Taxidermy was composed in 2012 by Caroline Shaw for Sō Percussion. The title, Taxidermy, was chosen by Shaw because of what she associates it with. Some of these include: awkward, silent, funny, and creepy, which are represented throughout the piece. Shaw accomplishes this by exploring different timbres with the instrumentation, implement choices, layering of voices, and the harmonies created during the piece. 

The piece begins with flower pots laid at an angle, played with yarn mallets. This creates a somber, and slightly demented, beginning to the piece as the flower pots are not perfectly in tune with each other. Not long after the beginning, other players use the wooden shaft of their mallets to provide a bright, stark contrast to the beginning material. This leads to a moment of chaos that decrescendos to almost nothing. This section repeats once again in a shorter segment. All the while this is happening, two players are providing a steady rhythmic accompaniment throughout the seemingly random interjections of bright sounds. This overall “A section” perfectly captures the essence of what Shaw previously described as “creepy and awkward”. 

Once the vibraphone and marimba enter, the piece takes on a slightly happier demeanor. The two keyboard instruments provide clear melodic and harmonic lines in contrast to the distorted sound of the flower pots heard earlier. Shaw develops this character by having the flower pots play a more intricate rhythmic pattern over the melodic patterns provided by the vibraphone. This gives the piece the “awkwardness” through a mixture of tonalities and timbral characteristics of all the instruments being performed. This entire section can be heard as a “B section” as there are new instruments introduced, new rhythmic development, and a difference in overall tonality.

The “A section” material is re-introduced again, however this time it develops with melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic material over the previously heard harmonic accompaniment from the beginning. This section can be heard as an “A’ section” due to the similar material being repeated along with the primary voices only being flower pots. In contrast to the very beginning all flower pots are only played with yarn and the rhythmic patterns develop into new material. The performers begin to say, “the detail of the pattern is movement”. This is critical as there is a final element placed on top of the texture that completely displaces the sense of meter.             

Shaw composed a piece that is unique in instrumentation, approach, and timbre characteristics. She explored different colors with several different sized flower pots, the use of implements, and the use of common percussion instruments. Along with the compositional techniques used, Shaw is able to tie this piece to the classical western tradition by using a Ternary Form. This is clearly heard throughout the work with the return of different music ideas that develop each time they are present. Overall Shaw has created a work that uses a variety of timbres, and a musical form that is common throughout western classical music.

Trice Mayhall


“Taxidermy”. YouTube Video, 10:07. Posted by “Adele Dusenbury”, February 19, 2018.

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