After listening to Caroline Shaw’s composition for treble choir and solo viola, I was astonished at what a youth choir could accomplish in a live performance. The music is deceivingly complex and intricate. The Grammy Award-winning Brooklyn Youth Chorus, by whom the work was commissioned, excels in all aspects of musicality. The sound of young female voices creates a very specific and characteristic palette of colors, from which Shaw chose very creatively. The viola part provides a very light, yet beautiful accompaniment that contributes to this interesting and unusual soundscape.
This form of this piece is trough-composed. There are slight repetitions of motives or lyrics throughout, but no clear repetition of sections. Although the form and sections are ambiguous and open to interpretation, I would argue that there are three main sections. The first section is full of imitation in the different vocal parts. The lyrics “my days, my weeks, my months, my years” are being passed around in a very polyphonic texture. All of this is accompanied by a pizzicato line in the viola. After this intricate texture goes on for a while, there is a stopping point where the voices arrive at a unison and the viola begins bowing fast notes in a rhythmic and somewhat aggressive manner. This can definitely be perceived as a different character. The first section is harmonically stable and diatonic, but this middle section shifts tonal centers and textures rapidly. There are a variety of colorful harmonies sung in neutral vowels that create a very bright Lydian-like sound. I really enjoyed how she also used a variety of vocal effects, such as whispering and humming. A really interesting phase, or panning effect is achieved by the alternating whispering and singing in a variety of dynamics. Shaw really emphasizes the constantly repeating lyrics in the last section by having the entire chorus sing in unison a few times before departing into harmony. The viola pizzicato returns, creating a texture similar to the beginning.
I enjoyed the ambiguity in meter throughout the piece. The pulse is clear; anyone could tap their foot to the music through most of the piece. The duration of each measure, line, or phrase, however, keeps changing. The opening viola pizzicato line is definitely in an odd meter, or a combination of alternating meters. The complicated rhythm is contrasted by the simplicity of young, innocent, female voices singing gently on top. The rich colors and harmonies are also easy and pleasant to listen to when sung by young girls. I am not a connoisseur of choral repertoire, but it seems that Caroline Shaw is not trying to revolutionize or depart from the standard choral tradition. I see her somewhat pushing the boundaries with instrumentation, form, and harmony, but staying close to choral techniques and norms of past decades and centuries. I had to be in choir for eight semesters in my undergraduate studies and witnessed a variety of vocal works that also used extensive imitation, odd meters, soprano/alto textures, and stringed accompaniment, among others traits. I enjoyed Shaw’s style and sound and am deeply interested in listening to more of her compositions.