Partita for 8 Voices is a vocal work that won composer Caroline Shaw a Pulitzer Prize and her group Roomful of Teeth international acclaim. Roomful of Teeth’s self-titled 2012 debut album — where you’ll hear the first recording of Partita for 8 Voices — was nominated for three GRAMMYs, and won one. Suffice to say, Partita is as close to a smash hit as anything in the classical and art music worlds, and Roomful of Teeth are a group with megawatt power.
What’s impressive about Partita at first blush is that it contains an amazing assembly of vocal sounds that — to even a well-trained ear — register as risky, unearthly, and in some cases impossible, for lack of better descriptors. Shaw & Roomful seemed to have found an entirely new musical path. As Daniel Trueman, one of Shaw’s professors at Princeton University put it, “It’s hard to track a style that seems to have emerged all of a sudden, fully formed.”
Except that it didn’t. Not quite.
Roomful of Teeth and Caroline Shaw have been forthcoming about their influences both for Partita and for the group’s repertoire as a whole: their official bio lists yodeling, belting, Korean pansori, Hindustani music, Sardinian cantu a tenòre, and Tuvan and Inuit throat singing as source materials.
Tanya Tagaq is a virtuoso musical talent by any measure. Tagaq is an Inuk singer who has collaborated with the likes of Björk, Mike Patton, Damian Abraham, and Kronos Quartet. She’s concertized worldwide, released five albums (2019 list-makers take note: her EP Toothsayer came out in March), and written a novel. She’s also won a Juno Award and a Polaris Prize.
To give you an idea of the type of singing she does, this video is helpful.
Anyway, here’s where things go sideways.
Tagaq called out Roomful of Teeth and Caroline Shaw for swiping Inuit vocal techniques (“katajjaq”), and accused them of jacking the Love Song, a piece in which two singers are face-to-face and alternate rapid-fire utterances that repeat and change as they flow back and forth.
It’s difficult for someone unfamiliar with katajjaq to know exactly what Tagaq is talking about. I’ve probably listened to the recording of Partita for 8 Voices a dozen times since it was released. What’s more, I even saw Roomful of Teeth perform it live in Rotterdam in 2018 at Classical:NEXT. Shaw’s interpolation was lost on me. That’s exactly the point.
Tagaq also pointed out that she and other Inuit artists are the ones forced to police this. The onus is on them to level the charge, to substantiate with examples, to lean on offenders for a response, to handle third-party interlopers in the discussion (this being Twitter that’s 97.5% of the job), and finally to concretize solutions after the offending parties — who obviously wanted no part of this in the first place, and would like to end discussion as quickly and quietly as possible — have tendered their response. It’s exhausting.
Caroline Shaw offered a response to Tagaq and other critics here in this thread. Later, she and Roomful of Teeth founder Brad Wells released an official apologia (of sorts) on Scribd. In it Shaw and Wells described the writing of Partita. (Italics used below are their own.)
In 2010, Roomful of Teeth invited — with compensation and travel, lodging and expenses covered — two accomplished Inuit singers to our summer residency at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. We learned what we understood to be basic katajjaq techniques. We also learned about the genesis and purpose of these techniques and aspects of the Inuit culture. As we began to construct music informed in part by our study, we included some katajjaq patterns (as we understood them).
Here they responded at least in part to one of Tagaq’s charges (“no Inuit hired”), without wading too deep into the debate over plagiarism, appropriation, and fair use. Shaw & Wells followed with a bulleted list of “next steps” for the group.
Credit our teachers and coaches more explicitly in public and in print
Find opportunities to amplify and support performing artists of katajjaq, and other indigenous musicians with whom we work, in concrete and monetary ways
Read aloud a source acknowledgment at the beginning of every Roomful of Teeth concert, honoring explicitly named traditional cultures’ essential contributions to our music
Be alert to and proactive about these important issues in all our future work
Continue to listen to and learn from other members of the musical community, and take seriously concerns such as those raised recently
Explore new or alternate ways of performing our repertoire
These are nice sentiments folks, but one detail is left out…
<Tom Cruise yelling into an extremely 1996 cellphone in a quiet office>
Partita for 8 Voices is an uber-successful, generation-defining work — at least, as far as it goes in the classical music world — and Caroline Shaw is now A Composer in Full. What comes from that? Triple-P, baby: power, prestige, and prize$. How do you share an equitable slice of all that?
You can’t. Not exactly.
We’ve covered sampling and plagiarism many times over in the mailer, and every time we circle back to the same conclusion: music is an inherently “slippery” medium, where moreso than other art forms characteristics can be copied, referenced, combined, chopped up, and re-deployed in dizzying and unpredictable ways. Each iteration obscures the source material, for better or worse.
This musical slipperiness is useful in some contexts. It’s important that we can interpolate ideas in new and interesting ways. When Ariana Grande and her songwriters use “My Favorite Things” as a melodic reference on the familiar-but-new “7 Rings” you don’t necessarily think, “Oh damn it, she totally ripped off Rodgers and Hammerstein!” (Actually, she paid handsomely for the privilege, so maybe it’s a bad example.) (Actually, um… <checks notes> Grande may have ripped the song idea off entirely from another rapper named Princess Nokia….without attribution? So this is truly a terrible example. Moving on.)
We have many, many, many instances of borrowing or quoting in classical music. Bartók, Mahler and Vaughan Williams weaved folk tunes into their best-known music. Bach and Palestrina took secular melodies and bolted them onto religious compositions. And when Haydn jacked Roma tunes it was seen as “paying tribute” to the source material. And on and on. You get the idea.
The point is, these kinds of call-backs are a common part of compositional tradecraft. Again, for better or worse.
So, what constitutes respectful usage, and what is exploitative? Where is the line?
