Caroline Shaw

Carlos Barba


Caroline Shaw is the youngest composer to have won the Pulitzer Prize since its inception in 1943. She is a violinist, singer, composer, and producer who is based in New York and is active in a variety of projects including the Grammy Award-winning Roomful of Teeth and the internationally-acclaimed Attacca Quartet. She has collaborated, produced, and commissioned for world renowned musicians and ensembles such as Kanye West, Renee Fleming, Dover Quartet, Baltimore Symphony, Anne Sofie Von Otter, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Julliard 415, and many more[1]. I strongly believe Caroline Shaw is the epitome of what a musician should strive to be.

The majority of the great composers that are admired and idolized from the Baroque, Renaissance, and Romantic periods, were well-rounded performers, composers, educators, arrangers, and orchestrators. This common trait was lost during the 21st century as musicians became more specialized in specific areas, such as performing or composing. Modern classical composers, such as Kevin Puts, started their professional careers as both performers and composers but eventually stopped performing live and focused on their compositional output[2]. Caroline Shaw is somewhat younger than Puts, but she shows no signs of slowing down her performing career. She is constantly performing internationally with a variety of orchestras and ensembles, as well as with her own projects.

Shaw defines, or presents herself as a musician. She believes this umbrella term is a good representation of all the activities she does on a regular basis. “I like the implications that it has in the music world; it’s just a very inclusive word that could mean the performers, composers, writers, improvisers.”[3] I think it is great that she generally does not place more importance in one area of music over the other, at least when she is labeling herself. In that same interview she mentions that improvisation is also an important part of her life. She usually does not improvise in a live performance but there is definitely some improvisation when she composes or when she rehearses with certain ensembles.        

Composers such as Chopin, Bach, and Mozart, among others, are well known for having been great improvisers. I know there are people around the world who improvise within the classical tradition, but it is definitely a rare thing to witness. I wish improvising and composing were part of the standard classical music education alongside performing and teaching. Learning these skills will yield generations of better, more versatile musicians that can do a variety of things. Some musicians I’ve spoken to in the past fear that focusing on several areas will take time away from their main skill or concentration. This is true to a certain degree, but Caroline Shaw is a great example and living proof that exceling in several areas within music is possible. It takes a lot more time and devotion to stand out in multiple areas but I definitely look forward to being a more complete and versatile musician such as Caroline Shaw.


Opera America. “Salon Series | An Evening with Kevin Puts.” YouTube, YouTube, 15 Jan. 2013,

Caroline Shaw. “Caroline Shaw.” (accessed April 20, 2019).

“Composer, Singer Caroline Shaw Wins 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music.” Choral Director 10, no. 3 (May 2013): 4.

Martin, Katherine. “DePauw’s School of Music: Interview with Caroline Shaw.” YouTube, YouTube, 29 Sept. 2014,

[1] “Composer, Singer Caroline Shaw Wins 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music.”

[2] Opera America. “Salon Series | An Evening with Kevin Puts.”

[3] Martin, Katherine. “DePauw’s School of Music: Interview with Caroline Shaw.”

Bringing the Past into the Present

Caroline Shaw was born in Greenville, North Carolina in the year 1982. She is an American composer, and an active violinist and vocalist. Through listening to her music, it is clear Shaw has developed a unique compositional voice that blends western classical traditions, folk hymns, world music, and her own unique compositional voice. Some characteristics of her music include the use of extended techniques, repetition and development of themes, and a sense of “simplicity” as the overall aesthetic of many of her compositions. This approach is different from many modern composers who try to push the envelope of musical expression to a new level. Caroline Shaw composes in a way that explores musicality in a manner that is accessible to a wide variety of audiences. One unique aspect surrounding some of Shaw’s works is the use of older pieces as compositional material and inspiration for her works.

In an interview with the Seattle Symphony about her piano concerto Watermark, Shaw talks about the process behind finding material for the piece. Shaw drew inspiration from different themes and motives found in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and wanted to explore the essence of the piece. Shaw presents different musical ideas that she has written, different themes written by Beethoven that she has altered, and even direct quotes from Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. This results in a composition that shows clear ties to the past while showing a modern direction for new compositions. Another example of this process is how she wrote By and By.

By and By is based on different hymns that are taken from their original contexts. Shaw explores different tonalities, timbres, and musical combinations throughout this piece to dig into the meaning of the words. In Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown, there are moments where the strings are supporting the vocals with light accompaniment. At other points, the stings are playing unison staccato chords to provide a contrast in feel. She approaches I’ll Fly Away by taking the harmonic aspect of the hymn and trying to develop different ways it can be heard. This mixture of hymns and modern music creates a very unique composition that is very accessible to many listeners in the way it is presented. Caroline Shaw has incorporated non-western musics into many of her works. 

