Since forming at the Juilliard School in 2003, the Attacca Quartet has never shied away from taking on big, ambitious projects, working through the canonical repertoire while also expanding it. Following a six-year traversal of Haydn’s 68 string quartets and a critically acclaimed recording of the quartet works of John Adams, Attacca – violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nathan Schram, and cellist Andrew Yee – has launched a new series at National Sawdust, “Recently Added,” devoted to surveys of quartet pieces by contemporary composers.
With events featuring Adams and Michael Ippolito coming in 2017, the series begins on Sunday, Dec. 11 with a program devoted to the quartet works of Pulitzer Prize winning composer, violinist, and Roomful of Teeth singer Caroline Shaw. The quartet initially met Shaw while sharing programs with Roomful of Teeth at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival in August 2015, and immediately set out to learn and share her complete works for quartet, one of her favored idioms.
Recently, the Attacca players took time out from a rehearsal to chat with Shaw about what preparing for the program had been like, and to ask her questions about her development and process. Perhaps inevitably, the first question was “What are you working on right now?”
CAROLINE SHAW: I just finished, last night, a piece for a Swedish choir and Anne Sofie von Otter for a little Christmas show. [all laugh] And a piece for Ensemble Connect, for their Vivaldi program. I’m going to play, too, so it’s kind of Corelli-style, lead from the top.
NATHAN SCHRAM: A string orchestra piece?
SHAW: I think it’ll mostly be string quartet, bass, and oboe. And that’s what I’m thinking about.
AMY SCHROEDER: Well, we couldn’t be more excited to have this concert. We’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. So thanks!
SHAW: Thank you, too. I can’t thank you enough.
ANDREW YEE: We came up with the idea a long time ago, and we were like, Caroline needs to be first – we need to come out doing this. And it’s been really cool getting to know these pieces.
SCHROEDER: We love the vocal aspect of the pieces, because not all quartets are written in that way, and I think it speaks to us really well. When you’re writing them, do you imagine that they’re being sung?
SHAW: I think, yeah, in some cases there’s a lot of tight choral texture. I usually don’t write a lot of high stuff for the violins; everything’s kind of like, if I’m a soprano, I don’t want to go that high. [Laughs] So it’s always sort of vocal and kind of mid-rangy, and then occasionally there’s one of those soaring lines. I don’t think about it explicitly, but I think it’s in there, yeah. And string quartet’s my favorite… well, I can’t say that entirely, but probably my favorite.
SCHRAM: You’ve said that before.
SHAW: I’ve said it before, and I would stand by that statement: It’s my favorite thing to write for, because there are so many great quartets. I mean, the first time I heard Attacca was at Vail… There was such an incredible energy and dedication to the craft of the music and the playing, a real sense of being a quartet.
YEE: That was an amazing summer. That was the first time that we had all heard Roomful of Teeth, as well. I think both sides had been aware of each other on a sort of casual level, but it was cool that we split so many concerts; you could either hang out in the green room and not listen, or do the obvious thing and listen to the other half of the concert. And it was so amazing to have that…like, one day you guys started, and it’s just, “Oh my god, that’s so incredible!” We’d go onstage and we’re like [emphatic] “I love music!” [Laughs] Or we would start the concert, and then at intermission I would talk to the bass section about bass lines and stuff. It was a really amazing time.
SCHROEDER: Hearing Roomful of Teeth, oftentimes what I find really satisfying about playing your pieces is that with the choral writing you’re talking about, those are the kinds of harmonies and sonorities that we crave, I think, as string quartet players. And Roomful of Teeth totally got those kinds of sounds. You guys would get to these chords that were super open, and sometimes far-reaching on either end, and we’d be like, “Yeesssssssss!” [Laughs]
SHAW: That perfect column of sound.
