Shaw: Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part

Shaw: Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part

Caroline Shaw is a composer who never sits still. Her music, meticulously scored, combines a fertile imagination with a keen instinct for accessibility. This rare combination has won her both a Pulitzer Prize (for her 2013 choral work Partita for 8 Voices) and, in 2016, the attention of Kanye West, who invited her to work on his album The Life of Pablo and accompany him on tour. Shaw: Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part takes the US composer in yet another fresh direction: a collaborative, part-improvised album for percussion and solo voice, sung by Shaw herself. It emerged during a few spare hours of a studio schedule—originally reserved for Shaw’s 2021 album, Narrow Sea, with soprano Dawn Upshaw, pianist Gilbert Kalish, and ensemble Sō Percussion—which, eventually, turned into three days in a studio in Vermont, where Shaw and Sō Percussion worked more intensively. If Shaw’s music from those sessions sometimes crosses into a pop idiom, that’s no coincidence. “We wanted to make a record of songs where we’ve made them truly together in the studio in the way that bands work, where no one person is in charge,” the composer tells Apple Music. “I don’t usually work in the song format—things that are under five minutes that have a verse, chorus, and lyrics.” This shared ownership lies at the heart of Shaw: Let the Soil Play its Simple Part. “If you let everyone be themselves and come to the project with all of their own histories and soils and roots and stuff that they’re interested in,” she says, “let that be what it is and see what comes out.” Sessions took the form of musical experiments, including improvised duets between Shaw and a different member of Sō Percussion. The album’s lyrics are as wide-ranging as the music itself, with inspiration coming from James Joyce’s Ulysses (“his language is so musical and funny and mysterious”), poetry by Anne Carson, the 19th-century American Sacred Harp hymnal, and words by Shaw. “As a composer, I’m looking for texts that feel lyrical and feel good in the voice and feel right to sing,” she says. “Most poems are terrible for singing, but you find those certain words that feel right, say the right thing, and have a perfect blend of form and content.” Read on as Shaw walks us through each track on this fascinating album. To the Sky “This track started out as a piece by Jason Treuting [composer, percussionist, and member of Sō Percussion] that then morphed into something different where I changed the harmony. There’s a lot of rhythmic detail underneath, so it seems improvised, but it’s actually carefully and concisely constructed. I use a Helicon VoiceLive tool, which is a kind of a vocoder and vocal harmonizer. All the vocals throughout the album are just me in different versions and layers.” Other Song “‘Other Song’ is the first track that Sō Percussion and I made together, and it’s a version of a song that I had written originally for orchestra as a homage to [singer-songwriter] Sara Bareilles. It’s all about songwriting—I was talking to young composers about listening for what’s already there in the music, letting it tell you where it needs to go, and paying attention to what’s inside you. The sound at the beginning is made on flowerpots, and there’s this big, long improvisation on percussion. I wanted everybody to bring all their toys to the table!” Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part “I did four duets with each member of the group, and this is my duet with [percussionist] Josh Quillen. He’s an amazing double steel pan player. He’s lived with the instrument and studied it for a long time. We had just one hour to make the track, so sometime in the hour before that, I sat down and free-wrote a bunch of lyrics. I then gave him a few chords and an idea of the structure, and we then recorded it. We did one take, just to see what happened, and then a second, which is what’s on the record. And that’s it, unedited.” The Flood Is Following Me “This has a lot of very delicate, precise percussion introducing it. The voice is a part of that world, rather than sitting on top of it in a song format. Here, you get syllables, fragments of things and then, just once in a while, a full phrase of lyrics. We thought about doing more with the voice where it’s integrated with the percussion. James Joyce enjoyed words and playing with them, so I took that approach with his.” Lay All Your Love on Me “This is an arrangement of the ABBA song. I love its choral harmony, which has this connection to Bach chorales and a lot of the music I love. The original is a great dance hit that’s actually devastating and tragic, so this is a very devastating and lonely cover of it. The silences are everything. The rigor of counting and holding each beat was really important to me.” Cast the Bells in Sand “These lyrics are by Josh Quillen. He sent me a bit of an old poem and I played around with it melodically. The song feels a bit like the movie Blade Runner. It has this obsessive, driving quality that I love, and it’s a nice follow-up to ‘Lay All Your Love on Me.’ The depth of the drum sound [played by Jason Treuting] feels like an engineering feat. There’s an incredible moment, towards the end, where the drum set just drops off.” Long Ago We Counted “This was my duet with Jason Treuting. I wanted to find out what would happen if voice, without language, and drums had a conversation, like two babies talking to each other. So, we made this jumble of stuff without any particular words. And then we created a kind of sound loop that drives the song forward and rounds it out.” A Gradual Dazzle “This song is like a little treasure towards the end. The opening drums are everyone playing with a soft mallet on the low tom or bass drum, slightly out of sync. I wrote the chords for a ballet piece about a year before, and they pivot and rise and interlock in a strange way. And then they just keep restarting over and over again. Anne Carson’s beautiful poetry—one of a series of poems on Edward Hopper paintings—is deep and complex, but it’s also whimsical.” A Veil Awave Upon the Waves “This is another bit of James Joyce. This feels like the most free-flowing track. It goes everywhere and nowhere, but I kind of like the energy. It’s actually one of those songs with a very carefully constructed rhythmic and harmonic pattern. I tried to blend my voice with the percussion as part of the ensemble rather than float on top of it.” Some Bright Morning “The 13th-century “Salve Regina” is a melody I love and that I know deeply in my body and soul. This is my duet with [percussionist, composer, producer, and Sō Percussion member] Eric Cha-Beach. We thought, ‘What if Eric wants to use one note but brings all the different textures and colors to it, and I’ll just sing the melody over it?’ We didn’t quite know what the words should be, or if there should be words, but there’s an old American tune called ‘I’ll Fly Away,’ which is about death. I kind of deconstructed its lyrics.”

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