"Your Second or Permanent Teeth" (anatomical diagram)
Boston: Caroline Shaw’s Common Cause

Boston: Caroline Shaw’s Common Cause

From Harrison Wader Ferguson, D.D.S., A Child’s Book of the Teeth (1922).

In his 1547 treatise Dodecachordon, Heinrich Glarean, having lionized the likes of Obrecht, Ockeghem, and Josquin (especially Josquin), made sure—like you do—to despair that the younger generation was ruining everything. To be sure, even Josquin had his infelicitous moments: “in some places in his songs he did not fully and properly restrain his impetuous talent, although this ordinary fault may be condoned because of his otherwise incomparable gifts.” Those coming after Josquin, however, made this exception the rule, as Glarean complained:

The art now displays such unrestraint that learned men are nearly sick of it. This has many causes, but mostly it is because composers are ashamed to follow in the footsteps of predecessors who observed the relation of modes exactly; we have fallen into another, distorted style of song which is in no way pleasing—it is only new.

It was probably coincidental that, for the May 10 and 11 premiere performances of Caroline Shaw’s Music in Common Time, the vocal group Roomful of Teeth and the string ensemble A Far Cry preceded the piece with Josquin at his most elegantly, explicitly generational: his “Déploration” on the death of his elder colleague Johannes Ockeghem (in an arrangement by Shaw). But, then again, after winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for her Partita (the youngest composer to ever receive the honor), Shaw came in for a share of Glarean-like grief courtesy of John Adams, who implicitly held Shaw up as an example of “extremely simplistic, user-friendly, lightweight” music: “People are winning Pulitzer Prizes writing this stuff now.” He went on:

If you read a lot of history, which I do, you see that civilizations produce periods of high culture, and then they can fall into periods of absolute mediocrity that can go on for generation after generation.

So to have the “Déploration” on the program, that road from Ockeghem to Josquin to implied musical perdition, was a nice reminder that, if you read even a little history, you see that these sorts of bumpy transitions are nothing new. Music in Common Time is, among other things, a border stone marking one of those most porous yet most impassible of barriers: a proximate, parapatric stylistic divide.

* * *

A Far Cry, seven seasons old, has, since 2010, been the in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (where I heard this program on May 11). They are a conductorless gang of energetic fashion. (Their standard-repertoire contribution to the program, Mahler’s string-orchestra arrangement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet (D. 810), was incessantly high-contrast and bracing.) Roomful of Teeth charts a line between musical polish and enthusiasm. Their singing in the Josquin, for instance, channeled the precision of an early music outfit but eschewed the homogeneity: individual voices could still be heard amidst the collective. Both groups are cut from similar cloth: younger-skewing ensembles proficient enough to slip into the churn of the classical-music performance business, and idiosyncratic enough to create the sense that they’re reprogramming the machine. An additional layer of professional and personal connections between the two groups (which Shaw hinted at in a breezy program note) made for a natural collaboration; Shaw’s new piece—somewhat mind-bendingly, her first formal commission—provided the occasion.

Music in Common Time is not quite a concerto, although the eight voices tend to move more as a unified group than the string orchestra, which is frequently divided into distinct factions. An opening stretch—a staggered, rising, arpeggiated triad (D major, picking up where Partita left off)—shifts into the sturdiest of diatonic progressions, then gives way to a vocal break, one of two sections with text: “Over the roads,” the voices sing, in a tongue-twisting interlude of traveling music. (That dialectic, one ensemble gently interrupting the other, happens throughout.) After a bit of folk-tinged, almost Holst-like atmosphere, the opening section returns, only to be undercut by thickets of snap-pizzicato, becoming a conventionally plucked accompaniment, over which the voices embark on a short study in portamento, sliding up and down into pure harmonies.

The center of the piece was engrossing, a negotiation between a perpetually rising sequence of secondary dominants in the strings and faster, descending parallel chords in the voices, occasionally meeting up for chance cadences. It was chased with a brief dose of ringing-partial throat-singing—one of the piece’s few congruences with Partita’s more exuberant kitchen sink of vocal techniques. That led to the final section: first the voices introduced another bit of sentimentally elusive text (“years ago, I forget; years to come, just let them”) set as a sweetly unsteady shape-note sing; then a tranquil standoff of a coda, half the strings staying put while the other half, along with the voices, moved to a different key center.

