Getting ready for our Celebrity Series concert tomorrow at Sanders, I’m standing with a violist and a singer to my left, a cellist to my right, and another singer just behind us. Across the stage, the 18 musicians of A Far Cry and the 8 singers of Roomful of Teeth have interspersed themselves into a single space. We’re about 10 seconds into our first pass at Caroline Shaw’s arrangement of Josquin des Prez’s lament Nymphes des Bois, and frankly, we haven’t found our way quite yet. Our individual polyphonic strands are trying to match up with the others, and to be in sync across the stage. Waves of sound and intention collide, unintentional dissonances form and subside, glances shoot up from the score as we try to right ourselves. It seems like we’ll need to stop and try a new strategy when suddenly, the feeling of shared pulse just clicks into rightness, and like that, we’re good. Instrumental lines and vocal lines merge into a single intention, harmonies bloom, and we move forwards through the piece, suddenly dancing together in what T. S. Eliot would call “a formal pattern.”
Moments like that one reveal a lot about music. When everything is working, we take it for granted. But when we run a little bit off the rails, we see everything in a new way. Who doesn’t remember their fist time driving in slippery conditions? Everything swims into focus—the weight and momentum of the car, the feeling of the road, the friction of the tires. You learn so much, so quickly.
As I watched our musical vehicle swerve and right itself (the whole thing took maybe 10 seconds, but, as it does when you’re in a car, it felt longer) I was suddenly totally aware of what was happening physically in the rehearsal. Bowed string instruments were trying to match up the cadences of their arm movements with voices powered by breath and unlocked by words. Bodies moving to their own rhythm were trying to find a way to come into sync with each other. And—of course —there was no central figure waving a stick. Twenty-six musicians had to learn how to find a common groove, simply by feeling it and making micro-adjustments to each other. We had no choice but to embody the music with everything we had.
I’ve been thinking a lot about embodying music, in the context of this upcoming concert at Celebrity Series, the last stop on an extended tour with A Far Cry and Roomful of Teeth. Traveling and working with this insanely tight group of singers has made me aware, as an instrumentalist, of how much we share under the surface. So different at first glimpse, our two groups are both immensely physically involved in what we do—and the differences are ultimately minor.
Adding in one more twist, our program features works by Caroline Shaw and Ted Hearne, both of whom will be singing in the concert on Thursday. Composers and musicians, perhaps, are also not quite as far apart as we initially think, and there’s something great about watching the traditional line between creator and performer blur and change into something different.
A Far Cry has been playing Ted’s music for years. His “Law of Mosaics,” which we’ll be performing excerpts from on Thursday, is fiendishly tactile. Bows interact with strings in a way that never lets you forget that you are scraping sticky taut horsehair across a piece of metal-wound sheep gut. They skid, they drag, they slide, the instrument squeaks and crackles, new sounds come bubbling up and bursting out. Meanwhile, your arm muscles pump and your center of gravity shifts, and yes, you will probably be sweating by the end of the page. In a movement like his “Beats,” an electronic track emerges from an all-acoustic set up by sheer force of will. Meanwhile, in “Palindrome for Andrew Norman” the record needle skips (in a formal pattern) across centuries—so that one second, we’re in the relaxed and bright “Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 3” setting and in the next, we’ve instantaneously shifted to “Mahler,” “Ligeti,” “Barber’s Adagio for Strings” or Andrew Norman. Each one of these shifts demands total physical involvement; I think of it as similar to the form of intense exercise that’s in vogue these days, where you push yourself to the limit in short intervals. 45 seconds of Palindrome is probably equal to 10 minutes of regular practice.
When Ted talks about Law of Mosaics he describes what we’re doing in the piece as “activating the subconscious” of the entire history of string literature. We’re bringing these intense, iconic moments into the foreground and then making them come alive in a new body and talk to each other. In a session with schoolchildren, Ted beautifully described his compositional craft by saying “Being a composer is great because you get to pick all of your favorite sounds and put them in a piece.” Whether those sounds are Mahlerian swells, electronic crunches or brand-new tunes is beside the point.
“Embodying” the music means something quite different when we move to Caroline Shaw’s piece Music in Common Time—written jointly for Roomful of Teeth and A Far Cry. The piece is so suffused with resonance that it was honestly quite difficult for us to rehearse at first—the acoustic curves were so supple that they distracted us from our usual rhythmic pattern, and we had to come up with a new way of feeling the collective pulse that honored all the “cosmic” sounds we were hearing.
Moments in the work snap in and out of focus as the sound flows from strings to voices, and from one kind of harmonic profile to another. A sweet chord takes on a different quality when the high, bright, overtones of a Tuvan throat singing technique are added. Divided parts on the lower strings bring aspects of a chord into the foreground, and then the background, elegantly and naturally. In an extended passage in the center of the work, we collectively participate in a sound-illusion; a chord progression that seems to slide upward and forward forever, much like a Shepard tone (here). Playing this piece, it’s easy to feel as though we’re in dialogue with pure sound.
Talking to Caroline about Music in Common Time reminds me of something aquatic that she said in our most recent concert; describing an unconducted ensemble as a “school of fish.” She talks about the voices in Roomful of Teeth “swimming” on top of, and in the midst of. the string sound. In many places in the piece, she’s left syllables out entirely to give the singers the maximum ability to “amplify the resonance” that’s already present in the air (or the water!)
But in the middle of our acoustic deep dive, words appear.
“Years ago / I forget / Years to come / Just let them.”
Suddenly, we’ve moved from a world of pure, shared, sound, to a human place that holds action, emotion, and history. It’s jarring and thrilling, every time.
The first time that A Far Cry presented Caroline’s piece, in 2014 (one year after Law of Mosaics!) I remember wondering what those words, pointed towards the future, would sound like at some later point. They’re like a time capsule, – or, as Caroline puts it, a “letter to myself years from now.”
Paradoxically, hearing them again doesn’t draw me to assess the current moment; it only makes me more curious about what they will sound like further in the future. Like the Shepard tone, they roll forward without ceasing, giving us the gift of a present which is constantly in motion.
Perhaps the final stop on the journey of “embodying the music” is simply that we all are able to embody the present moment as it continues on. But I’m inclined to think that there are also further stages, more left to discover in this elegant dance between composers, performers, and listeners, singers, and instrumentalists. Let’s see what happens next.