For the first time ever the Princeton Symphony presents an a cappella group as performers on its chamber music series. For the first time the sponsored ensemble is the winner of a Grammy. And for the first time the program includes a Pulitzer Prize-winning composition.
Performances take place on Thursday, March 6, at 8 p.m. in the Mildred and Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall on the campus of the College of New Jersey; Sunday, March 9, at 4:30 p.m. in the Institute for Advanced Study’s Wolfensohn Auditorium; and Monday, March 10, at 1 p.m. at Monroe Township Public Library.
The performers, “Roomful of Teeth,” are eight singers, four men and four women. Nominated for Grammies in three categories, the group won the award for its 2012 debut album in the category “Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.”
Their recording includes Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer-winning piece “Partita for Eight Voices,” which was written for “Roomful.” The piece is among the seven compositions to be played at the concerts, along with works by Brad Wells, the group’s founder, William Brittelle, Judd Greenstein, Rinde Eckert, and Merrill Garbus.
At 30, the youngest person to have received a Pulitzer for composition, Caroline Shaw is a member of “Roomful of Teeth” and a graduate student in composition at Princeton. She is also the first Princetonian to receive a Pulitzer for composition. Longtime Princeton faculty member Milton Babbitt won a Pulitzer citation for his life’s work as a composer in 1982.
Founder and director of “Roomful of Teeth,” composer Brad Wells is head of the choral program at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He brought the group into existence in the summer of 2009. In an E-mail Wells says that his vision was “to create a new repertoire of vocal chamber music.” In a video on the “Roomful of Teeth” website he calls human voices “our audible fingerprints” and gives examples of widely different styles of ethnic singing. He believes that “any style of singing on the planet is within our reach” and notes that “the basic instrument, the human voice, has not changed.”
The ensemble gathers annually at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in Williamstown for coaching in a cornucopia of vocal styles that range from yodeling to Tuvan throat singing (a northern Asian practice that produces multiple pitches). The singers study with vocal masters from Korea, Sardinia, and the Georgian republic. Spoken language, humming, and sighing are among the sounds the ensemble uses.
Wells says that the name of the group is “a whimsical riff on ‘vocal chamber music,’ with ‘room’ being a synonym for ‘chamber.’” Publicity photos, accounting for a lot of teeth, show the eight joyful participants. Caroline Shaw was a member of the original group, which has undergone no personnel changes.
“Caroline’s brilliance as a composer was a complete surprise,” Wells notes. “I brought her into the group as a singer/musician, and she brought so much more. The Grammy Award was a huge thrill for all of us in the ensemble and a validation that an itch I’d had for many years was, in fact, worth pursuing.”
Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize winner, “Partita for Eight Voices” harks back to baroque dance suites. Its four movements, “Allemande,” “Sarabande,” Courante,” and “Passacaglia,” had their first performances at “Roomful of Teeth’s” annual workshops in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Shaw wrote the movements in reverse order. “I worked on both ‘Sarabande’ and ‘Allemande’ in 2011,” Shaw says in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where she was in the midst of a concert tour. “I worked on both of them at the same time, well alternately. I tend to have several things going at one time. I had the pieces in mind. The actual writing process was quite quick.”
“People talk about the partita as being inspired by baroque dance. But it wasn’t a direct interaction,” says Shaw. “The piece was filtered through a lot of my interactions with the Bach partitas for violin. Bach twists conventional forms and makes them into unconventional, great music. I called the movements by conventional names and stuck to conventional meters. But I had a double meaning in mind. I was making a poetic gesture to the idea of defying convention.”
Shaw’s “Allemande” begins with words that are spoken, rather than sung. When the phrase “allemande left” jumps out, it evokes square dancing, not the dips and rises of baroque dance. Clearly, Shaw has veered away from convention.
