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Caroline Shaw: "And the swallow", "Other Song"

This is the piece (and performance) which Craig mentioned in a comment on my recent post about the young composer Caroline Shaw. It's a setting of a few sentences from Psalm 84. I was not able to figure out exactly which translation she uses, but another performance includes the text as:

How beloved is your dwelling place,
o lord of hosts,
my soul yearns, faints,
my heart and my flesh cry out.

The sparrow found a house,
and the swallow her nest,
where she may raise her young.

They pass through the Valley of Bakka,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn also covers it with pools.

I suggest that you listen to the other performance as well. It has a smaller choir and the parts are more distinct. Also it seems to have been assembled from pieces recorded separately during Covidtide. 

And here is a very different sort of work, "Other Song."

Are either of these classical music? We can be literal and say that a genuine classic by definition cannot be very new, because the definition includes having stood the test of time: "instant classic" is just a way of expressing enthusiasm. Obviously Shaw's pieces are not that. Being less literal and referring to a tradition, we have to say that they, the second piece especially, are certainly not Bach or Brahms. And not Schoenberg or Stravinsky or even Copland. The first piece "sounds" more classical: it's performed by a trained choir, and its basic sonority of massed voices is not essentially different from Renaissance church music. "Other Song," on the, um, other hand includes elements associated with pop music--not only the percussion itself, but the rhythms used by it. The composition however takes strange turns not often found in pop music, and I don't think even the better pop singers would be able to handle certain parts of the vocal line with the same precision and clarity. 

So "contemporary classical music" is almost a contradiction in terms by the test-of-time standard, and often decidedly un-classical in composition or instrumentation or both, a tendency that has been going on for some decades now, at least since the Kronos Quartet recorded "Purple Haze" in the 1980s, and no doubt before. I think I vaguely recollect hearing of such things in the late '60s. I was mildly surprised when I read in Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise that Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead was a composition student at some university in California before the Dead got started. And the debate about whether the term still has meaning or not (apart from its historical reference) has been going on for at least as long. 

Let's just say that this is music written and performed by people trained in, and making use of, the techniques of the Western classical tradition, and not be too concerned about categorizing it. I think of the remark made apparently on more than one occasion by Duke Ellington: "If it sounds good, it is good." (Peter Schickele used that as a sort of motto for  his very enjoyable and very eclectic radio program "Schickele Mix.") I always imagined Ellington's words as a response to the listener who might say something like "Well, yes, it sounds nice, it has a certain surface appeal, but is it good?" It's not an unreasonable consideration, really. But in the long run Ellington is right, and in the long run the superficial will be sorted out from the solid. And I think Caroline Shaw's music is very good.

Philosophically, she is apparently in the contemporary mainstream, which is not really a good thing, but hardly a surprise, and her heart is in the right place. A note on that second performance says of "And the Swallow" that it "has to do with finding a home and celebrating the sense of safety."  There's nothing wrong with that, but it leaves out most of the psalm and its most important sense. And the video for "Other Song," according to Nonesuch Records, "was shot at Rise and Root Farm, a five-acre farm in New York’s Hudson Valley that is rooted in social justice and run cooperatively by four owners who are women, intergenerational, multi-racial, and LGBTQ." Well, I salute their willingness to plow and plant, anyway.

"Intergenerational" is an odd thing to be proud of as a social justice accomplishment. In the natural order of things, most groups of people are. Families, for instance. 


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I like Caroline Shaw quite a bit. And like to think that "her heart is in the right place".

Two of my favorite songs of hers are both cover songs of sorts. This one of a Toon Hermans song:

And this one of ABBA's, "Lay All Your Love On Me", which thankfully doesn't make me want to disco, but for some reason turns my thoughts to the Great Commandment:

Nice. What is the relationship between the first one and the Michel Legrand song? Similar but not the same.


I'm a bit of an ABBA fan, or at least I like those great hits a lot, but I don't know that one.

Unrelated, but just saw that Gordon Lightfoot has died.

I only heard his most popular songs, but some of those were great, going all the way back to "Early Morning Rain" in the mid-1960s.

