It is easy to think of classical music as being written by old men in powdered wigs who lived eons ago, but in reality, it remains a living art form. Thirty-something composer Caroline Shaw, the youngest person to ever win a Pulitzer Prize for Music (“a certificate in a small glass thing,” as she calls it), is proof of that. Already well-established in her field, boasting an Ivy-covered resume, Shaw receives commissions from leading orchestras and performs with a long list of ensembles as both a violinist and singer.
Those of you who have never listened to 21st-century classical music may be wondering what it sounds like. Broadly speaking, it tends to be rhythmically freer and more harmonically adventurous than the music of, say, Mozart’s era, making greater use of dissonant (clashing) chords and unconventional progressions. Stylistically, it often borrows from other genres like folk, rock, jazz, world music, electronic music, and even digital technology, making it hard to draw bright lines between genres. Shaw herself has crossed over into the popular realm in collaborations with Kanye West, just as West inspired the “Yeethoven” concert series that explores parallels between Kanye (“Ye”) and Beethoven.
Still, if you look closely, you will find the DNA of powdered-wig music lurking underneath. Take, for example, a recent composition by Shaw called “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown,” from a larger suite called By and By. The song’s title and lyrics come from an old American gospel hymn that was first recorded by a barbershop quartet and later covered by Reba McEntire, The Cox Family, Alison Krauss, George Jones, and others. So, right off the bat, you have the blurring of genres that we mentioned earlier. Rhythmically, in Shaw’s rendition, the pulse seems to dissolve away, becoming ambiguous and harder to locate.
But there are unmistakable echoes of the past, as well. The instrumentation includes a traditional classical string quartet with two violins, a viola, and a cello. Although it’s a little unusual for a singer to join the mix, the vocal line itself harkens back to ancient Gregorian Chant with its half-sung/half-chanted technique and liberal use of “melisma,” where a singer stretches one syllable across multiple pitches (“in my-y-y crown,” “go-o-o-eth down”). The structure is highly sectional, as is typical of classical music: each time a verse appears (“I’m thinking today of that beautiful land …,” “In the strength of the Lord …”), the disjointed string parts seem to be evoking the pitter-patter of raindrops; and each time the chorus appears (“Will there be any stars, any stars …”), the instruments are synchronized. These contrasting sections keep alternating until the end.
One advantage of modern music is that it gives us a chance to see the composer perform. In the clip below, Shaw sings the vocal part of the piece we have been talking about. As you listen, notice how the strings are always plucked and never bowed. The accompaniment is minimalistic, placing the text front and center, and the overall mood is one of reverence, befitting the lyrics.
Performers: Caroline Shaw (vocals), Owen Dalby (violin), Anna Elasvili (violin), Nate Schram (viola), Claire Bryant (cello). Recorded as part of the Decoda|Skidmore Chamber Music Institute program, July 21, 2015, Zankel Hall, Skidmore College.
Composition: Caroline Shaw, “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown” from By and By suite
“Will There Be Any Stars” was originally written by Eliza E. Hewitt and John R. Sweney. Click to see the complete lyrics.
If you enjoyed the video clip above, here is another (longer) piece that Shaw wrote for string quartet, called Entr’acte, performed by the Solera Quartet.