The overall effect is that of a linked chain, a point-to-point sojourn. Arrivals are based less on contrapuntal resolution and more on the satisfying effect of a particular sonority. (The sound of a widely spaced triad—roots, thirds, and fifths saturating the overtone spectrum—is a recurring component; it also featured in Shaw’s Josquin arrangement, suboctaves from the double basses trundling in to give crucial harmonies a boost of widescreen warmth.)

But what’s most interesting about Music in Common Time is its relationship to style. Current usage of the term “post-minimalist” can be a little squishy, but in a way that goes beyond historical chronology (and to a more immediately apparent extent than Partita), Music in Common Time is truly post-minimalist, at least in the lower-case sense: the structure and gist are not minimalist, but almost all of its building blocks are minimalist signifiers, tropes and gestures that evolved along with minimalist practice. The triad as object; overlapping consonance as a stretched canvas; the chord-to-chord movement of basic progressions turned into scene and act breaks; variation via altered phrase length rather than elaborated melody—all of these figure into Shaw’s rhetoric, but in a way far removed from minimalism’s deliberate, patient process.

The tropes become objects of recognition at least as much as objects of exploration; the garnishes—the Bartók pizzicato, the more exotic vocal excursions, the polytonality—play off of expectations of what we might be accustomed to hearing those other ideas do in a minimalist context. In other words, Shaw is most definitely not observing the relation of modes exactly, at least by the lights of her elders. Which is as it should be. Music always does this, always has done this, always will do this. Music in Common Time is only unusual in the genial straightforwardness with which it repurposes inherited goods.

It reminded me of my favorite piece of curmudgeonly compositional grumbling, coming a century after Heinrich Glarean, when the Baroque era was just getting traction, but was far enough along for Samuel Scheidt to complain about where things were headed:

I am astonished at the foolish music written in these times…. It certainly must be a remarkably elevated art when a pile of consonances are thrown together any which way.

This is both supremely sarcastic and basically true. It is a remarkably elevated art that is so incapable of settling down, constantly inspiring its practitioners to use the output of one set of rules as the input for a completely different set of rules. Musical style is a moving target. It certainly must be.

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4 thoughts on “Boston: Caroline Shaw’s Common Cause

  1. william osborne

    Thanks for the interesting article. I immediately found myself skeptical about the portrayal of John Adams because the criticisms he makes of current compositional trends sound very similar to the criticisms often leveled at his own music – simplistic, user-friendly, lightweight, commercial, etc. Such a big irony produces complex doubts.

    There are obvious musicological problems here. We see selective interview quotes stressed in the Times to portray a composer in a way that seems a bit inconsistent with usual comments. And then those same quotes are further excerpted to make another point in another article that seems even more inconsistent. In any case, the original context of the composer’s statements become so removed that it is difficult to make reliable judgments about what Adams really meant to say.

    In both the article here and in the NY Times, Adams’ quotes are prefaced and contextualized in ways that seem more oriented toward what the two journalists want to say than Adams.

    At the very least, we might look at the full quotes from the Times:

    “We seem to have gone from the era of fearsome dissonance and complexity — from the period of high modernism and Babbitt and Carter — and gone to suddenly these just extremely simplistic, user-friendly, lightweight, sort of music lite,” he said. “People are winning Pulitzer Prizes writing this stuff now.”

    And:

    “What I’m concerned with is people that are 20, 30 years younger than me are sort of writing down to a cultural level that’s very, very vacuous and very superficial.”

    Justifiable or not, these statements seem to represent a more complex and substantial concern than what is portrayed in the article above. Surely we can agree that the modernist to postmodernist transition was indeed very fast. And I think quite a few would agree that the idea of incorporating commercial music into contemporary classical music has become very common – even to the point of being trendy and faddish. These forms of orthodoxy can lead to less thoughtful uses of otherwise legitimate cross-over techniques and lead to results that are indeed superficial, just as Adams notes.

    From that perspective, the above article seems to be yet another aspect of the current faddish, postmodern orthodoxy – a reductive view based on preconceived historical and aesthetic concepts.

    In the process, and perhaps most importantly, the actual tensions between the older and younger generation seem to be exaggerated for journalistic effect. In reality, I don’t think the gap is very big. The two most recent generations share a fairly common postmodern view – e.g. the composers from Julia Wolfe to Caroline Shaw. I could see Adams and Shaw getting on fairly well. In any case, the gap is certainly not as large as the one between the late modernists and early postmodernists – that sea change that took place in the States between the 70s and 80s.

    All the same, and in spite of these concerns, I really enjoyed your article. It must have been a fun concert.

    Reply
  2. William Robin

    Hi William! It’s William. Thought I would weigh in on the “obvious musicological problems,” as both a musicologist and the author of the article from which Matthew so generously quotes. I don’t think Matthew’s assumption based on the article is necessary correct–it is what Adam’s comments imply.

    But a bit of context for the interview that I had with Adams: I asked him about previous comments that he had made regarding young composers — http://www.newsweek.com/how-obama-should-boost-arts-82411 — and he responded with what I excerpted. It isn’t entirely relevant to an article about the classical saxophone, but he clearly said what he wanted to say and it would be hard to not want to incorporate that into an article. I cut out a few sentences for space, but what was printed was the sentiment. It was not a “gotcha” moment, and Adams was perfectly happy saying what he said.

    That said, he did NOT mention any specific names to me, and the Shaw connection is one that has been made by others. I’m not interested in speculating about who he was talking about. I printed it because it was a clearly polemical statement that he wanted to be made public. Given Adams’s immense financial and institutional support for young composers, the comment appears a contradiction–and I imagine a deliberate one. Perhaps he wanted to play the elder flamethrower role; it certainly had that effect (he acknowledged that he sounded curmudgeonly). I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t anticipate his comments being interpreted in the manner that Matthew has here. Perhaps that was his goal, a kind of overt playing with the teleology of modernist music history. I don’t know; I’ll leave that to other musicologists.

    Reply
  3. William Robin

    Just realized last sentence of that first paragraph should have read, “I don’t think Matthew’s assumption based on the article is necessarily correct– but it is what Adam’s comments imply.”

    Reply
    1. william osborne

      Thanks for the added context, William. It helps clarify that Adams is not making a blanket statement about young composers or styles, but about superficiality.

      He makes statements in the linked interview that can easily be misconstrued and quoted for inflammatory effect. Here is one: “The bottom line is art really can’t be made easy and palatable without simply losing its meaning and importance.” One could construe this as a blanket statement that approachable art is inherently superficial, and then thump the usual postmodern tub. In reality, he’s simply pointing out the obvious problem that excessive entrepreneurship in the arts can lead to pandering. Anyone who listens to the typical programming of the few classical music stations left in the USA will often notice this — Suppé, Lehar, Grofé, Pachelbel et. al. For a little substance they add the 1812 Overture.

      Paradoxes also appear, because we often appreciate art most exactly when we learn enough about it to make it “palatable” – even if the process isn’t “easy.”

      That’s why Adams stresses the importance of arts education in the interview. He notes how his close colleague, Peter Sellers says, “Art is not a sound bite.” Adams adds: “That is the problem with this whole interactive this, indie crossover that. Hoping that consuming art can be as painless and simple as watching a sound bite. [Pause] I’m really sounding like an old crank now. All I need is a wheelchair! [Laughs]”

      His opposition isn’t to indie art or crossover, but to facile and superficial concepts of art and arts entrepreneurship. And he notes that the same sort of superficiality in journalism will misconstrue what he’s trying to say and portray him as outdated. How ironic that the above article does exactly that.

      Perhaps there’s something here for the editors of new music magazines to think about. It’s so easy to appear hip by portraying older composers as outdated and pitting them against a younger generation. Sometimes they are outdated, but there is also sometimes wisdom in exploring the continuities and evolution between generations.

      I see far more continuity than conflict between Adams and the current younger generation. We would all do well to heed his thoughts about the pitfalls of superficiality that haunt our efforts to reach wider publics.

      Reply

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