"What is the relationship between the first one and the Michel Legrand song?" I'm not really sure. They are quite similar songs, though, aren't they. I never heard of Toon Hermans before hearing this song. From a quick internet search it looks like the Legrand song was written first.

Yeah, there has to have been some deliberate copying. Two people don't just independently come up with "summer me, winter me." But it's late and I don't want to try to investigate it right now.

Also unrelated, Kate Bush is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee this year. A silly enterprise, I know, but can be made fun by the honorees showing up and doing a short set of songs.

Rest in peace Gordon Lightfoot.

"She’s a good old boat and she’ll stay afloat
Through the toughest gales and keep smilin’
When the summer ends we will rest again
In the lee of Christian Island"

I was asking myself why I don't have any Gordon Lightfoot albums, or for that matter even heard one that I recall. In other words, why haven't I heard any more of his work than his half a dozen or so most popular songs? I think it's partly because when I heard his '60s work it was via covers. There weren't any Gordon Lightfoot albums that I knew of. And those big hits he had in the '70s weren't especially to my taste, with the exception of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which is fantastic.

I don't know much about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame except for the occasional news item about who got in, and Kate Bush is not exactly rock-and-roll, but she deserves any award they want to give her. Though I suspect that if she is elected some of her co-honorees will look pretty silly compared to her. I mean, isn't Kiss in it?

Gotta wonder if Kate's (finally) getting in isn't due to the attention she gained via Stranger Things.

"some of her co-honorees will look pretty silly compared to her"

Indeed. Two of the others going in with her this year are Missy Elliott and George Michael.

Also being inducted this year are Willie Nelson and The Spinners, both good artists but hardly rock and roll. And I see that two of the acts nominated this year but passed over are Joy Division/New Order and Warren Zevon.

So yeah, all in all pretty meaningless, even if it is nice to see Kate get some long-delayed attention.

Re: Gordon Lightfoot, I think you're right about the albums. The first LP of his that I remember in any sort of detail was 'Gord's Gold,' which was a mid-70's best-of collection. Lots of people I knew liked his songs and had the singles, but the albums didn't seem to be as popular, or at least as visible.

He had actually put out five albums before 1970. I don't remember even seeing them in stores, hearing people talk about them, or anything. I mean--for instance, I never bought a Phil Ochs album, but I was well aware that they existed. I have a random memory of being in a record store and looking at the cover of I Ain't Marching Anymore. Not a big mystery I guess--Ochs was just more popular.


George Michael in, Joy Division out: that tells the story well enough.

Wikipedia says that those first five albums were big in Canada and spawned several Top 40 singles there, but that Lightfoot did not become well known in the States until 1970, when he signed with Reprise Records and released "If You Could Read My Mind." All of his best-known songs in the U.S. came after that, but by that time he was already well known in Canada. It appears that he didn't have any Top 40 singles in the U.S. between 1970 and 1974, when "Sundown" came out, despite three LP releases in that period. In contrast, he had five hit singles in Canada during that same time frame.

Finally got the chance to listen to the Shaw pieces. The first one is lovely, but to me it seems to echo a lot of the choral music of its sort which has been done in the past 20 years or so. Some of the choral music of one of my favorite contemporary composers, Peteris Vasks, sounds similar to this, for instance.

The second piece is interesting, in that, as you say, it combines pop and "classical" elements, along with a "world music" feel. It reminds me of the pop/classical "crossover" music by artists like Hania Rani and Agnes Obel which I like a lot. Rani's album "Home" is a favorite of mine from the last few years.

Hmm, I hadn't thought of Agnes Obel as crossover, but I guess it fits. I never have checked out Hania Rani, as you suggested some time back. I need to do that.

Hadn't seen this, but after Rani's "Home" album came out in 2020, she did an album on Deutsche Grammophon called "Inner Symphonies" with a cellist named Dobrawa Czocher. Being on that label I imagine it's more "neo-classical" than her previous material. Czocher apparently does both classical and contemporary music. Will have to give that one a listen.

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