SEATTLE — Caroline Shaw, who in 2013 became the youngest person awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music, has gone from performance to performance of late. Two days after she attended the March 24 opening of Four Portraits, her contribution (with Jocelyn Clarke) to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Proximity, she arrived in Seattle for the premiere of her Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings. Commissioned by Byron Schenkman and Friends, the work served as the centerpiece for their aptly named concert, J.S. Bach Meets Caroline Shaw, in Benaroya Recital Hall.
On April 7, Shaw resurfaced in Octave 9, Seattle Symphony’s intimate “immersive environment for inventive performances” at the other end of the block, for the Washington premiere of Graveyards and Gardens, a collaboration with dancer-choreographer Vanessa Goodman. Donning multiple hats as composer, vocalist, electric violinist, and quasi-dancer, Shaw joined Goodman for two back-to-back “in the round” performances of the roughly 50-minute work.
Shaw appeared relaxed, poised, and somewhat reticent. Her manner suggested that she was determined never to upstage Goodman. Wearing an unpretentious orange-amber jumpsuit identical to Goodman’s and sporting heavy-framed glasses, her movements were minimal but her soundtrack ample. Assisted by multiple technicians who controlled frequent sound loops triggered by her voice, occasional violin strokes, and more — they also controlled intermittently blinking lights on five or six table lamps that sat on the floor and surrounded the performance space — she and Goodman even utilized their three orange-colored microphone cables in the proceedings.
Canadian-born Goodman has received multiple awards during her still young career. Currently head of Action at a Distance Dance Society, her first live improvisation with Shaw took place in Vancouver in 2015. She has previously performed different-looking versions of Graveyards and Gardens in Calgary, Edmonton, Portland, and Germany. The piece heads to Vancouver April 12-15.
Beyond a brief sentence in its season brochure, the Seattle Symphony offered its audience scant information about Graveyards and Gardens. In an online discussion with the work’s Canadian presenter, however, Goodman explains that when you repeat a pattern or memory over and over, the brain begins to transform it into something new. She and Shaw share a fascination with the process of “decomposition into regeneration and transformation.”
At Octave 9, the women performed before a small cadre of audience members who sat either on cushions on the floor, movable chairs, or built-in wall benches. Whether the artists were prepared for their unexpected participant — a low, honeycombed ceiling that vibrated excessively when sustained amplified bass notes descended to the bottom of the spectrum — is unknown. But what they were prepared to do was invite their audience to join them, on several occasions, in repeating a simple, soft multi-note hum.
Although I scribbled three pages of notes during the performance, I felt preposterous doing so. This was an evening intended for melding, one in which Shaw and Goodman asked gentle but profound questions about memory and life while Goodman reached and curled, expanded and contracted, stood upright and rolled on the floor. Remarkably, for someone who had expended so much energy, she looked as fresh as Shaw at the performance’s conclusion.
Various elements of Shaw’s recent work, along with her long-standing concerns, surfaced in the pensive piece filled with “marinated memories.” Baroque and Bach mixed toward the end of the work, and the concerns in her recent recording, Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part, surfaced when she and Goodman interacted physically with a bag of soil and created sound loops from the click created by opening and shutting the plastic cover of a cheap cassette player.
Performing on land that is sacred to Native tribes, they created a unique blend of performance art, ritual, trance, and dream state grounded in the soil that contains the dust of our ancestors. There was talk of “Memory, motion, and the ground beneath our feet,” “things [that] fold into other things,” and much more. “How do we calibrate when someone we love is gone?” Shaw asked as Goodman reached and rolled. Shortly after the question was asked, the two women moved on.
Focusing on each spoken line, sung commentary, amplified note, and sound, gesture, and action would miss the point. In 50 minutes, the two women imbued participants with a feeling of unity, integrity, and wholeness. Even though I had no way to measure the experience — no easy way to compare Shaw and Goodman to John Cage and Merce Cunningham, as if the collaborations were even remotely comparable — I left feeling that two wholly dedicated creative artists had journeyed through multiple levels of mystery and emerged whole. I might not be able to tell you what happened, nor point to any strong emotional connection, but I knew that I was the better for having attended.