On one side we’ve got people who pay for shit and credit sources. These are the types who big-up the OGs, who might use something valuable from a source but then pay it back n-fold. Also known as: the right way to do business.
On the other side though are the culture vultures: songwriters, filmmakers, TV producers, painters, comedians, and whoever else, who grab what they want — especially from lesser-known or less-powerful groups — and ask for forgiveness later. Or not. You know the type: the Westerner who lands in Mumbai and within two hours is wearing a bindi and a sari in their IG stories. Everything is an accessory, nothing is serious. Tourists.
I don’t think Caroline Shaw intentionally obscured sourcing for the piece. I mean, Roomful of Teeth appear to offer more credit and more information on their website than a lot of groups do. Shaw is an uber-talented composer and performer. It’s highly doubtful she set out to steal everybody else’s ideas in order to composer her masterwork or whatever.
But — and you could hear that conjunction coming from a mile away, like a car that lost its rusty muffler, like distant thunder on a quiet summer night — that just ain’t enough. If this is some kind of crime or infraction it appears to be one of relative ignorance. Especially when you’re dealing with groups with less power or monetary resources, and/or those who aren’t plugged into a network with great support for musical creation and distribution, the onus is on you, as a composer, to identify when you’ve used source material belonging to those who have been historically disadvantaged, and to share the spoils — media attention, monetary compensation — that come from your success.
(I don’t want this to sound like a lecture. Caroline Shaw is a woman who happens to be a composer, and that presents its own unique challenges in a male-dominated domain. It sucks to have to work twice as hard as male colleagues, all the time, to even get noticed. I marvel at the success of people like Caroline Shaw and Tanya Tagaq.)
To explain this another way we can use what Dan Savage, advice columnist extraordinaire, coined the “campfire rule,” wherein you leave the situation better than the state you found it in. The campfire rule applies here.
I reached out both to Tanya Tagaq and Caroline Shaw for comment on this piece. I haven’t heard back. Still, given the publicly available facts I decided to let the Classical Dark Arts legal department — usually tasked with various multinational entanglements regarding our company’s unusual structure and financing — come back with a ruling on this incident.
Here’s a bulleted list of their suggestions.
- As a sign of good faith, Roomful of Teeth (RoT) should build out their already better-than-average website with information about musical traditions and vocal techniques one might hear in a RoT shows and albums. This should include, but would not be limited to: links to Indigenous groups performing their own music; links to purchase materials by said groups; and historical accounts that offer a fuller picture of the development of music by said groups. In the case of Inuit performers and katajjaq, drawing attention to the particularly important role of music in Inuit culture would go some way to explaining the problem with using the Love Song and katajjaq in Partita for 8 Voices.
- Roomful of Teeth should offer performers who closely align with their mission and sound the chance to perform as “openers.” RoT would then be the “headliners” on a double- or triple-billing. Openers would benefit from an audience that is receptive to a wide array of musical ideas.
- Similarly, Roomful of Teeth should consider hosting an annual fundraiser to benefit groups from areas with less-lucrative performance opportunities whose music aligns with the RoT mission and sound.
- Roomful of Teeth and Caroline Shaw should consider sharing royalty or other prize monies generated by Partita for 8 Voices. This gesture would reflect the importance that learned and inherited traditions played in the development of the piece.
- Roomful of Teeth should update fans in late 2020 about what progress has been made in the interceding time. Because Roomful of Teeth, music publications (Classical Dark Arts included), performers, the Pulitzer Prize board and others paid so little attention to the use of the Love Song and katajjaq in Partita, that obligation unfairly fell to Tanya Tagaq and other Indigenous artists. This step ensures accountability without further burdening Tagaq et al.
- The Pulitzer board must decide if Partita for 8 Voices still meets the standard for the award. On their site the Pulitzer board describe Partita as a “highly polished and inventive a cappella work uniquely embracing speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects.” Has this new information changed the eligibility for Shaw’s work for a Pulitzer Prize?
There you have it. Thanks to the Classical Dark Arts legal team. They may not be able to extricate me from burdensome tax obligations on Malta, but when push comes to shove they can broker their way out of a conflict.
As an epilogue, Roomful of Teeth cofounder Brad Wells appeared on Radio Boston last month, and host Tiziana Dearing asked Wells about the controversy. Here’s part of their exchange, edited for clarity and length. (Bolding is my own.)
DEARING: You’ve studied a wide variety of techniques from different cultures, different countries. Has receiving this criticism changed how you’re thinking about your experimentation and your use of different styles, and your learning of different styles? How are you thinking about that now?
WELLS: It hasn’t changed it at all, but I think it’s helping clarify what the project is about, and also where to be alert for how singing is held in communities. And I think it varies all over the world.
One thing that we were talking about including in the statement […] was basically saying that music is a powerful vehicle for connection, for humans to connect, from one to another, or from group to group, or whatever. We all know that this is one of the things that singing and music does. But it also has this powerful potential and expressiveness as an identity expresser. And those things shouldn’t be at odds, but they need to be aware of each other, and sometimes the scales might tip more towards one side, towards somebody really saying, ‘This is expressing me. Let me do this, or let me do this at least until I tell you it’s okay. And I’ll let you in and you can share.’
So I think it’s around sensitivity that we’re learning, it’s around clarifying what the mission is. I don’t think it’s changing it, but it’s refining it.
Wells lands a direct hit there, although it took a lot of wind-up. These are vitally important works for some people, and those people are the ones who get to say how they’re used or not used.
I’d like to hear a lot more of that, and less press-speak about “clarifying” and “refining” the mission.
Nunatsiaq News deserve credit for being one of very few outlets covering this story. Click that link to read reporting at their site.