SCHRAM: Every time I hear your music, I feel like people have wanted to hear your music for such a long time. And so when we finally get to hear it, whether it’s Roomful of Teeth playing your music or the string quartet writing that you’ve done, when you hear it, it feels like, “This is what I’ve been wanting to hear.” It’s this cool feeling I get when I hear your music: Why hasn’t this existed yet? It’s hard to describe, but there’s a necessity to what you’ve done; I just know I’ve wanted it for so long, but I don’t know what it is, until someone like you comes along and does that writing. It’s quite simple, but very, very beautiful.
YEE: How early on did you start writing quartets?
SHAW: I think it was the first thing I ever wrote when I was little. It was like: I like music, people write it – I could do that. It didn’t have a key signature. It was a little string quartet that sounded like a middle movement of Mozart, a little… wrong.
YEE: We could do that as an encore.
SHAW: I’m sure it’s still around. It’s at home, in a little spiral-bound notebook. Every note was colored in. Who else writes? [To Schram] You write music. Anyone else?
SCHROEDER: Used to, a lot.
SHAW: What’s the first thing you ever wrote?
SCHRAM: Ummmmm, I think a string trio. It was a viola trio. [Laughter all around]
SHAW: Three violas?
YEE: Was it called “Brown on Brown”?
SCHRAM: [To Shaw] You actually are a really big inspiration for me, because I know you were in a quartet for a long time, and you wrote music just because you wanted to write music. You didn’t have to label yourself as a composer; you were just a musician. And since I’ve gotten to know you I’ve been inspired by that idea. You were just like us, in a way; the separation between performer and composer just really never existed for you. And it’s such a relief that that separation is coming to an end with this movement that you’re such a big part of.
SHAW: I think it’s becoming a lot more common. I just found that playing in a quartet, you’re always inside the music so much. Even if you’re playing F-sharp and you’re third of the chord and you’re second violin, you’re inside that sound. So I found myself always wanting to create it, carve it up and make something new out of that. Sometimes I’d call it “classical music fan fiction” – you’re like, “what if we did that?” It comes from that impulse. I think if all performers felt that able to write music, and felt welcomed into that world, that would be a beautiful world.
SCHROEDER: I used to write for piano all the time because I started playing on piano…
SCHRAM: So it was a viola trio, first? [Laughs]
SCHROEDER: The first piece I wrote that I actually got to perform was for my fifth grade play of Alice in Wonderland, so I wrote the overture and I performed it. It’s on videotape. I was also dressed up in my Tweedle Dee costume, because I had to be Tweedle Dee onstage as well. So they put the spotlight on me at the piano, and I was like, “hee, hee, hee” in my Tweedle Dee costume.
SHAW: And there’s a video?
SCHROEDER: There’s a video, yes. It’s on VHS.
YEE: We’ve got to get that.
SCHROEDER: Playing the piano at a young age is a clear indication of why I became a string quartet player. Even though I love the violin more than anything else in the world, I would play piano every day and improvise and stuff, just because I loved hearing the harmonies with the melody all the time, and I couldn’t do that when I was playing violin by myself in a closet.
SCHRAM: [To Shaw] How have you gotten around that, the idea that you grew up playing violin, I know you sang, I don’t know if you played piano. You have such a beautiful, distinctive sense of harmony. How did that develop out of playing linear instruments?
SHAW: I did play piano a lot, and I loved harmony class, where you do those exercises and you sweat and try to pass the test. I’m not a great pianist and could never perform; there are so many composers who have such great facility, and maybe that changes their sense of harmony and line. But I think the vocal aspect was always part of it. What are you guys working on right now? Oh, besides my music! [Laughs] If you didn’t have to do that…
SCHROEDER: We just finished a big bunch of concerts with some standard rep, like Beethoven…
SCHRAM: We did [Opus] 131.
SCHROEDER: …Mendelssohn, and stuff like that.
SCHRAM: Opus 13.
SCHROEDER: This weekend is Beethoven [Opus] 59/3 and this quartet by Richard Wilson, who’s a composition teacher at Vassar. And we’re doing Shostakovich Eight with Rob Kapilow on Monday for “What Makes It Great,” this program they do over at Merkin [Concert Hall]. So that’s the big stuff for this weekend; it’s like three days: boom, boom, boom.
