Break All the Rules
Knowing the rules, then breaking them, is common to all Articulate’s subjects this week: Caroline Shaw, Robert Janz, and Lizzo.
- Art & Design
Coming up on Articulate. Being fully free to pursue life on your own terms is everyone’s dream. The composer Caroline Shaw fears no boundaries, musical or otherwise.
Caroline Shaw: I think I knew the rules that I didn’t care about. I learned those and I wasn’t interested and there were other rules that no one talked about that I am really interested in.
Leaving your mark on the world implies permanence. For Robert Janz, it is more fleeting, like life itself.
Robert Janz: What I do with water that goes in a couple of minutes is as likely to put something into the future that is worth holding onto as some gigantic piece of bronze.
Finding and nurturing your true self is uncommonly difficult, but the R&B singer/songwriter Lizzo refuses to fake it.
Lizzo: The people want realness. The people want authenticity. The people don’t want anything manufactured.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Though all of her life ‘til then had been dedicated to music, Caroline Shaw’s breakthrough came at age 30 when, in 2013, she became the youngest ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her Partita for 8 Voices. It all started in a most unassuming way—with a simple vocal experiment Shaw wanted to try with her a cappella group, Roomful of Teeth.
Caroline Shaw: Partita did not start as Partita, the big piece. It was literally ♪ Ah ♪! That’s the beginning of the piece in my brain which was in Passacaglia, the fourth movement.
AJC: It sounds exactly like somebody going, “I’ve got to write some music. What the hell am I gonna do?”
Shaw: ♪ Ah ♪ I know! But this feeling, like something you don’t even know what the sound is, and then erupting suddenly into the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard.
Partita also went on to win a Grammy for Roomful of Teeth. These days, Shaw is busy with a multitude of other projects including recently, a song cycle for superstar soprano Renée Fleming. She says that what they all have in common is the ability to communicate the full range of human emotion.
AJC: Do you ever have the abject loneliness or the ecstatic joy and go, “Boom, there’s a tune for that?”
Shaw: [laughs] It’s so amazing to imagine. I think that I depend sometimes, as a musician, on being in touch with the abject loneliness and the ecstatic joy. I think that feels really important to me, and that’s not in all music. Some music that I write is about just the, like, interesting conversation, or an interesting meal or sports game—like all these different kinds of patterns that make music interesting. But the reason I’m probably a musician is that I sort of fell in love with those feelings of total joy and total tragedy in music.
Shaw came to music early. Her mother was a violin teacher and began giving her daughter lessons at age two, and her formal musical training continues today. She’s currently studying for a Ph.D. in Composition at Princeton. Yet, she says, she has studiously avoided many of the more constraining traditions of academia.
Shaw: I think because I know that I’m someone who likes to sort of follow rules, or please, and you want to do something right, and this is how I learn. But I also saw a lot of people sort of… I don’t know, boxed in, or feeling like they needed to please people within a certain community. And I don’t want to have that as some sort of hold up. But at the same time, I write music for the players. Maybe not the composers, but the people who are playing it, who love music and that, sort of, those are the people that I’m thinking about. But I avoided—
AJC: I’m really interested in that idea because a lot of it comes from the fact that, A) you can’t write a concerto without learning how to play scales and you should kind of learn the rules so you can break them. But you just didn’t learn the rules, so you didn’t know what you were breaking?
Shaw: I think I knew the rules that I didn’t care about. I learned those, and I wasn’t interested. And there were other rules that no one talked about, that I am really interested in, just sort of… are not rules, but—
Shaw: Traditions, yeah.
AJC: Received wisdom?
Shaw: Yeah, received wisdom that you get without anyone saying exactly what it is. But there’s an intuitive sense about what is interesting about this harmony going to the next one, or the shape of this melody, or where it occurs in the form of the movement, that I hope sort of operates in the music that I’m writing. I don’t know, but those are my teachers, I guess. Older music feels kind of like my teacher. But also the world we live in now, the music that’s being written now, those are all teachers in a way. I always say there are gifts all around. There are teachers everywhere.
Even sometimes in unexpected places. In 2014, Kanye West approached her about a possible collaboration. A year later, they released her remix of his 2008 track, “Say You Will.”
Shaw: I feel like the original song, I really love because it’s just these two beeps from an 808 drum machine and simple melody. But he had this sort of synthesized, not very interesting vocal choral part underneath. What if you let the song have the space that it needs? ‘Cause that’s the essence of the song. It’s devastating and heartbreaking. And then turn it on to the opposite place in four seconds. And that’s what I wanted to try to do. So you take the devastation and the emptiness, but rather than letting it just sit there—which he did, which I love, that’s what I love about the song—what if you just foreground all of the tragedy that’s underneath, and just put it out front?
Since then, Shaw and West have become regular collaborators. But, for her, it’s not about his celebrity, but his unique approach to music.