One in particular is Taxidermy, where Shaw has used inspiration from Balinese gamelan music to influence the instrumentation of the work. In the case of Taxidermy, she included flower pots as a melodic instrument. When played simultaneously, the instruments produce a timbre similar to the gamelan instruments. The instruments are traditionally slightly out of tune with one another, which creates a shimmering effect between each instrument. In Taxidermy, this is heard between the timbre of the flower pots and keyboard instruments. Shaw also explores other musical areas from gamelan style, including a cyclic form and musical development. Throughout the piece, a common theme is introduced for a moment. After a brief period, the theme is gradually elaborated upon until it takes on a completely new character. These are used throughout Taxidermyto continually give the piece forward motion and development.

Throughout these three compositions, there are many different influences from classical traditions, folk hymns, and world music that are present. Shaw is also able to take components of these musical areas, then put her own musical voice into the mix. The result are pieces that stand in many different musical arenas. Shaw is able to bring many aspects of the classical tradition into the modern age, and also move it in a new direction. Her pieces are unique, full of heritage, and can be viewed as compositions that serve the role as a multi-faceted musical work that can take a listener to any area of music they may want to hear. 

Trice Mayhall



“a: Gamelan ensembles and instrumentation.” Oxford Music Online.26 Apr. 2019.

Chacko, Rachel. 2014 “American gamelan.” Grove Music Online.26 Apr. 2019.

Harnish, David. 2013 “Gamelan.” Grove Music Online.26 Apr. 2019.

McGraw, Andrew C. 2014 “Balinese gamelan.” Grove Music Online.27 Apr. 2019.

McLEAN, EDWIN. “Understanding Contemporary Music.” American Music Teacher 27, no. 1 (1977): 17.

Wilhoite, Meg. 2015 “Shaw, Caroline.” Grove Music Online.26 Apr. 2019.


“At the Piano with Jonathan Biss and Caroline Shaw / Seattle Symphony”. YouTube Video, 13:46. Posted by “Seattle Symphony”, January 30, 2019.

Caroline Shaw

Many times the work of a composer is influenced by a certain musical style or compositional technique that makes them unique. Caroline Shaw is an American singer, violinist and composer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in music and the youngest to win this award in music. Most of his pieces are musically easy to hear for the audience. Extensive harmonies, variety of timbres and textures are some characteristics that make her music accesible  to a wider public. But what composer or musical style can directly influence the work of this great composer?.

In an interview, Caroline Shaw explains that her favorite music is the music of the 17th and 18th century, due to the essential contributions to the choral and vocal repertoire. Among the characteristics that she mentions are the use of extended chords and vocal sounds, in addition to how the text enters correctly while the vocal lines stand out.

The music of the 17th century continues to stand out today for the performer and the composer. Cesar Garcia Alvarez, professor at the University of Leon (ULE), comments that the musicians of the 21st-century ¨are heirs¨ of the baroque musical forms. The clear example of this legacy is Caroline Shaw, besides expressing her favoritism for the music of the Baroque, it is also heard in her work. Her choral works are the best example of this. It is motion keeps, Partita for eight voices, and  Music in Common Time, are the best examples since they demonstrate vocal and choral qualities typical of the Baroque in combination with the extended techniques. Other characteristics that demonstrate the influence of what is the correct use of counterpoint, the use of children’s voices helps to recreate the timbres of the sacred music of the 16th and 17th centuries.

In addition to the 17th century, also within the work of Shaw are influences of 18th-century music, for example in her Entr’acte string quartet. It does not matter if this piece is not from the vocal repertoire since it demonstrates the clear example of the inheritance of the style in contemporary music. Entr’acte is inspired by the opus 77 no. 2 From Haydn. The composer sought to recreate the fundamental characteristics of the minuet and trio using modern technology, then make a transition to a trio in D flat major and then return to the minuet. It is merely interesting how it combines the musical forms of the 17th and 18th century with profound harmonic changes as well as using the extended techniques to add even more contrast in the music.

It does not stop being attractive as the material of past ages comes to influence composers in different ways. However, the influence of this music on Caroline Shaw is interesting. Reaching the characteristics of the 17th and 18th century in its purest form are possible by combining them with the modern technics of tonal music to create a unique voice in its type, reaching more variety of audience than other works.

Alejandro Carrillo Pastrana


Allen, David. ¨ A Composer Who Finds The Soft Sighs in Haydn.¨ ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (December 2015): pg. C4. (accessed April 29, 2019).