SHAW: That’s… crazy.
YEE: That’s an Attacca weekend.
SHAW: You guys really love music.
YEE: It’s true. We just overload ourselves with music that we need to be around. And so with your concert on Sunday: at no point did anybody complain about working on your music, because we’re so excited about it that it was inevitable we would have to know it.
SCHRAM: We’re also excited about having it ready to throw on any different program, because it’s so great to share with audiences. We’ve been doing a lot of international travel, and we frequently try to take your music because it’s so universal, in a way. So we’ve really enjoyed that. Actually, we had this idea on our last concert – we backed out, but we had an idea where we’d go from “Entr’acte” attacca into Mendelssohn Op. 13. We ended up not doing it, but the idea that your music is so… it’s not that it’s indistinguishable, but it’s along the same thread as some of the great masterworks that we play.
SHAW: I was playing Op. 13 with my quartet the same year I was writing “Entr’Acte.”
SCHRAM: It’s so special that we can go to really conservative audiences and play your music. We all know these audiences that say, “We’d prefer not to have any new music. Nothing 20th century, definitely not 21st century.” We can put your music on that program, and we’ve changed so many minds just through playing your music.
SCHROEDER: The students at Texas State [University] were so blown away, in “Entr’acte,” at the sort of [breathy exhalation] “hhhaahh” sounds. They were like, “How did you guys do that?”
YEE: Every time we play your music, there’s always at least one person who comes up to us afterward, shaking, being like, “How do I get that? How do I listen to that again? Can I have that?”
SCHROEDER: And we’ll be like, have you guys heard of Roomful of Teeth?
YEE: There’s always a very physical reaction to the music.
SCHRAM: Probably the best testament to this is when we did two Beethoven quartets with your Blueprint in between. People came up to us afterward and were like, “Man, Caroline Shaw’s piece was amazing!” If you’re doing a Beethoven quartet, you almost never hear anyone talking about anything but that Beethoven quartet. When they heard the Beethoven quartet, Blueprint had happened 45 minutes earlier, but they were still talking about it.
SCHROEDER: There’s a program happening next year with Blueprint that I really like. What is that program? It’s got [Beethoven’s Opus] 132 on it…
YEE: And [Mendelssohn’s] Op. 13.
SCHOEDER: Two Beethoven-inspired pieces, and then the Beethoven.
SHAW: It’s on a program with Op. 132 and Op. 13? [lavish sigh] That is so good. Wow.
YEE: We’re pretty pumped about it. I saw that program in an email and I was like, wow, that program is great. And they were like, yeah, we came up with it.
SCHROEDER: We came up with it, Andrew. We crafted that one.
SHAW: Where can I hear that?
SCHRAM: Spartanburg, S.C.
SCHROEDER: But we’ve pitched it for somewhere in New York, so we’ll let you know.
SHAW: Thanks for playing Blueprint in the context of Beethoven, which is what it’s meant for.
SCHRAM: It’s funny we didn’t put it with [Op.] 18/6, which is what it’s based on, but it seems to work just as well with other Beethoven quartets.
STEVE SMITH: What is the complete program for this concert?
SCHRAM: We’re starting off with Entr’acte…
SCHROEDER: Valencia is next…
YEE: Plan & Elevation, Punctum…
SCHRAM: And Blueprint.
SHAW: I’m so scared to hear all of this together! [Laughs]
SCHRAM: We tried calling this “The Complete Caroline Shaw Quartets,” but you keep writing more.
SCHROEDER: We’ll have to have a “Recently Added Two” series.
SHAW: I hope I get to write for you guys some time.
SCHRAM: Ummm: sure.
YEE: We hadn’t gotten around to making the official request yet, but…
SCHRAM: …here it is.
YEE: “Write us a piece, please – question mark?”
