Crossover Song Cycle Dresses Sacred Harp Legacy In New Threads

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw and her frequent collaborators, Sō Percussion, are inspired by Southern shape-note singing in the title track of her latest album. (Photo by Shervin Lainez)

Caroline Shaw: Narrow Sea. Dawn Upshaw, soprano; Gilbert Kalish, piano; Sō Percussion (Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting, and Eric Cha-Beach). Nonesuch Records 645662.  

DIGITAL REVIEWNarrow Sea is the new album by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer-violinist-singer Caroline Shaw, an ambassador of the indie-classical movement epitomized by the a cappella octet Roomful of Teeth, of which she is a member.

Featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw, pianist Gilbert Kalish, and the ensemble Sō Percussion, Narrow Sea is Shaw’s second release on Nonesuch Records – and markedly different from Orange, her 2019 debut for the label, consisting of imaginative music for string quartet. Indeed, its genre and short running time (29 minutes) makes the new release almost independent from its predecessor. But that’s not to say Shaw’s style is not recognizable: Her effortless blend of functional harmony and extended performance technique, along with the familiarity of traditional forms and pop sensibilities thrown into the mix, are evident.  

In Narrow Sea, the five-part title track points to the Romantic song cycle and the quaint a cappella tradition of Southern shape-note singing. The text comes from The Sacred Harp, an 1844 shape-note hymnal in which four note-head shapes are used to facilitate amateur congregational sight singing. Shaw’s short songs are adorned with a charming fantasy-like aura within the historical context. At times almost winsome in its harmonic simplicity and thoroughly captivating, Narrow Sea is a pop-classical crossover song cycle for the 21st century. 

A simple chord progression on marimba opens Part 1, setting the harmonic backdrop and the feeling of homecoming that is made explicit by the lyrics: “I’m only going over Jordan/I’m only going over home” (from the folk song “Wayfaring Stranger”). Percussion on tin cans, woodblock, flowerpots, hollow pottery bowls, and light bass drum sets counter-patterns that are soon joined by vocals. Upshaw’s full-throated soprano captures the earnestness and expressive directness of Shaw’s melodic lines. There are light piano accents and a tingling interplay from mallet percussion, with the long-ringing metallic sound of the vibraphone over the woody marimba.

Part 2 opens with a percussion pattern created as Kalish reaches over the keyboard to mute the strings of the piano while playing with the right hand. Distant electronic oscillations are piped in. The members of Sō Percussion hum a progression that forms a recurring ground bass, and the soprano lines soar ever higher (“Death, like a narrow sea, divides”).

Part 3 is the most exploratory in technique: The Sō players perform directly on the strings of the piano – playing inside it – with two mallets each, as though it were a cimbalom, or hammered dulcimer. There is also strumming over the strings and slapping of the bass end to create a drum-like pattern. Kalish plays simultaneously at the keyboard.

Dawn Upshaw’s vocals plumb darker depths in Part 3 of ‘Narrow Sea.’

The River Jordan appears again in the lyrics, but this time Upshaw’s vocals plumb darker depths. Toward the end, the harmonic textures coming from inside the piano grow toward entropic disintegration, with an intensely reverberating dissonance similar to the climactic chaotic point of the otherwise serene Ritornello 2.sq.2.j.a from her album Orange.

Pouring water and mallets tapping on bowls and pans create the backdrop for the soprano in the penultimate part of the song cycle. Wordless singing and humming alternate with the sparse text: “Don’t you feel like going home/My home is in the promised land.” When Kalish’s gentle piano triads ebb, the thinner texture of the beginning returns, with the soft pitter-patter of mallets over pots.

The album closes with a new recording of Taxidermy, Shaw’s first piece for Sō Percussion, from 2012. It consists of minimalistic patterns for two sets of flowerpots struck with mallets, and rhythmic structures coming in and out of phase. Other Sō players on vibraphone and marimba later expand the sonic palette significantly, creating chords.

Toward the end, the basic flowerpot patterns are transformed further, and the players recite what appears to be gibberish. But the nonsensical snippets gradually come together through repetition and alternation, as if attempting to mimic the shifting rhythms that came before. “The pattern of the detail of the pattern/the detail is the detail of the pattern of the detail” becomes a conclusive, if still shadowy, “the detail of the pattern is movement,” recited, one at a time, when all four instrumentalists have come together in lockstep.

Engineering and mixing by Jonathan Low and mastering by Ryan Schwabe give Narrow Sea an intimate and crystal-clear sound – a solid match for Shaw’s multi-hued and energetic sound world – to draw you in and keep you engaged.