Graveyards and gardens. They each connote radically different sentiments to many people.
A graveyard is a home for the dead, a barren landscape full of tombstones and crosses. A garden signifies life, providing sustenance for living, breathing human beings.
But to Pulitzer Prize–winning musician and previous Kanye West collaborator Caroline Shaw, graveyards and gardens have been nourishing her soul for many years.
“When I was a little bit younger, I would seek out places to walk that are quiet,” Shaw tells the Straight by phone from her home in New England. “Cemeteries are actually some of the most beautiful parks, beautiful gardens.”
She cites one that she loves in New Haven, Connecticut, and another in her home state of North Carolina. Then there’s the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
“They’re just really beautiful spaces that I think are underappreciated and underloved.”
Graveyards and Gardens is also the name of a new show created by Shaw and Vancouver dancer Vanessa Goodman.
Melding Shaw’s original music with Goodman’s choreography and dance, it’s being presented as four separate livestreamed events by Music on Main and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
“We’ve always been talking about the idea of soil as a receiver of things that decay and a giver of things that can grow out of it,” Shaw says. “That’s also a kind of a metaphor for the music… The idea of things decomposing and becoming part of a fabric that ultimately yields something new—and sort of seeing the beauty of a graveyard as a kind of garden, and thinking about that musically.”
Goodman has also spent a fair amount of time in graveyards, often riding her bike through the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto, where she grew up.
Nowadays, she periodically walks through Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery, which isn’t far from where she lives.
Blurring lines between forms
According to Goodman, the choreography and sound in Graveyards and Gardens are intended to do the same things, in parallel, as a plant might do, producing leaves or flowering as seasons change and then returning to the earth and decomposing.
“So a lot of the movement is generated from that idea,” she explains over the phone.
As with many other artistic endeavours, the pandemic introduced challenges for the project. Foremost among them were the travel restrictions.
Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, Shaw worked with Goodman at SFU Woodward’s, then at the Banff Centre for the Arts, and later in artists’ residence on Galiano Island, adding up to about five weeks.
But they were unable to spend several weeks together in Troy, New York, at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Centre, which is a commissioning partner. The pair also missed out on a planned residency in Montreal.
“We’ve been working through the summer and fall remotely on this project,” Goodman says. “We had, I think, four or five weeks in total, prior to that, in person together.”
Shaw was planning to dance in the show, but this won’t occur because the pandemic has kept her from coming to Vancouver for the PuSh festival. But Goodman still plans to sing in Graveyards and Gardens.
“It was meant to be that we were blurring the lines between forms,” Goodman explains. “And the work lived between both forms in a really balanced way. And I hope we still achieve that, even though Caroline won’t be with us live, performing.”
While the show is inspired by greenery and the cycle of life, the actual presentation will incorporate a whole lot of technology.
Shaw said that people who watch the show will hear pieces of a song and observe how it’s developed over time.
Cables and a cassette player
Shaw also revealed that the show includes a mix of old sounds, including from the archives of Thomas A. Edison, who invented the phonograph in 1877.
“You hear an old piano through a wax cylinder,” she says. “It almost sounds like static. That’s blended with the sound of the ocean.
"As it kind of goes on, there are lots of layers: my own voice singing, sometimes solo and sometimes harmonized with an electronic device called a helicon.”
Bits of music on a vinyl record from her string quartet also pop up, as well as house beats, deep synth bass lines, and the sound of a cassette player. According to Shaw, this mixing is all a part of her musical memory.
“That kind of forms a real bed of rhythm underneath a lot of the piece,” Shaw adds.
Then there are the orange sound cables—120 metres of them—that form their own sort of garden perimeter for Goodman’s choreography.
Goodman says that all of it was custom-made locally, delineating the space. That’s in addition to other musical contraptions of the modern era, including looping devices, as well as plants.
“People can expect to see, maybe, references to mechanical gestures and growth and development, but also something organic emerging from the body into the space,” Goodman says.
She first collaborated with Shaw on a short improvised piece in 2016 when Shaw was the composer in residence at Music on Main.
“I actually found new ways to access my body through what she was doing with her voice,” Goodman recalls. “And it became a whole new kind of compositional tool and inspiration for me.” This experience inspired her to buy a microphone and a loop pedal, and she started singing for the first time. She described Shaw as an “incredible teacher”.
“Throughout this creative process, she’s really been fostering my vocals and helping me find ways to interact with the sound score on a deeper level by contributing with my voice.”
That, in turn, has opened up Goodman’s body to moving in different ways. “It’s just expanded my practice in such a huge way,” she says. “I’m so grateful for her.”
Goodman emphasizes that Graveyards and Gardens has always been intended to be an iterative show—and audiences can expect to see Shaw dancing in future performances after the pandemic is over.
In fact, Goodman says it could live on as an album, an artistic installation, or a performance.
“We were always thinking of this work shifting in terms of its needs and our needs as artists,” she notes.
Shaw says that a longer-term goal is, indeed, to release it as an album. But she also likes how the set for the show reflects the feeling of living in the midst of so much technology.
“All of these materials that are part of our world—the cables, the casings from things, and the plastic—all of this is ultimately left behind,” she points out.
She prefers highlighting, rather than hiding, all this technology, including record players, amps, speakers, and cassette players. It’s a way of showing how people can metaphorically become wrapped in a coil of cabling.
“It also looks really cool,” Shaw adds with laugh.