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  • Millie Watson

Caroline Shaw - Partita for 8 voices (2013)

This is an intimidating album to comment on, but this is one of my favourite compositions of all time. I mean, really. The precision, the production, the music. I was taken by this one because it was the first time I’d heard a work that truly capitalised on everything it explored, no idea was left unfinished and no element of the recording was left unattended to. I first heard this in the UK. The clear memory I have is listening to this on the District Line on my way to my job that I loathed. I felt so disconnected from my community and passion – music, yeah – and listening to this made me feel a part of that world again, I just slipped into this rushing river of art that was truly animated with a spirit.

A sidebar:

I know across these reviews I’m starting to refer to ‘energy’ and ‘worlds’ a lot. But I find it really difficult to articulate what it’s like being submerged wholly (everyone knows the feeling, but few people have the words…). I also hate to use the word ‘emotion’ when talking about my experience of music. To me, emotion is something easily – and often – manipulated and is not an enduring sensation in the same way the energy of a song survives. Emotion is for the grossly heavy hand of film music. Also, emotions are ruled by external forces and hormones, disgustingly human experiences (please read with a modicum of irony). The whole point is that these albums transcended the thin veil of emotion so please forgive me if you’re getting sick of ‘energy’. I know it sounds like I have crystals but I actually mean it in earnest.

Back to Shaw…

Have you ever experienced space in sound like this? Also, Roomful of Teeth are obviously impeccable. They perform such interesting projects and execute them with absolute precision and clarity and heart. Ah man I’m listening to it while I write this and I don’t know how to begin to express the power of this. Let’s start small, the pitch bends. They are so organic and together. The chorus moments when their voices have a harder edge, it feels like a call to arms. Then you have the wonderful solo coming out over the top, so gentle.

Round and around and around and around and around...

I’m an atheist but listening to these guys sing I’m tempted to believe in a higher power. The dissonant moments have the recognisability of Gregorian modal singing. It feels right and natural, totally organic. That dissonance feels like a hand thrust into wet, loose soil – dirt under the fingernails

And that’s all just from the first track Allemande. Across the four movements the voice is used to the greatest and most versatile extent of any composition I have ever heard. I haven’t read anything about this work, and as much as I’m tempted to get context I don’t think I will. It is so perfect to me, removed as it is in my mind from time or reality. I want to hang on to the soil of Allemande and feel the warmth of the voices draping themselves over my shoulders in Sarabande.

I also want to comment on the sonic space. It’s wildly intimate. The hyper-clarity of recording makes me feel like I’m standing in a dark room with totally bare walls with these 8 people around me, but I can’t see them. Not in a menacing way, just in a fantastical way. We’re rolling through the different human experiences together, breathing together, occupying this realm together. I’m too ignorant to really know if the recording is uniquely clear, but to me it feels like it’s unbelievably high definition beyond almost everything else I listen to. It might be an illusion because of the lack of instrumentation, but to me the surface of the vocals is totally smooth and frictionless. Wonderful.


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