American composer Caroline Shaw may be familiar more for collaborating with Kanye West than for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Washington Performing Arts provided the chance to listen to two of her pieces on Saturday night, in a concert by members of the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), presented at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. Closing the balcony seating gave the impression of a fuller audience on the floor level, with more young faces making up for the desertion of the presenter’s normal audience.
“Partita for 8 Voices,” which won the Pulitzer in 2013, received its official Washington premiere, although Roomful of Teeth already had performed it at a private concert at Dumbarton Oaks in 2014. It is, to use Shaw’s words, “a simple piece,” evoking a loose association with four Baroque genres by an active sense of rhythm. Jumbles of words, hummed vocalises, nasal shape-note-style hymn singing and other bells and whistles ornament an essentially triadic style that is, as billed, quite simple. In a new version of her piece “Ritornello” (2.3), Shaw did essentially the same thing for eight voices and the ACME string quartet, removing the distracting video shown with earlier performances.
The style has something in common with the repetitious “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” composed by Gavin Bryars in 1972. Harmonies rose out of strings and voices in a sort of cloud accompanying a recording of a homeless man singing a melodic fragment, looped over and over. A numbing lack of significant harmonic change underscored the sense of stasis.
Two of Purcell’s fantasias for four-part viol consort did not quite work in the hands of an amplified string quartet. Purcell wrote for four different instruments, and here the second violin felt eclipsed in sound. The sound system, combined with senza vibrato playing, amplified infelicities in intonation, especially when the strings joined the voices in Shaw’s augmentation of Purcell’s “Fantasia upon One Note.” Throat singing and overtone techniques ornamented the middle C played constantly by the second tenor viol in Purcell’s score, as voices and strings shared all of the melodic lines.
Downey is a freelance writer.