¨PBO SESSIONS: An Evening with Caroline Shaw.¨ Youtube video. 1:45:37. Posted by ¨Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale.¨ April 29, 2019.

¨What Influences Caroline Shaw?.¨ Youtube video. 1:11. Posted by ¨ MendelssohnClub.¨ April 29, 2019.


Caroline Shaw

Entr’acte by Caroline Shaw is perfect mix between joy and anxiety. Caroline Shaw is a composer who makes several connections to the past while still making an effort to create new sounds that are well blended into classical traditions.

The composer works with harmony in a fascinating way. At first she uses joyful melodies that capture your attention as a listener. The texture of this piece is mostly thin because of the constant parallel movement except for when she suddenly adds chromatic passages. Caroline incorporates extremely dramatic dynamic contrast throughout this work. For example, the beginning of work is expressed with swells of sounds that diminuendo quickly. The effect it creates is like push and pull of sound. I would consider the nature of her work to be gentle and light-hearted. When it comes to rhythm, there are often moving eighth notes that help you keep track of time. This is especially helpful when she quickly increases and decreases the tempo of the music creating a push and pull effects. The composer also uses chromaticism frequently as a transition to either go to a new section or to repeat a section. Minor extended techniques are used in this modern work. For instance, the one technique that stood out the most was when the performers dampened their strings and continued to bow on the strings in a similar rhythmic pattern to the melody from the beginning of the piece. The form of this piece is similar to that of a Minuet. The beginning is the Minuet and the middle section is a bouncy and lively trio played mostly in pizzicato that later transitions back to the original theme.

As for the connection to the past, I hear several traits that make connections to more traditional styles of Western classical composition. Many open harmonies and parallel motions are present which remind me of musical composition form the renaissance period. Another major trait that I noticed was the form she chose to compose her music in. As I mentioned before, there is a connection between the classic minuet and trio and this piece. This ternary form, like a common minuet, has its three sections of ABA’. Although the recapitulation is not exact in the trio section, the composer hints back to it by ending the piece with a gentle strumming of the strings from the cello. There are also some hints of folkloric playing techniques. More specifically, in the transition from the trio to the recapitulation. While the viola plays arpeggios, the first and second violin play in parallel fourths, creating a folk-like sound.

In conclusion, Caroline Shaw is a composer who is clearly tied to traditional western practices. Although she works with several techniques and sounds that don’t apply to older traditions, she still makes several connections to the past.

Leroy Medina


Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte is a piece written for a string quartet, one of the most respected and commonly used genres in chamber music. One might expect this particular composition to be worlds away from the works historically written for this genre, as Entr’acte was composed by a 21st-century composer. However, upon listening to the piece, I was surprised to discover that Shaw does not conform to these expectations, but instead has created a work that incorporates many elements that can easily be tied back into the Western art classical tradition. With its homophonic texture, clear form and relatively stable tonality, there is little room left in the piece for ambiguity. Even so, Shaw uses every bit of space available to her with rapid meter changes and extended techniques, resulting in an incredibly well rounded piece that provides the listener with a taste of 21st-century compositional characteristics. Entr’acte is a masterfully written work that merges different eras of music, Classical and contemporary, in the most elegant, tasteful way, capturing and preserving the attention of the audience.

    Entr’acte is staged in a Minuet and Trio structure, a form that thrived in the 18th-century. The Minuet, set in the key of D minor, showcases a nostalgic, emotionally charged melody. With each subsequent return, this lyrical theme develops further, both dynamically and harmonically. The expressiveness is enhanced by the driven, ostinato rhythm, set in compound triple meter. In the Minuet, Shaw juxtaposes this poeticism with ambivalence in harmony, as well as voice-like, whispering effects, created by the musicians bowing the body of their instruments. Shaw then returns to the opening statement, creating a rounded binary form within the Minuet.

The Trio presents itself in the key of E-flat Major, unrelated to the initial D minor key of the Minuet. This change in key from major to minor provides contrast with a clear separation between the two sections, enticing the listener even more. The Trio, with its binary form, sets off on an emotional journey ranging from the resonant, consonant melodies in the A section, to the direct quotation of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres in the B section. In the opening section of the Trio, Shaw provides simple harmonies and phrasing, reminiscent of the Classical style of composing. While the violist and the second violinist are coloring the music and keeping the rhythm grounded with left hand pizzicatos, the first violinist and cellist are playfully imitating each other, resulting in an “echo” effect. The A section is then contrasted with the driven Fratres quote found in the viola part, the protagonist of the B section. Shaw puts the violist in charge of creating tension through harmony and dynamics in its heavily textured, arpeggiated line. The meter is emphasizing this culmination further, constantly shifting from duple to mixed, abandoning our predictions of the triple meter commonly used in Trio sections. Prior to the return of the Minuet, the piece slowly dissipates through false harmonics and downward glissandos, which creates a “falling down” effect. It appears as though Shaw intended to convey a different mood for the return of the opening theme, now making it dreary and weary. The very end features the cello alone, arpeggiating pizzicato chords, bringing the listener back to the familiar D minor key, and adding a sentimental longing for the past.

Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte features a wide variety of styles, merging together the music from the Classical period, the 20th and the 21st-century. The quartet presents an ever-changing journey where the compositional ideas organically flow and melt into one another, all the while preserving the sense of familiarity through form, and nostalgia through harmony. Shaw created an attention grabbing piece whose elegance will leave no audience member unimpressed.

Ivana Biliskov

Recording used:

Mutters and Exhales

Ashley Venegas; 4/24/19

Caroline Adelaide Shaw

So Quietly (Live recording November 20, 2016)

For a cappella choir

Certainly, I have an affinity towards music that implements string, wind, and percussive instruments lest I forget another “voice” within the ensembles. One can narrowly think of the human voice as just a means for conversation and, unfortunately, forget that it, too, has history and traditions in the musical world. As an instrumentalist, I delve into the wind and orchestral areas with a greater fervor, regarding compositions, composers, famous musicians, musical styles, and the overall history that follows them. Since I noticed my inattentiveness to the vocal area, I found it important to review a vocal piece that is by our selected composer of the week. Caroline Shaw, an American composer, is famously known for her creative manipulation of the voice in her a cappella composition Partita for 8 Voices. Shaw’s So Quietly is a commissioned a cappella work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and features a transformative story with percussive breaths and a cycle of dynamic and textual tension and release points that build the overall “character” who struggles to find their “voice” in the world.

Within the introduction of the work, the sopranos and alto voices sing a unison rhythm on the syllables “Da dat” and “Ahh” in a 4/4-time signature. As the work progresses, the sopranos reach up to their head voices, creating noticeable register distance between the altos as they both repeat the same rhythmic motive from the introduction. There is a moment where the choir breaks into a new section by having four groups separately inhaling breaths on beats 1, 2, 3, and 4. After this moment, long-sustained canon phrases and silences create an unpredictable sense of time as the choir beings to build upon thicker polyphonic textures and gradually crescendos to a forte dynamic. The choir returns to a 4/4-time signature as the altos steadily breathe on counts 2 and 4, immediately adding breathes on each 8th note of the measure; the sopranos return to melodic vocal line with clearly articulated words in a softer dynamic.

Throughout the work, the choir constantly switches between sections of stable 4/4-time signatures and areas where there seems to be free time. Within the stable 4/4 time, the choir tends to sing in a unison rhythmic pattern and the voices build a polyphonic texture; the lyrics during this section are enunciated with clarity. During the sections of free time, the choir tends to have a thicker polyphonic texture (more divisi parts), louder dynamics, and the text is often repeated in a canon which makes the words a bit indiscernible. Half way in work, the choir intertwines the 4/4-time signature with the text “I’ll just sit here” as the other half of the choir has “Ah” phrases in free time. The text and these two contrasting sections of the work illustrate a story of a person (or group) that is afraid to be vocal about any issue, but they gradually gain strength to talk (sing) about these issues without worrying about others opinions.

In regards to the text, the first words are simply syllables of “Das” that eventually turn into the monotonous pattern of “Maybes”, symbolizing a person who is unsure of confronting an issue at hand. Following in succession, the imitative polyphony of “Nevermind, you I” and “Could you I think…if maybe” give hint that the person wishes to be vocal, while the next set of words, “I don’t want to be quiet” is sung in a louder dynamic and show the roundabout thoughts and struggle within them. While the person contemplates to “…just sit here” and not confront the issue, the words abruptly shift to “I won’t just sit here” but again there is a cycle of vocals that go back and forth between these two phrases. Ultimately, the person in the story believes that they will make a difference in the world by “ever-singing” and begin to be vocal on issues they find are important. While the words are not complex, the structure of the lyrics in the work is quite impressive. When the choir has percussive breathes or no text (words), the choir helps create a sense of anxiety as the lack of vocals and deep breathes represent a person who is holding back their words and thoughts (although they eventually surface as the work goes on). In addition, when the person in the story is reluctant about voicing their beliefs, the choir has a softer dynamic but as they build strength of their “voice” and character, the choir develops a thick, polyphonic texture and has a strong forte dynamic.

