Out of breath? Never!
Caroline Shaw knows a thing or two about breathing noises, and has done since long before SARS-CoV-2 literally took the world’s breath away. The father of the US singer, violinist and composer is a lung specialist. He taught her from an early age to notice so-called breathing patterns – one of the many ways to diagnose all lung diseases. So Caroline Shaw knows just how important breathing is – not only for those who can no longer breathe as they should, but for the world of music too.
»Breathing for me is one of the most expressive qualities in singing and music.«
»I was in the recording studio working on a project recently and, without me knowing, the sound engineer took out the breathing sounds singers produce when singing,« she said in a recent interview. »That’s what I want to hear though. That’s what I want people to hear later on! That’s the difference between a real person with all their imperfections and some overproduced sound sample in a pop song. There are so many emotions in them! Sometimes breath is vulnerability, sometimes despair, sometimes sex. It’s one of the most expressive qualities in singing and music for me.«
Childhood with Classical Music
Born in 1982 in North Carolina, Shaw began learning to play the violin at aged two using the Suzuki method, which introduces very young children to the instrument primarily based on the principle of imitation. Her mother, a soprano, was her first teacher, so singing quickly became her preferred means of musical expression alongside the violin. Church choir, youth orchestra – it was a childhood that revolved almost exclusively around classical music. Shaw recalls that she hardly came into contact with any form of pop culture whatsoever.
She came across the Beach Boys and Cole Porter in her father’s record collection. But what else? She became friends with the organist at the little church next door to their home, who had learnt all of Bach’s organ pieces by heart, just for fun. She was an avid listener of (and persistent caller to) the local classical radio station, constantly making requests for specific works she could then record at home on her cassette recorder, only to then call in disappointed that they had broadcast the wrong performance version.
At summer camps she threw herself into string quartets – a love that continues to this day. After high school it wasn’t a case of opting for or against studying the violin either – that was clear all along. She started out at a university in Texas, then went on to the Yale School of Music. It was an entirely classical education with a narrow focus on technique and the standard repertoire, no looking right or left.
Caroline Shaw and Sō Percussion will perform their latest collaborative album »Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part« at the Hamburg International Music Festival on 17 May 2022.
Exploring new avenues
Caroline Shaw suddenly found all of this too blinkered. She noticed, for instance, that the percussion department was taking a very different approach to music. »They were much cooler than us string players,« she has been quoted as saying. »We admired them from afar. They got to play this new music and experiment with crazy sounds. And I found myself in this world of Paganini, Brahms and Beethoven.« So she began expanding her musical horizons on her own. She looked around at absolutely everything that was new to her to find out what she – and she alone – genuinely likes and appreciates in music. Be it classical, folk, blues, jazz, pop or rap.
It was at jam sessions that Shaw learnt to play without sheet music. And despite not having any formal composition training, she won a scholarship that gave her the opportunity to practice composing string quartets at Princeton University. She met teachers there who just let her get on with things. Who put formalities aside, and refrained from waving a composition rulebook under her nose the moment she allowed herself deviate just an inch off the beaten track.
Roomful of Teeth
Then, in 2009, came Roomful of Teeth. A curious name for a group of nine singers who dared to push their exploration of what is possible in singing to such a degree that something new might emerge, somewhere between centuries-old tradition and kitschy a cappella songs.
The ensemble still performs together, and there are videos of concert excerpts that are well worth seeing and hearing online. When you watch them, you cannot help but return to the breathing noises again. Roomful of Teeth don’t just sing, you see. They talk, hum, smack, moan, snort … in a nutshell: they do just about everything you can possibly do with your mouth, this room full of teeth.
Roomful of Teeth: Caroline Shaws »Partita for 8 Voices«
It was with this ensemble that Shaw had her greatest success as a composer to date: her 20-minute »Partita for 8 Voices«, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music, ostensibly out of nowhere, in 2013. This was – as you can imagine – an absolute sensation: Such a young woman (the youngest to date) who would rather describe herself as a musician than a composer, winning this most prestigious composition prize in the USA. The work has four movements, starting with spoken dance instructions that become increasingly condensed and layered, suddenly leading into radiant chords. A stark effect that leaves a lasting impact.
The way in which the performers speak at the beginning has also been precisely specified by Shaw. She loves the deep speaking voice from the back of the throat of her fellow countrymen hailing from the deep south of the USA. We are all familiar with this. Our speaking voice changes when we speak in different languages or dialects; it tries to adapt to the given sounds.
On tour with Kanye West
The rap star Kanye West was also fascinated when he first heard »Partita« live back in 2015, and sought to collaborate with his young colleague. She turned down his offer to arrange orchestral versions of some of his albums for him – too boring. Opting instead to remix the song »Say You Will«, adding her own vocals and violin tracks in a way that intensified the obsessiveness of the original. Kanye West liked that too and took her on tour with him. Suddenly there were whole stadiums full of people cheering for Shaw – what an experience! When West publicly endorsed the then US President Trump though, Shaw decided to step away and leave the tour.
Kanye West / Caroline Shaw: »Say You Will«
Right now, her »Partita« can no longer be experienced live either. Since 2019 in fact, when the Canadian Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq described the use of katajjaq, a traditional form of Inuit throat singing, in Shaw’s composition as »cultural appropriation«. This accusation hit Shaw hard, but she relented and is still looking for a solution to ensure that the work, which ultimately reflects her entire musical world, can finally be performed again.
And in the meantime? She continues to compose: operas, orchestral pieces and concept albums like »Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part« with the percussion ensemble Sō Percussion, who she has known since her time at Princeton. And for the very first time in this remarkable career, Caroline Shaw’s own voice is now taking centre stage. And, of course, her breath.
Text: Renske Steen, last updated 4 April 2022
Translation: Robert William Smales