Partita for 8 Voices

WORK TITLE: Partita for 8 Voices
COMPOSER: Caroline Shaw
DATE/ERA: 2012/New Music
IDEAL FOR: When you need some Joy, or when you’re looking for some next level acapella group music.


The first time I heard Partita for 8 voices was shortly after it had won the pulitzer. I put it on casually in the background while I fiddled around on the internet but it only took about a minute and a half before I closed my browser and sat stunned. I got to the end, sat blinking at my computer and pressed play again. See below for live footage of the moment

Caroline Shaw is…basically a badass. She began writing this piece while the (very very cool) ensemble she sings with, Roomful of Teeth, was doing a residency at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, as a way for them to experiment with different vocal techniques (more on that in a sec). In 2013 when she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music, the jury noted how Shaw “changes gears so quickly and so easily and every turn is so unexpected and so full of joy” and the joy of this piece is the thing every commentary I read mentions because it’s just unavoidable. HERE’S SOME JOY. DEAL WITH IT. I got to hear this live in November and just before the last movement Caroline Shaw stepped forward and reminded us that she wrote this piece to find joy in chaos and I was not the only audience member moved completely to tears by the end.

You guys

This is the most incredible joyful music and it hits us hard because it pulls on the oldest traditions of comfort and joyful music and smashes them all together into something wholly new. This incorporates a lot of what we would traditionally call “extended technique” for classical musicians, meaning basically that we are asking them to use a technique not taught in conservatory training, and in this piece they come from folk singing traditions. Before we dive in, let me just leave you with the score’s inscription.

Partita is a simple piece. Born of a love of surface and structure, of the human voice, of dancing and tired ligaments, of music and of our basic desire to draw a line from one point to another.

So this is a “Partita” which is a loosish term meaning Baroque dance suite, which is a collection of several of these“dance forms” which basically were a rhythmic pattern and an implied mood. A partita is also generally just using the dance forms as an organizational method, rather than a literal interpretation; it’s intended for listening not dancing (though if you’re feelin it, you should probably go for it).

Each movement is titled with a Baroque dance form so I’ll walk y’all through what those basically mean and how it relates to what you’re going to hear.


No.1 Allemande:

So traditionally an Allemande is a dance with a 4/4 meter and it has a traditional meter of  

Which is pretty damn close to the rhythm the of the spoken words at the beginning. A lot of baroque dance steps got eventually broken down and evolved into other things, including American folk dances and it just so happens that the words at the beginning of this piece are…squaredance calls! And those are quickly overlapped with text from the technical wall drawings of Sol LeWitt.

Shaw called this movement “intended simulation of motion and space in text”. Keep an ear out for how the singers play with their resonance to change their vocal tone and some very unusual (for the canon) vocal technique around 3:05. I found one article that mentioned that Shaw uses the traditional Korean p’ansori style in this and I’m pretty sure but since the score is not yet available I can’t confirm this totally…maybe the score fairy will bring me one…

No. 2 Sarabande:

Traditionally a Sarabande was a slow courtly dance in 3. Johann Mattheson likewise wrote in Der Vollkommene Capellmeister (Hamburg, 1739) that the sarabande “expresses no passion other than reverence.” and reverence is exactly what comes through in Shaw’s build from the quiet restraint of the beginning to an ecstatic belted melody, and then decrescendoing back down to the etherially strange and beautiful Tuvan throat singing at the end (more on that in a second).

Beyoncé gets it.

This movement uses a couple of extended vocal techniques including that aforementioned Tuvan throat singing near the end(go ahead and click on that link for some great examples, and click here to see it being performed in action).The belted nasal style of vocal production that comes out around 2:23 harkens to a some eastern european choral singing styles and also the early American Sacred  Harp Style I just want to take a second to talk about how visceral this technique is and why I think it has a profound influence on us as listeners. We are so used to people “performing” for us and at least in the Sacred Heart tradition I mentioned above, the idea of the nasal and LOUD sound was literally to be so loud your sound reached heaven. It wasn’t a performance, it was just an outpouring of emotion and sound to God, and you the audience are just lucky enough to get to witness such a human moment. That’s a performance style I rarely experience in classical music and it’s incredibly powerful and effective as you can hear.

Now everyone go sing really loud like you’re almost yelling and try to tell me it doesn’t feel awesome.

No. 3 Courante:

I don’t even want to tell you what the dictionary definition of a courante is. I just want to tell you what my main man Johannes Mattheson said about it. He said it is “chiefly characterized by the passion of mood of sweet expectation. For there is something heartfelt, something longing and also gratifying, in this melody: clearly music on which hopes are built”.

I mean, that is some beautiful music theory writing ( I mean most of it looks like this) and it sums up so deeply what the spirit of this movement is. It begins with Inuit throat singing which is traditionally a game amongst inuit women to essentially see who can keep it going the longest. It was started as a way to entertain themselves while the Inuit men were away on hunting trips and you should definitely watch one of these awesome examples here, here and here to see for yourself how physically involved it is. This is basically inuit lady beatboxing and why do I even need to say anymore than that?

The prominent and stunning melody that arises comes from the American folk hymn “Shining Shore” which was popular during the Civil War on both sides of the conflict but fell out of fashion after that…probably because it’s not exactly light on the death imagery…

My days are gliding swiftly by,
And I, a pilgrim stranger,
Would not detain them as they fly-
Those hours of toil and danger.
[Chorus] For now we stand on Jordan’s Strand;
Our friends are passing over;
And, just before, the shining shore
We may almost discover.

So going back to that Mattheson quote, I think it’s easy to find the longing and gratification in both inuit throat singing to pass the time till half the population returned, and a comforting hymn from a time of unprecedentedly violent war; clearly, music hopes were built upon.

Keep an ear out for the basses throwing in some more of the Tuvan throat singing after the midpoint.

No. 4 Passacaglia

Listen, people have a lot of feelings about what exactly a Passacaglia is. Very basically, let’s just say a Passacaglia is based on a persistently repeating motif, chord progression or phrase. This is the movement that Shaw composed first and she told the NY Times

“We’d been trying all these sounds and making these different kinds of music and I’d just spent a year playing all this thorny contemporary music,” she recalled. “And I remember thinking, ‘All I want to hear is just one chord.’ So that was the beginning of the piece, how to make that one thing I wanted to hear.”

Almost as much as there’s a repeating chord progression, this movement is all about the D. 

Thank you Caroline Shaw for leading me right into that sentence.

But truly the opening chord structure is DFEDF#DF#GDmDGDm. (yes I transcribed it for you, are you happy nerds?) so nearly every chord is coming from and going back to D. It’s all about the D.  The voices begin to break off in their own little variations on the progression, and the Sol Dewitt text comes back in the middle. The voices gradually all break in and out of speaking and singing,with little furtive emerging chords and eventually lead us back with some fierce as hell vocal fry back to our original chord progression. Legend has it (and also respectable news sources) that the crowd burst into spontaneous applause at the return of the triumphantly belted D chord (around 4:35) at the premiere.

And that’s Partita folks. Hope you enjoyed this celebration of the pure joy of mouth sounds.

*I just have to take this opportunity to point out that the NY times piece on Shaw winning the Pulitzer included my very favorite correction of all time “It is Tuvan throat singing — a tradition of the Tuvan people of Siberia — not “tooth and throat” singing.” Ouch, that sounds painful.

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