Partita for 8 Voices by Caroline Shaw is a vocal composition which I came across as theme music in the recent BBC drama Marriage. Immediately I went hunting for both the complete piece, and background information, discovering it was created over a number of years and released in 2012 by Caroline Shaw’s vocal group, A Roomful of Teeth. Partita won a Grammy, and 2013’s Pulitzer Prize for Music.
It was the opening of the piece that sent me off on my search – a snatch of apparently random and disconnected spoken words all resolving into many-voiced harmony. It soon became apparent that the opening words are not as random as they seemed. They are actually a combination of square dance calls and technical instructions given by artist Sol LeWitt to a draughtsman for completing one of his wall drawings. So there is order in those broken words which is soon reflected in the music of the arresting opening chord as the choir all come together. Part of Caroline Shaw’s inspiration for her Partita came from singing a Christmas Eve midnight mass at St Mary the Virgin on New York’s 45th Street, and then emerging into the lively chaos of the night-time city. That combination characterises Partita for 8 Voices. My first impression was of a collision of aimless chat, modern jazz and Gregorian chant, and that’s really what it is. It’s a coming together of the particular and the general, precise line drawing instructions alongside vague musical echoes from all over the world – moments of throat singing for example, as practised by ethnic groups in Russia, Japan, Canada, Mongolia, Italy and China. There’s old and new, lasting and transient, sacred and profane. Partita is like a big city, where so many people and influences combine in brightly lit, highly organised chaos.