From Kevin Puts to Nico Muhly, the once unexplored musical territories of the 21st century have finally been heard with mindful ears and has led me to a growing appreciation of this music these past months. Previously, I had the expectation that all 21st century music (contemporary music) had to consist of unfamiliar timbres and out-of-the-ordinary musical structures that challenged classical music from the 19th-century. The fixation on the stark differences that distinguished traditional classical music from contemporary music piqued my interest, however. I should have not just targeted the contrasts of character and style between musical eras, but rather find the similarities between them as well. Caroline Shaw’s compositions, though considered “tamer” than other 21st-century compositions, allows for the past and present to blend together in a manner that effectively grabs people’s attention. From using a range of vocal timbres, cluster chords, and classical forms, Shaw embraces the qualities of traditional classical styles while creating her own voice which can be seen in her work Partita for 8 Voices.
To clarify musical era styles, traditional classical music is identified as Western music that spans from the Medieval Era of Gregorian chant to the last, dramatic breaths of the Romantic Era. On the other hand, contemporary classical music is current music that tends to have influences of traditional Western styles and modernized (eclectic) styles that create a fusion of familiar, yet distinct sounds. During the 20th century, composers and musicians began to break the traditional harmonies and structures of classical music. Tonality in the 20th-century began to shift into the atonal realm, polyrhythms were more common, and instrumentation could include electronics and simple, everyday objects for their timbre and usage. In the 21st-century, I assert that music eventually met half way between the experimental, modern phase, and traditions of the past to create what we now know as “contemporary music” which can be found in Shaw’s compositions.
Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices is a four-movement work named after Baroque dances, yet most listeners will be surprised during their first hearing of this unique composition. Since there is an expectation for the work to reference Baroque dances, it is a bit confusing to hear the movement “Allemande” beginning with voices that rhythmically speak about directions until it bursts into chords. Throughout the work, we are introduced to a variety of vocal timbres as Shaw makes use of as many sounds that can be created by the oral cavity. While we may have expected only clear vocals and chords, Shaw has the performers sing in different vocal timbres such as grunts, Tuvan throat singing, rhythmically recited words, gurgles, sighs, and heavily panted breaths. While the work is rather eclectic in nature, Shaw does make references to Baroque dances as the “Allemande” movement is in 4/4 time and has a characteristic “allemande rhythm” of two pick-up 16th notes that lead into a measure (found within the recited voices in the beginning of the piece). Although the work may have a mix of unusual timbres, there are vocals that are based off traditional classical music. Overall, Shaw allows for the listener to experience a wonderful amalgamation of sounds and “extended techniques” that carry classical music references and traditions.
– Ashley Venegas
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