The composer talks about her composition process in non-musical terms. “My pieces,” she jokes, “have a long gestation period and a very quick birth. I think of something I want to do for long time. I start with a basic idea of what I want to do, and then I flesh out something. I think of composition as like cooking — not baking because when you bake, you have to follow a lot of rules. I like stirring and adding things. What I don’t like about baking is that once you put something in the oven, you can’t do too much about it.”
How does Shaw clarify what she would like to have happen when “Roomful of Teeth” plays her pieces? “It’s a mix of conventional notation and personal interaction with ‘Roomful of Teeth,’” she says. “Not everything is written in the score. That’s the case with a lot of music. I’ve played a lot of Monteverdi. It’s only whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes. There’s so much room for tempo fluctuations, shading, and dynamics.”
“Roomful of Teeth” is a special case that requires going beyond using standard musical notation when it prepares for a concert. “We demonstrate in the group and talk to each other about a new piece,” Shaw says. “We’re developing our own performance practice.”
Shaw was born in Greenville, North Carolina, in 1982 and grew up there. Her father is a doctor. Her mother is a violin teacher and singer. Shaw’s first music lessons were with her mother. “My two older brothers, my younger sister, and I all grew up with Suzuki violin. They still play, but I’m the only professional musician.” She began writing music when she was 10.
In 2004 she earned a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from Houston’s Rice University. In 2007 she earned a master’s degree in violin from Yale University. She came to Princeton as a graduate student in composition in 2010.
At Princeton Shaw has worked with everyone who teaches composition. “I have a particular affinity for Dan Trueman,” she says. “He’s a fiddler. He also works with technology in an interesting way.”
Between finishing at Yale and starting at Princeton, Shaw did the musical equivalent of cooking (not baking). “I played for dance classes at Yale and at Wesleyan University [in Middletown, Connecticut]. I freelanced. I moved to New York City and lived in Harlem for a year and in Brooklyn for a year. In New York I freelanced as a violinist and sang in choirs around the city.”
“I think I sing like a violinist and play violin like a singer. There are things you can do with your voice that are hard to access with a violin. But there are technical things you can do with violin that you can’t do with voice.”
Before Shaw began her graduate work at Princeton in 2010, she started playing in a string quartet, the Franklin Quartet. “I played with them for three years, but scheduling got difficult. It was hard to be in Princeton and rehearse in New York. The quartet was a great group, but we were forced to dissolve because everybody had too many commitments.”
“We still get together and sight read chamber music. Most recently we read some late Beethoven quartets, Opus 127 and Opus 135.” The late quartets are notoriously difficult to interpret, let alone to make them sound like music at a first reading, even by a seasoned quartet. Shaw describes the mood among the Franklins at their first exposure to late Beethoven. “It was like: Everyone — hold onto your seat and try to hang in there. Mostly we read Mozart, or maybe Schubert.”
Although she is majoring in composition, Shaw performs regularly, not only with “Roomful of Teeth,” as a vocalist, but also with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) as a violinist. ACME specializes in the performance of works of the 20th and 21st centuries primarily by American composers. It was an ACME gig that took her to Los Angeles at the time of our interview.
She also participates in a fistful of other musical ensembles. Among them is the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, where she has performed as a substitute violinist.
What is Shaw’s secret of time management? Without a moment’s hesitation, she shoots back “Google calendars and a good attitude.” Then she lists the components of her good attitude: “Loving what I do, figuring out how to love it if I don’t, and working very hard.”
Princeton Symphony Orchestra Chamber Series, Roomful of Teeth, Mildred and Ernest, E. Mayo Concert Hall, The College of New Jersey, Ewing. Thursday, March 6, 8 p.m. $ 5 to $10. 609-771-1855.
Wolfensohn Hall, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. Sunday, March 9, 4:30 p.m. Free. 609-497-0020.
Monroe Township Public Library, 4 Municipal Plaza, Monroe Township. March 10, 1 p.m. Free tickets available at the welcome desk. 732-521-5000.