Mutters and Exhales

Ashley Venegas; 4/24/19

Caroline Adelaide Shaw

So Quietly (Live recording November 20, 2016)

For a cappella choir

Certainly, I have an affinity towards music that implements string, wind, and percussive instruments lest I forget another “voice” within the ensembles. One can narrowly think of the human voice as just a means for conversation and, unfortunately, forget that it, too, has history and traditions in the musical world. As an instrumentalist, I delve into the wind and orchestral areas with a greater fervor, regarding compositions, composers, famous musicians, musical styles, and the overall history that follows them. Since I noticed my inattentiveness to the vocal area, I found it important to review a vocal piece that is by our selected composer of the week. Caroline Shaw, an American composer, is famously known for her creative manipulation of the voice in her a cappella composition Partita for 8 Voices. Shaw’s So Quietly is a commissioned a cappella work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and features a transformative story with percussive breaths and a cycle of dynamic and textual tension and release points that build the overall “character” who struggles to find their “voice” in the world.

Within the introduction of the work, the sopranos and alto voices sing a unison rhythm on the syllables “Da dat” and “Ahh” in a 4/4-time signature. As the work progresses, the sopranos reach up to their head voices, creating noticeable register distance between the altos as they both repeat the same rhythmic motive from the introduction. There is a moment where the choir breaks into a new section by having four groups separately inhaling breaths on beats 1, 2, 3, and 4. After this moment, long-sustained canon phrases and silences create an unpredictable sense of time as the choir beings to build upon thicker polyphonic textures and gradually crescendos to a forte dynamic. The choir returns to a 4/4-time signature as the altos steadily breathe on counts 2 and 4, immediately adding breathes on each 8th note of the measure; the sopranos return to melodic vocal line with clearly articulated words in a softer dynamic.

Throughout the work, the choir constantly switches between sections of stable 4/4-time signatures and areas where there seems to be free time. Within the stable 4/4 time, the choir tends to sing in a unison rhythmic pattern and the voices build a polyphonic texture; the lyrics during this section are enunciated with clarity. During the sections of free time, the choir tends to have a thicker polyphonic texture (more divisi parts), louder dynamics, and the text is often repeated in a canon which makes the words a bit indiscernible. Half way in work, the choir intertwines the 4/4-time signature with the text “I’ll just sit here” as the other half of the choir has “Ah” phrases in free time. The text and these two contrasting sections of the work illustrate a story of a person (or group) that is afraid to be vocal about any issue, but they gradually gain strength to talk (sing) about these issues without worrying about others opinions.

In regards to the text, the first words are simply syllables of “Das” that eventually turn into the monotonous pattern of “Maybes”, symbolizing a person who is unsure of confronting an issue at hand. Following in succession, the imitative polyphony of “Nevermind, you I” and “Could you I think…if maybe” give hint that the person wishes to be vocal, while the next set of words, “I don’t want to be quiet” is sung in a louder dynamic and show the roundabout thoughts and struggle within them. While the person contemplates to “…just sit here” and not confront the issue, the words abruptly shift to “I won’t just sit here” but again there is a cycle of vocals that go back and forth between these two phrases. Ultimately, the person in the story believes that they will make a difference in the world by “ever-singing” and begin to be vocal on issues they find are important. While the words are not complex, the structure of the lyrics in the work is quite impressive. When the choir has percussive breathes or no text (words), the choir helps create a sense of anxiety as the lack of vocals and deep breathes represent a person who is holding back their words and thoughts (although they eventually surface as the work goes on). In addition, when the person in the story is reluctant about voicing their beliefs, the choir has a softer dynamic but as they build strength of their “voice” and character, the choir develops a thick, polyphonic texture and has a strong forte dynamic.

As I further analyzed the work, I understood that the choir was singing a song that could not be considered liturgical or sacred music. Medieval choral music had unaccompanied (a cappella) Gregorian chant that was monophonic and was free in terms of a time signature, but during the latter half of the Middle Ages music began to shift towards using more polyphonic textures and secular texts. Within “So Quietly”, the text of the work is not sacred but rather secular as the lyrics involve a story of a person becoming vocal about their own beliefs and features such polyphonic textures. The use of non-sacred text and polyphony is like the shift towards secular music during the late Middles Ages and Renaissance Era, which included non-religious topics such as love songs and political satire. Shaw does implement 21st-century harmonies that are reminiscent of Eric Whitacre as the cluster of chords that envelop the “room” are thick with textures and sounds. When taken into consideration, the secular text of So Quietly can also be viewed as a change from the following expected beliefs (such as religion) to transitioning towards an independent mindset by the end of the work. Nevertheless, Shaw has created a rather interesting choral work that does not shy away from a mix of traditional features such as imitation, but also includes the “newer” concepts of cluster chords and percussive breaths into So Quietly.


“Brooklyn Youth Chorus Sings Caroline Shaw’s ‘So Quietly’.” YouTube video, 5:35. Posted by “WQXR,” February 8, 2017. (accessed April 24, 2019).

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