with these constraints, and still have it be so vast.
Durkin: As far as experimental music goes, I think it’s really hard to create a piece that’s mainly focused on vocals and the tones of vocals, and I think a lot of pieces try to blend those genres of classical and minimalism with vocal pieces. And I think this piece does it so well, it doesn’t need the aid of any added elements or instruments. It works so well on its own with just the range of vocals and spoken word. So, I think it bridges that gap beautifully.
Zhang: All right. Well, thank you all for listening and chatting on “Music Talks”!