Shaw: Everyone knows how to write a pretty song, right? You put the beat, the pretty harmony, you find four chords, and you can write a pretty melody. But someone who has a really good sense of harmony and melody, good tune writing, and then, something that’s surprising… So with Kanye West, it’s just I don’t really know what he’s gonna do. And he doesn’t write just a song, and it’s not just a rap song. It’s not just words over a beat. It’s taking lots of different things together and letting them… seeing what they do side by side, and then cutting things out and adding more things in.
But beneath every pursuit is the nagging question every creator has faced.
AJC: How do you know when it’s original? How do you know when you’re not stealing?
Shaw: I don’t know. I tried something recently. It was like, “I really feel like this has existed somewhere else.” And there was no way for me to find out, ’cause I was actually trying to write a melody that felt like you had heard it before. So obviously, it sounds like you’ve heard it before—and maybe you have, but it’s so simple. It’s kind of, just… ♪ sings ♪
Shaw: It’s really simple so I have no idea if it’s original or not.
AJC: That’s an earworm.
AJC: That’s in my head now.
AJC: What was that for?
Shaw: It’s for this piece for a children’s concert using a story called The Mountain That Loved A Bird. It’s the most beautiful story. Again, that is a story that’s about joy and extreme sadness, so I wanted to write something that we could actually teach the kids and families to sing, and then you hear it. There’s a bird in the story that sings. The line in the book is that suddenly… Joy is the name of the bird. She stops and sings the first music that the mountain—who’s also her friend—the mountain has ever heard. So trying to imagine, kind of, this really simple, basic melody.
And though her music is never child’s play, there is an exciting newness to everything Caroline Shaw creates.
Walk around the streets of Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood over morning, and you’ll likely find a curious figure out and about making his daily, very transitory contributions to the New York art scene.
Robert Janz: Everything is transient. Everything passes.
Robert Janz, now in his 80s, has been making art that puts viewers toe to toe with his outlook on the world since the 1960s. He arrived on the L.A. art scene with his 1973 series called Six Sticks, a reference to an important number in the ancient Chinese text, the I Ching.
As a teenager, Janz had fallen in with a hip crowd of Eastern philosophy buffs and he quickly took to their Zen ideas. Today, all of his work is an exercise in transience, the Buddhist principle that everything changes. In fact, he’s taken the idea so deeply to heart that, without photography, hardly anyone would know about his work. Whether drawing with water, creating patterns with chairs in a public square, or reclaiming space with washable paint, Janz’s works are most often designed to disappear—or, at best, transform before the viewer’s eyes.
Jennifer Kotter: Robert works continuously and just produces, produces, produces work. And thousands of pieces come out of him and he destroys half of them. And then he keeps going, and it’s just a never-ending process. He doesn’t leave much behind as evidence because he loves this aspect of impermanence, and he’s really very much tuned in to that.
AJC: People these days talk so much about what they’re going to leave behind them. That doesn’t interest you at all.
Janz: Things get left behind anyway, and you don’t have to strive for it. And what’s left behind is usually quite different than the person who initiated it thought. You know, Einstein thought he was leaving a legacy by discovering the atom but he left a bomb, instead. People are always talking about what they’re going to leave behind and it so often turns out to be quite different in its result than they thought. So it’s better not to press that button too hard. It’s as likely that what I do with water, that goes in a couple of minutes, is as likely to influence the future—put something into the future that is worth holding on to—as some gigantic piece of bronze.
And though Robert Janz has been called a performance artist, a street artist, and a conceptual artist, he’s quick to defend his own independence from such labels.
Janz: All my life, I’ve resisted categories. I resist the idea of the word “artist,” and “street artist” in particular. I’m not a street artist. I do a lot of drawing in the street, but it’s for reasons that have to do with freshness and the rawness.
AJC: What drives you to be this way? ‘Cause there’s definitely a rebellious streak to you.
Janz: I don’t think of myself as a rebel, as simply following what art says. All art says, “Open your eyes. Throw off the blinkers of clichés. Step outside the box. Open yourself to the world. Pay attention.” But people close down the message of art by talking about names and prices and putting it in a special category. My view of art is that it is soul medicine, and it should explore in every possible way. So I do drawings that evaporate in five minutes. I do other things that stay up for a couple of weeks. I do paintings. I write poems that also, themselves, are objects.
“We’re What We Witness” is an object poem. It isn’t a musical poem like, “Shall I compare thee to a summer day?” It’s in a block form, and it alliterates for specific reasons so that it’s a construction. But it tells the truth. We are what we witness, and I think we should go out into the world and witness it, and engage it, and respect it.
We’re what we witness.
We witness our will at work in the world.
We witness our will at work in the world
Working our world
Wanting our world
Wrecking our world
Wasting our world
Worrying our world.
We witness whether we will or will not.
We’re what we witness.
Meet Lizzo, the flutist-turned-rapper-turned-singer whose soulful pop songs have become anthems for a legion of body-positive, emotionally-empowered fans.
Lizzo: The people want realness. The people want authenticity. The people don’t want anything manufactured and I think that’s the only reason why I’m getting to where I’m getting—because I represent something to people that labels can’t fabricate.
