Last week I found myself descending into a crypt at the Church of the Intercession, an eerily quiet and somber space that the Attacca Quartet deftly transformed with their performance of some of the most jubilant music I’ve ever heard. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I took my seat for Attacca’s “impromptu CD release” – presented as part of The Crypt Sessions, a series produced by Unison Media – during which they would play roughly 75 minutes of music, all by Caroline Shaw, and all of which can be found on their new album, Orange.
The crypt was illuminated by flickering candles, and although the space was chilly, my body felt warm from the wine I’d consumed at the pre-concert reception. I had avoided listening to the album beforehand so that the live experience would feel surprising and new, and I became so overwhelmed by Shaw’s glorious music that this review risks sounding like fan mail.
Although we were seated in a crypt – a place of death, darkness, and subterranean stasis – the space was quickly filled with liveliness as the four performers dived into the music, which they clearly adore. Their timing and precision were exquisite, but what struck me most was their unabashed happiness. Even when not listening to music in a crypt, the space of classical music can feel very serious and self-important, so it was refreshing to feel a sense of buoyancy radiating from all four musicians. Cellist Andrew Yee frequently broke into an open-mouthed smile, and occasionally even lifted his instrument in the air with his feet, so enthralled was he by the music. Second violinist Keiko Tokunaga maintained a sublime tone throughout, but particularly during her almost unbearably high-pitched passages in Ritornello, which first violinist Amy Schroeder described as “different every time” because of the spirit of improvisation and fluidity that the performers and Shaw herself have brought to the piece.
Orange continues the engagement with “classical” structures and idioms that we can hear in Shaw’s earlier work, such as her 2013 Partita for 8 Voices. Shaw’s musical language revels in the wonderment offered by bringing together the old and the new; her music conveys the familiar in unfamiliar ways. Shaw’s new album is described in its liner notes by partners Nonesuch and New Amsterdam Records as “a garden that she and Attacca Quartet are tending.” This garden is “a rich environment where traces of what has grown there before – left by Haydn, Mozart, Ravel, Bartok, Bach, Monteverdi, and Josquin – provide nourishment for new life.” Shaw’s music, though chock full of quotations and witticisms, manages to clearly communicate her own voice, which is one of eager yet patient curiosity. She isn’t quoting dead composers to be tongue-in-cheek or to make a fool of anyone; instead, her sound world is genuine, earnest, and almost childlike in its joyousness.
The Attacca Quartet played six pieces from her new album. Entr’acte is a vigorous exploration of “traditional” harmony and counterpoint within unexpected textures. Punctum continues the vibe of church music gone off the rails. This piece centers on what violist Nathan Schram stated that Shaw has described as sounding like “the tiniest little silkworms making silk.” Plan & Elevation is inspired by the Dumbarton Oaks Garden & Estate in Washington, D.C., where Shaw has held a residency. Stravinsky also wrote a piece about these gardens (his 1937-1938 Concerto in E-flat “Dumbarton Oaks”), a neoclassical chamber concerto from which Shaw’s quartet “could not be more different,” Yee explained. This piece was more cinematic than the others, with motoric lines chugging along and suddenly whisking the listeners away into quotations from Shaw’s favorite string quartets (including her own). I found myself smiling not only at the snippets of Ravel, but also at the enthusiasm and intensity that Attacca brought to Shaw’s musical patchwork.
Blueprint was more directly inspired by sounds from the past; Tokunaga explained that it was inspired by Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 18, No. 6, but is still “full of witty Caroline-isms.” The musicians whizzed along, seemingly racing the candles burning and waning behind them. Ritornello was even more energetic; Shaw originally wrote the piece for the JACK Quartet but had “kind of rewritten it” for Attacca, who ultimately decided to layer in elements of improvisation such that it is now “different every time.” Ritornello is a truly living work which, rather than adhering to a stabilized musical score or archaic notion of “truth,” expands in live performance according to the mood and shifting approach to its whispering, skipping, dashing melodies.
Attacca rounded out their “Crypt Session” with Valencia, which Yee prefaced simply with, “This is about an orange.” When their final note rang against the stone walls, I found myself mildly devastated and immediately wished they would play more.
All six pieces communicated a cohesive musical language that never grew tiresome. I never found my mind wandering, and only wished that the sounds would continue. Lately I’ve been to a lot of new music concerts with a political focus, where composers attempt to bring attention to tragedies or injustices in the world, or to musicalize their resistance to systemic oppression. And although I appreciate these concerts when the music can live up to its authors’ moral impositions, it was refreshing to attend a concert that wasn’t foisting a moralistic message upon its audience. This music wasn’t really “about” anything political—and that’s okay.
Instead, it’s “about” simple beauty in the world, like oranges and plants and even other music. I found myself deeply moved by what Attacca describes as “the unassuming honesty of every passage and the profound effect it has on ourselves and our audiences.” Despite her penchant for quotation, Shaw’s musical voice is truly unique and unparalleled.
Rebecca S. Lentjes is a writer and feminist activist based in NYC. Her work has appeared in VAN Magazine, Music & Literature, Sounding Out!, TEMPO, and I Care If You Listen. By day she works as a translator and assistant editor at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; by night she hatches schemes to dismantle the patriarchy.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
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