Amy Miller

The 21st century composers I have researched this semester all tend to share one factor in their music; cultural relevancy. The questions that surround relevancy in music are:  1) How does a composer keep his or her music relevant amidst the ever-changing music tastes of our society?  2) Can one compose in a musically relevant manner while simultaneously making the music likable, relatable, and up-to-date with the current times and events taking place around us?  Caroline Shaw has answered those questions through the newly released album, Orange (April 2019) featuring the Attacca Quartet, which is devoted to her single-movement string quartets. Caroline Shaw uses the string quartet to re-connect with the classical tradition while innovating and developing the genre to make classical music more accessible and appealing to a broader audience.

Caroline Shaw was classically trained in Greenville, South Carolina. She began playing violin at the age of two, studying with her mother. In high school, Shaw formed the Atticus Quartet, where she played violin and occasionally composed music for the group. As Shaw’s recognition as a composer progressed, her writing style became more distant from the classical tradition. After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2019, Shaw received numerous commissions for both traditional and unorthodox instrumentations and settings. Nevertheless, she kept going back to the string quartet format to keep herself grounded in the classical tradition. “It’s like a check-in point for me, something that I always have cooking on the stove. Writing quartets is the thing I come back to after my other projects take me in different directions.”

The album Orange represents a new partnership between the Nonesuch and New Amsterdam labels. This partnership serves as a platform for contemporary composers to share and promote their works. This album featured the Attacca Quartet playing a collection of Caroline Shaw’s un-commissioned string quartets in an effort to shed light on works written by a living composer. These works sound fresh and unlike any other string quartets from the standard repertoire. Caroline Shaw sometimes uses traditional forms, such as minuet and trio, while incorporating extended techniques, odd meters, contemporary harmonies, unusual textures, and a variety of timbres and colors. Within all of this complexity, her music is very consonant and easy to listen to. Her tasteful use of old and new concepts has successfully appealed to a wide range of audiences. Shaw’s music on the album Orange has spread her success as an established contemporary composer and created a new face to the traditional string quartet ensemble, bringing awareness to those who don’t normally listen to classical music.

In conclusion, Caroline Shaw’s music is inventive and creative, it can be enjoyed by musically trained people as well as non-musically trained people. It is easy to listen to, complex, and fun. Her colorful textures are vivid in the sense that they evoke many emotions and it gives the listener a sense of a story line, making her one of the great contemporary composers of today’s world.


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