Speak up.

Caroline Shaw
“So Quietly”
Premiere date unknown (2016-2017) by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus

With a title like So Quietly, this composition defied my first expectations. I clicked “play” with the expectation of soft dynamics, thin textures, and possibly a slow tempo. What I heard was a group of young girls and boys (all most likely altos and sopranos) using every possible timbre they could produce with their voices as well as full ranges and dynamics. I heard soaring melodic lines, ostinatos, counterpoint, defiant lyrics, and lastly an ingenious use of rests.

Listening to the lyrics, I could see that Shaw wanted to take the listener through a development of emotions and mindsets. At first the “narrator,” or “protagonist,” is tentative and not wanting to share their thoughts or feelings on whatever issue they are thinking of. But as Shaw develops her musical ideas, she also develops her text until the “narrator” is now ready to share their thoughts and ideas to be “a difference in the room” instead of sitting quietly.

The music itself spoke volumes. The tentativeness of the “narrator” at the beginning was highlighted, not only by the fact that we don’t hear any actual words until further into the song, but also the use of rests, which give the listener a sense of suspense, as if the singers are trying to tell you something but are not sure if they should share it or not. The rests also kept me very interested. They seemed to be different every time and much more organic, like a conversation inside one’s own head. When speaking, we do not just speak in rhythm with pauses in the same places like simpler music would sound when rests are placed on the same beat every-time. The flow is interrupted by small decisions in what we want to say next. Shaw has imitated, to the best of her ability, the act of decision making inside our heads.

Another thing that Shaw utilized to express the tentativeness at the beginning was the unified rhythm in the first section. It gave me the impression of someone just blending in with society and not wanting to be seen as different or as breaking the status quo. However, as the words started to turn toward thoughts of breaking out, the texture began to overlap with counterpoint, ostinatos, pedal points, and – above it all – soaring melodic lines.

Before the “narrator” changes their mind, there is a great deal of tension created by Shaw’s use of dissonances and suspensions, as well as a rhythmic motor of audible, almost percussive, breathing. But by the end of the composition, when the “narrator” has chosen to speak up, the music is now unified in rhythm and consonant, as if to say the “narrator” has completely made up their mind and is at peace with their decision.

Listening to this work, and other works by Shaw, I have noticed a trend in some of her writing. Not only does she seem inspired by minimalistic writing with her prevalent use of ostinatos but she also seems to have a deep connection to the music of the baroque period. Her use of counterpoint in So Quietly is exemplary and it is clear that she finds the development of ideas a key asset to her compositional technique. She has created a fresh new take on baroque counterpoint, which keeps the listener engaged and entertained with story-like developments of her ideas.

-Michelle Shaheen

Recording used:

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