SHAW: We should talk about that some time – what you guys are interested in, musically, and how we could shape it together.
SCHRAM: When people come to you asking for a piece, how often do people request something specific, versus someone saying “write whatever you’d like,” and which do you prefer?
SHAW: I like specific requests. Usually if they say, “write whatever you want,” I try to carve down some specifics: What’s the audience, what are you programming on the concert, what do you like to play? I usually want to know something about the people and what they’ve been programming in the last couple of years, what they gravitate to, how they play. But usually it’s a timing request.
SCHRAM: It’s funny, commissions so often are based on the event, the concert. And what we’re trying to do is give your works further legs. The fact that you didn’t write a piece just for Wolf Trap, or any of the places that you wrote them for – that they will have their own sort of journey, and different groups that they’ll find.
SHAW: It’s hugely important, and I’m so grateful to you guys for doing it – not just for my music but for others. That’s the problem: pieces often are performed once, maybe twice, and then they disappear. I’ve written so many pieces in the last year; which ones of those will even leave the vacuum? I still think about it. It’s an important service you’re doing for the world, to disseminate the music.
STEVE SMITH: There’s also a benefit to having a composer’s body of work in the hands of one group, because you’re going to pick up on connections, references, and echoes that a lay listener won’t necessarily hear right away.
SCHROEDER: And for us, having just done all 68 Haydn quartets, we’ve realized that this is how you get to know a composer. You hopefully have more insight into their works by playing all of their works, a different sort of idea you get. And eventually, hopefully, we’ll do that with Beethoven and other composers who we love. It’s important, I think; all those works are somehow influenced by each other, and it’s interesting to see the progression of composition.
TOKUNAGA: It is a relationship between composers and performers. Most of the time, the other side is dead. [Laughter all around] But this is amazing; we have been working on her stuff, and there are things that are very clearly written on paper: “Oh, clearly this is what she means.” And then there are places where we could ask her to listen to the way we think might be good, and then there’s definitely going to be a conversation – as opposed to, well, Beethoven’s dead, so I guess we’ll just do this sforzando here and that’s that.
SCHROEDER: It seems like it’s this kind of sforzando at this particular moment, and then we’ll discuss why.
YEE: With the 68, that did hook us on the idea to just bring everything in, and in a very small…it took us six years, but it was a lot of quartets. By the end, we were like, oh, yeah, [gesturing in multiple directions] there’s that, and there’s that, and there’s that. And I think that we were craving that kind of thing: that we would learn all these pieces in a very short amount of time, and that we would get to that place [sings a line from Point & Elevation] and be like, oh, yeah, there’s a little thing from Entr’acte in there.
SHAW: Oh, yeah, that one actually does have little bits of Entr’acte in it.
YEE: And it’s amazing, because otherwise we might not have known. It still would have been effective, but it’s cool to just be in that small space with all of those pieces.
SCHOEDER: It was like that with Haydn, absolutely: Oh, look, he quotes himself.
SHAW: It does happen. In that case, that movement is all about these cuttings of flowers and all these different pieces – there’s a lot of stuff thrown in there. But that’s what I’m scared about on Sunday – I’m going to hear these patterns that I do, that I didn’t realize: “Ohhhh, god, I do that all the time!”
TOKUNAGA: But that’s also like your signature.
SCHRAM: As distinctive as your music is, I never at any point during rehearsal, when we were doing a lot of your music, felt like I’m tired of the sound. And your sound is always changing quite a bit. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.
SHAW: That’s why I like writing string quartets. Of all the things I write, it’s like coming back to a home base, and feeling like I want to, at the end of my life, be able to look back and see that those are the places where I hopefully grew the most. And I’m also excited to get to know you as Attacca Quartet, through hearing your voice filtered through one composer, just like you did with the Haydn.
The Attacca Quartet plays works by Caroline Shaw on Sunday, Dec. 11 at 5 p.m. at National Sawdust; www.nationalsawdust.org