Lizzo first made a name for herself as a rapper in the Minneapolis underground scene. These days, she’s signed to Atlantic Records, the label of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Ray Charles in their prime. And she’s used to being in prestigious company. Lizzo sang on Prince’s 2014 album, Plectrumelectrum, and says the experience changed her path in music.
Lizzo: Prince was an extremely positive person and his music was clean, and very uplifting, and very female-oriented. And so, when he passed away, I was like, “I want to, in any way, be a part of that legacy in just making positive music.”
Indeed, each of Lizzo’s albums has marked a specific phase in her personal evolution.
Lizzo: It’s definitely a journey of self. So Lizzobangers was self-discovery, Big Grrrl Small World was self-love, and Coconut Oil is self-care. And I think that we’re on the way to self-actualization and self-realization which is almost like nirvana, like all-knowing. So I think it will be a while before we get there, but it’s definitely a journey of self.
One thing that is common through all of Lizzo’s projects is the flute. The instrument defined her musical life when in 2011, she turned down a scholarship to the Paris Conservatory. But, she still plays.
Lizzo: I’ve played flute on every album I ever put out but it just wasn’t obvious. I had to replay flute samples on Lizzobangers, because it was expensive. So they were like, “Oh, where are we gonna get, you know, we can’t clear these flute samples.” And I was like, “Yes, we can!” So I replayed all the flute samples on Lizzobangers. And then on Big Grrrl Small World, I play flute on a song, but it’s just buried.
AJC: Yeah, I can hear it.
Lizzo: Yeah, so I do still play flute but I don’t play as much as I should.
AJC: So I have sort of a “chicken and egg” question. Do you think your musicality came because you were a flute player, or you became a flute player because you needed to express your musicality?
Lizzo: I became a flute player to express my musicality for sure, because I was writing songs before I started playing flute. I was writing little pop songs with my friends when I was in the third grade.
AJC: Tell me about where the melodies come from. Have you got melodies hanging around in your head all the time?
Lizzo: Yeah. I mean, I think they all come from the same place, like they exist up there, and you just pull them down. I think that it’s more from God, you know?
So strong is her trust in the source that Lizzo has stopped writing down lyrics all together, opting instead for a more stream-of-consciousness approach.
Lizzo: I’m not gonna say everything that you hear is freestyle. Even before I go in, I kind of wanna talk about a specific thing so it’s not just me being like, “Okay.” ‘Cause every song will be, like, about corn dogs ’cause I love corn dogs!
But just because Lizzo trusts what comes off the top of her head doesn’t mean she isn’t thinking deeply about the content of her lyrics. Her song, “Worship,” resonates on multiple levels.
Lizzo: I don’t want a man to worship me. I want society to see a big, black woman like me and respect her, you know? It was my ode to Aretha’s “Respect.” It was necessary, you know? Like, I’m never really talking about dudes ever in this music. But I also know that love is so universal. Love speaks to everyone, and I think that we… I think that everything is a love song, even the ones about policy or injustice. When we’re singing about these things in protest songs, it’s still love, because you want someone to love you, and you just want someone to see you for who you are and respect you. And, when they don’t do that, it feels the same as unrequited love, you know?
AJC: Interesting. I’ve never thought about it like that. Wow, yeah!
AJC: Oh my god.
Lizzo: Yeah, I mean, so all of these songs are love songs but they’re also a part of the struggle, you know? The obligatory black struggle in America because we can’t just take it off, you know? I don’t have to actually say anything in my music to be an activist or to be political. It’s who’s saying it, so—
AJC: But things like “Skin,” is that obviously—
Lizzo: “My Skin” is political. But the title isn’t “Brown Skin,” you know? The title is “My Skin.” And when you say my skin, it means something way different than when I say my skin. When I say my skin, the whole room is like, “Ohh.” The implications are felt. That’s deep. When you say it, they think biologically. They’re like, “Oh, your skin. Yeah, sure, what do you mean? Like, Jergens? Let’s talk about it.” So I think that there’s power in that, because I now feel like I don’t have to be preachy, and I can say things, and be tongue-in-cheek, and it still have weight. But, at the same time, it is a huge responsibility—and a heavy responsibility, sometimes.
But it’s all balanced by Lizzo’s joy in making music—something she was seemingly born to do.
Lizzo: My pitch is pretty good, and the dissonant chords or unresolved chords, just, like, I can feel them in my body. So I’m straight. Like when I’m singing, I’m good.
AJC: Sing “Good as Hell” for me. Sing the opening.
Lizzo: ♪ I do my hair toss, check my nails… ♪
On the next Articulate, why keep getting up when life insists on pushing you down? Because as opera star Joyce DiDonato has proven, sometimes life doesn’t know who it’s dealing with.
If you want to learn to do something well, try spending six years holed up in your parent’s basement. Hip hop producer Illmind did just that.
And the poet Kenneth Goldsmith has disrupted his field by rejecting the very notion of originality. Join us for the next Articulate.