By Ricky O’Bannon
Composer Caroline Shaw has been a rising star in the contemporary classical scene. She performs as a violinist with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and as a vocalist with Roomful of Teeth, and she is the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for her piece Partitas for 8 Voices.
She’s also the latest “feat” — short for the “featuring” credit given to collaborators or guest artists on hip-hop tracks — for rapper (and potential presidential candidate?) Kanye West. West and Shaw performed earlier in October at a Democrat fundraiser event in San Francisco where Shaw provided a newly written intro to West’s song “Power.”
A few days ago, a remixed version of an older West song, “Say You Will” surfaced on Soundcloud where Shaw provided a clever new backing track for West's singing. The remix has hip-hop and music watchers speculating about whether they should expect to hear more of Shaw’s work on West’s next album.
This kind of genre-crossing collaboration is valuable because it offers an opportunity to bring a new audience to classical music… Did you buy that sentence you just read? Ok fine, me neither.
If you are the type to read about classical music, you’ve undoubtedly read something like that on more than one occasion. In my most uninspired moments, I admittedly have probably written something that peddles that same sentiment.
So before we talk about what this collaboration means, let’s first knock out what it doesn’t. It’s amazing to see Pitchfork inspired by the “Say You Will” remix give its readers a starter playlist on some of Shaw’s pieces (and for those interested in learning more about Shaw, a great place to start is with WQXR’s Meet the Composers podcast.) Perhaps that Pitchfork nudge will inspire some to dig deeper into her work and maybe even explore other contemporary classical composers. Others might go hear Shaw’s other work and feel that it was fine, but it’d be better if it had a nice dollop of Kanye West on top before never giving it a second thought. But that’s not the point of this.
We’ve been here before. We’ve been here so often that it elicits a knowing, skeptical eye roll from classical industry watchers that are long in the tooth. If you judge the value or crossovers and genre-bending collaborations based on the likelihood that they’ll bring hip-hop, rock or pop fans to hear Beethoven, you’re going to be disappointed.
That’s not to say this kind of exposure isn’t valuable. Yet, we so often have fallen into the trap of seeing that as the goal of these works rather than a potential fringe benefit. So no, as messianic as he might think himself, Kanye West isn’t going to save classical music (and we’ll leave the “whether it needs saving” debate for another day.)
Whether it’s Steve Reich and David Bowie, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Krzysztof Penderecki or now Shaw and West, the questions we should be focusing on is what do these artists and composers see in one another and is the result compelling?
In a way that arguably reflects the omnivorous way we all consume culture in the Internet age, composers of Shaw’s generation are often comfortable on either side of once more defined genre barriers. Take one of her contemporaries, composer Missy Mazzoli, who was one of a handful painted with the “indie-classical” label a few years back to describe a group of composers who seemed as comfortable on stage with an indie band as they did a symphony orchestra.
“It’s all in the pallete that I draw from,” said Mazzoli this summer when asked about her ease collaborating with either the Detroit Symphony Orchestra or synthpop singer-songwriter Glasser. “Pop music is a part of that, but that to me is like saying I drink water. I’m 34. I grew up driving around in the ’90s in a car, so of course pop music is going to be part of my life. It’s everywhere.”
For composers like Mazzoli or Shaw, each of these collaborations speak to a varied part of their musical personality and interests. Rather than jumping the gun and reaching for the well worn narrative of reaching new audiences any time one of those interests tip toes into the pop world, we should view it as a fascinating reflection of the age in which we live, and a reminder that artists find kindred creative spirits in places we in the audience are sometimes too closed to expect.
But most of all, we should judge it for what it is. It isn’t the long-sought-after missing link for new audiences, but instead it is an interesting example of what happens when two creative people see value in what the other does and try to create something new. And in the case of "Say You Will," it's also gorgeous.