Excerpt from "Allemande," from Caroline Shaw's  Partita for 8 Voices

Excerpt from "Allemande," from Caroline Shaw's Partita for 8 Voices

Excerpt from "Courante," from Caroline Shaw's  Partita for 8 Voices

Excerpt from "Courante," from Caroline Shaw's Partita for 8 Voices

Shaw: Partita for 8 Voices

Silence. And then words. “To the side,” repeated by an octet of voices. Words building on words building on words — “And around, through the middle, and,” “And across – 6, 7, 8,” “Upper line drawn from the left side” — building into a belt that goes from mounting chaos to pure joy.

Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices is, as the title suggests, a composition solely for the human voice. Yet Shaw, who wrote the work for the ensemble Roomful of Teeth (of which she’s also a member), creates a full range of seemingly limitless options for the human voice to explore. There’s words, there’s wailing, there’s Tuvan throat singing, there’s the clean limnal lines of Gregorian Chant — and all is united by the instrument that creates it. The piece was born of Shaw’s desire “to hear just one chord” amid a period of focus on dissonant music. But that doesn’t stop the 8 vocalists from careening around any number of roads to hit those chords. Dissonance into harmony into a sense of structured chaos once again. All from the same breath. 

There’s a sense of listening to this work that you have no idea what’s going to come next. Even looking at the score, with its break-outs for spoken text (some of which is lifted from Sol Lewitt, whose works at Mass MoCA inspired Shaw for this piece) and tempo indications ignoring “fast” or “slow” in favor of, “silk shoes gliding over marble mosaic,” there seems to be a lack of control.

But, of course, it all comes together. Part of this is Shaw’s control as a composer, part of it can also be attributed to the trust and sympathetic knowledge she has of the ensemble she wrote the piece for, the trust she has of the human body as instrument. It's similar to Pema Chödrön: "By being fully present to your experience, you can contact the unlimited openness of your being."

The work comes together almost as a calm surface, but in giving us this clarity at the top, what we’re really able to do is see all that lies on the riverbed.


Today’s Contemplation: Can you find the cohesion in dissonance? Can you hear “just one chord”? Can what seems overwhelming at points be sat with until it unties itself into simplicity? Rather than seeing the elements of practice that occur as we sit — the sounds from outside, the bodily sensations, the thoughts in our heads, the smells or visions that catch our line of sight — can we consider them to be all part of the same ecosystem? Can you find yourself in the middle of all of that, with the breath, open to what’s going on around you, but focused for the time being on the body of breath?