Caroline Shaw: Valencia for String Quartet (2012)
Jasper String Quartet; from their album Unbound
Caroline Shaw’s Valencia for String Quartet, written in 2012, contains a tangy vivacity suggested by the title, which refers to the Valencia orange, a type known for its bright floral sweetness and juiciness. Masterfully performed by the great Jasper String Quartet, Valencia is truly a feast for the ears. More frequently using the quartet in Americana folk-like textures rather than overt singing melodies with functional harmony and voice leading, Valencia is a piece with structural ingenuity and a convincing dramatic narrative. Permeated by repetitive musical fragments that expand and contract rhythmically and harmmonically, the piece leads the listener comfortably from section to section while always hanging on to something that has happened previously. In other words, Shaw uses the compositional device of memory to keep the listener engaged in the music through its almost 6-minute journey.
Memory plays an intrinsic role in the success of this music. Each new section contains something that harkens back to the previous section, while presenting something as fresh and new as a Valencia orange ripe off the vine. In other words, when at one moment, two textures are layered together, one of these textures will hold through to the next section while the second texture will drop out, only to be replaced by a texture that defines the character of the next section, almost like stitching two pieces of fabric together like a chain link fence. The texture presented is always layered with contrasting material, for example if the violins both have pulsating harmonics that remain stationary on a certain pitch, the viola and cello present short, jabbing material that moves vertically in pitch and in syncopated rhythm; if the cello and viola share a long, creeping crescendo, the violins will contrast this with a stationary vamp on a harmony, which relies heavily on the use of fifths (thus giving it its folk like quality). Upon the piece’s conclusion, one might be able to generalize and say that the piece is in ternary form — we are gifted with a return to a memory of the original pulsating violin harmonics from the opening of the piece in its finale. The textures, overall, while reminiscent of Americana or Nordic folk traditions of string music, are also heavily influenced, it seems, by Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor.
The piece does not sound similar to music written 200 years ago, but it does, however, sound very similar to music that was written 100 years ago, most notably the music of Debussy, Ravel, Bartok and Kodaly. Caroline Shaw does not stray too far from the centuries old Western classical tradition that came before her, which has always existed tangentially and parallel to folk traditions of the many European countries where it originated (such as in the Hungarian folk influence in the music of Bartok and Kodaly). She pays great tribute to her influences in her music while presenting a fresh, youthful, playful, light-hearted and folk-influenced sound that has taken the contemporary classical music scene by storm. Upon listening to Valencia and her other string quartet music, it is immediately apparent to me that, above all else, Caroline Shaw values the careful passage of time in her music; she treats each transition with utmost care to ensure that each new idea enters the fabric of her work in the most organic way possible, unraveling in a similar fashion to a stream of consciousness novel like William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury.