An Avant-Garde That’s Easy to Love

Caroline ShawPhoto: Associated Press/Pulitzer Prize Board

Last month, David Byrne ­worried in the Guardian that New York has grown so homogeneously prosperous, so deprived of dilapidated apartments, that its creative wells might soon run dry. He has a point: It’s gotten harder to arrive with almost nothing and live on less. But the drought in young ­talent would be news to Caroline Shaw, a 31-year-old choral singer, freelance ­violinist, and occasional filmmaker who in her spare time cooked up a piece of music that won a Pulitzer Prize. The vocal group she sings in, Roomful of Teeth, used that piece, Partita for Eight Voices, as the anchor for a concert last week at (Le) Poisson Rouge, where the room was packed, awed, and full of fellow composers. You couldn’t have invented a better refutation of Byrne’s pessimism.

It’s true that Shaw, a graduate of Rice and Yale, and now a doctoral student at Prince­ton, leads an artistic life that’s out of reach for creative types with less luck, skimpier talent, and less lustrous ­education. Still, the Pulitzer’s jolt of ­affirmation passes through her to a whole new-music ecosystem: to the ensembles in which she plays, to the composer-run label New ­Amsterdam Records, and to her mostly Brooklynite cohort.

It especially lit up Roomful of Teeth, a phenomenally versatile a cappella octet that sounds like a glee club on molly. The group can sing demurely, producing a clean simulation of an ­English church choir, but then it will suddenly veer off into Tuvan throat singing, or whip from a bout of yodeling to Korean pansori, Broadway belting, and a whole catalogue of vocal techniques I couldn’t possibly identify. The singers are happy to let composers toy with their ­voices, and they do. If Peter Jackson’s next Tintin movie includes a scene in the invented country of Syldavia, he could use Merrill Garbus’s Quizassa, a loud, swarming number set to some Balkan-ish gibberish.

Shaw has an insider’s feel for the group’s manifold skills, and in Partita she trots them out with pride. The “Sarabande” movement opens with a hummed, toneless slide, a repeated, inquisitive hmm that keeps blooming into a vinegary chord. That section closes, four minutes later, with voices emulating the whistling drone of a did­geridoo. These are not just multicultural tricks or YouTube-worthy effects; they cohere into a slinky, glittering surface, slashed by jabs of pleasurably painful dissonance.

Shaw wrote Partita over several summers at Mass MoCA, as she wandered among the Sol LeWitt wall drawings. Those sensuously rationalistic murals, the pale pencil geometries and frescolike tints, have burrowed into her music, combining with the passionate rigor of Bach. You can hear in the luminous, sensual clarity of her sound that Shaw’s not interested in faded ideological oppositions: agonized self-­expression versus deadpan austerity; the embrace of the past versus the principled rejection of history. These are the battles of old men. Instead, she has ­discovered a lode of the rarest commodity in contemporary music: joy. The “Courante” section, traditionally one of the sprightlier dances in a baroque suite, opens with an alto’s quick toneless ahh of satisfaction. Immediately, another singer answers with an exhalation of her own. Suddenly, we’re in the middle of a group sigh, the breaths and gasps tossed rhythmically around so it’s hard to tell whether you’re listening to regulated ecstasy or to a steam-powered machine. The panting continues above a slow-moving basso chant, morphs into electronic-sounding moans, and fades out after a few minutes, leaving a long, tired wobbly tone, as if the group’s battery were suddenly dying. The heavy breathing returns at the end in the form of loud urgent chugging, building to a final shower of sighs. The movement is organized for maximum pleasure, and the interplay of planning and playfulness make the music a delight.

Shaw’s visibility is serving as an accelerant for the rolling party of new music that has the big institutions tagging along. To get to the Roomful of Teeth show, I speed-walked down Bleecker Street from ­Sub­Culture, a tiny basement venue that an hour earlier had hosted the New York Philharmonic’s first new-music chamber concert of the season. With low vaulted ceilings and a cash bar, the space gave the program a youthful patina, even if the music was by the middle-aged Euro-modernist Esa-­Pekka Salonen. I don’t get the feeling that the kids are listening much to him, but even some of his older chamber music still seems fresh—YTA III, for instance, a solo-cello piece from 1986 that stretches out the final instant in the life of a moth, just before it sizzles in a candle’s flame. Sumire Kudo, one of the Philharmonic’s blazing cellists, played it as a hectic, buzzing meditation.

The previous week, Lincoln Center, yearning for some extracurricular cool, colonized the Manhattan Center’s Grand Ballroom to showcase the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa. The evening centered on Up-close, a cello concerto that plays the soloist off against both a string orchestra (Orpheus) and a film of a horrified woman frantically scrabbling through a house and dashing out into the wintry woods, hunting for an answer to a question we don’t know. The tense, teeming music leaps from the strings into the actress’s face, and the cellist—here, Kaori Yamagami—jumps from her seat to sprint in synchronized frenzy with her onscreen counterpart. It’s a high-drama mood piece, a stylized and stylish portrait of unbearable anxiety that’s hard to watch and a thrill to hear.

If Byrne is right, and creative Millennials start giving up on New York before they even arrive, then we’ll be relying ever more on cultural imports like Salonen and Van der Aa, who stop off for a night or two to titillate sophisticates before moving on. But I don’t really believe the city’s artistic soul is being stifled by real-estate prices. Shaw is here, and she’s just getting started; the trick is persuading her to stay.

Partita for Eight Voices
By Caroline Shaw.

By Esa-Pekka Salonen.

By Michel Van Der AA.

An Avant-Garde That’s Easy to Love