Fun (well, not-so-fun) fact: Out of the 68 Pulitzer Prizes for Music that have been awarded since the prize’s inception in 1943, only five have gone to female composers. That’s only 7 percent of the total awards. That alone makes Caroline Shaw’s 2013 award for her “Partita for 8 Voices” statistically significant, but it’s made even more significant by the fact that she was only 30 years old at the time, making her the youngest composer to ever win the award.
It’s a distinction well-deserved, because “Partita for 8 Voices” is a magnificent piece of art. Whispers, vocal effects, speech, wordless harmonies, and singing weave around each other for four enchanting movements that ultimately come to a soaring conclusion in the final movement, ‘Passacaglia.’
The composition becomes even more impressive when you consider that she had only written “a handful of pieces” (in the words of her website bio) before “Partita,” and that she only began singing in college—her primary instrument was violin, which she began playing when she was 2 years old.
If you want to listen to the Pulitzer Prize-winning work, there is stream on Shaw’s website (carolineshaw.com). But if you’re interested in hearing some of her other compositions live, head to An Die Musik on Tuesday, Sept. 23, to hear her as the opening event of the Evolution Contemporary Music Series’ 10th season. There will be a pre-concert conversation with the composer at 7 p.m., then the music will start at 8, with Shaw on violin, voice, electronics, and 10 other musicians—all of whom are current or former students of the Peabody Institute—on percussion, strings, and piano.
Of particular interest on the evening’s program is “Ritornello,” a music and film project that has gone through several iterations. “Ritornello’s” principle, according to Shaw’s explanation on her website, is “eschewing narrative in favor of a delicate meditation, through film and music, on a single moment of the tale of Rip van Winkle, just before his waking from an accidental twenty-year slumber in the Catskills.” Accompanying the music is a film, also by Shaw, the central image of which is a piece of paper folding and unfolding again and again to repetitive, meditative music with roots in Baroque ornamentation and American hymn music.
The piece first grew out of a workshop in 2012, then developed further when she created one version for Roomful of Teeth (the vocal group that premiered “Partita for 8 Voices” and of which she is a member) and a string-quartet version for the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. She writes on her website, “‘Ritornello’ isn’t a fixed piece. More like a longterm project to create something large and beautiful and strange. I don’t know what that is yet, but I find a little more of it each time I return to it.” It will be interesting to see what more she finds of it when she brings it to Baltimore.