As I further analyzed the work, I understood that the choir was singing a song that could not be considered liturgical or sacred music. Medieval choral music had unaccompanied (a cappella) Gregorian chant that was monophonic and was free in terms of a time signature, but during the latter half of the Middle Ages music began to shift towards using more polyphonic textures and secular texts. Within “So Quietly”, the text of the work is not sacred but rather secular as the lyrics involve a story of a person becoming vocal about their own beliefs and features such polyphonic textures. The use of non-sacred text and polyphony is like the shift towards secular music during the late Middles Ages and Renaissance Era, which included non-religious topics such as love songs and political satire. Shaw does implement 21st-century harmonies that are reminiscent of Eric Whitacre as the cluster of chords that envelop the “room” are thick with textures and sounds. When taken into consideration, the secular text of So Quietly can also be viewed as a change from the following expected beliefs (such as religion) to transitioning towards an independent mindset by the end of the work. Nevertheless, Shaw has created a rather interesting choral work that does not shy away from a mix of traditional features such as imitation, but also includes the “newer” concepts of cluster chords and percussive breaths into So Quietly.


“Brooklyn Youth Chorus Sings Caroline Shaw’s ‘So Quietly’.” YouTube video, 5:35. Posted by “WQXR,” February 8, 2017. (accessed April 24, 2019).

Its Motion Keeps

Carlos Barba


After listening to Caroline Shaw’s composition for treble choir and solo viola, I was astonished at what a youth choir could accomplish in a live performance. The music is deceivingly complex and intricate. The Grammy Award-winning Brooklyn Youth Chorus, by whom the work was commissioned, excels in all aspects of musicality. The sound of young female voices creates a very specific and characteristic palette of colors, from which Shaw chose very creatively. The viola part provides a very light, yet beautiful accompaniment that contributes to this interesting and unusual soundscape.

This form of this piece is trough-composed. There are slight repetitions of motives or lyrics throughout, but no clear repetition of sections. Although the form and sections are ambiguous and open to interpretation, I would argue that there are three main sections. The first section is full of imitation in the different vocal parts. The lyrics “my days, my weeks, my months, my years” are being passed around in a very polyphonic texture. All of this is accompanied by a pizzicato line in the viola. After this intricate texture goes on for a while, there is a stopping point where the voices arrive at a unison and the viola begins bowing fast notes in a rhythmic and somewhat aggressive manner. This can definitely be perceived as a different character. The first section is harmonically stable and diatonic, but this middle section shifts tonal centers and textures rapidly. There are a variety of colorful harmonies sung in neutral vowels that create a very bright Lydian-like sound. I really enjoyed how she also used a variety of vocal effects, such as whispering and humming. A really interesting phase, or panning effect is achieved by the alternating whispering and singing in a variety of dynamics.  Shaw really emphasizes the constantly repeating lyrics in the last section by having the entire chorus sing in unison a few times before departing into harmony. The viola pizzicato returns, creating a texture similar to the beginning. 

I enjoyed the ambiguity in meter throughout the piece. The pulse is clear; anyone could tap their foot to the music through most of the piece. The duration of each measure, line, or phrase, however, keeps changing. The opening viola pizzicato line is definitely in an odd meter, or a combination of alternating meters. The complicated rhythm is contrasted by the simplicity of young, innocent, female voices singing gently on top. The rich colors and harmonies are also easy and pleasant to listen to when sung by young girls. I am not a connoisseur of choral repertoire, but it seems that Caroline Shaw is not trying to revolutionize or depart from the standard choral tradition. I see her somewhat pushing the boundaries with instrumentation, form, and harmony, but staying close to choral techniques and norms of past decades and centuries. I had to be in choir for eight semesters in my undergraduate studies and witnessed a variety of vocal works that also used extensive imitation, odd meters, soprano/alto textures, and stringed accompaniment, among others traits. I enjoyed Shaw’s style and sound and am deeply interested in listening to more of her compositions.

Speak up.

Caroline Shaw
“So Quietly”
Premiere date unknown (2016-2017) by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus

With a title like So Quietly, this composition defied my first expectations. I clicked “play” with the expectation of soft dynamics, thin textures, and possibly a slow tempo. What I heard was a group of young girls and boys (all most likely altos and sopranos) using every possible timbre they could produce with their voices as well as full ranges and dynamics. I heard soaring melodic lines, ostinatos, counterpoint, defiant lyrics, and lastly an ingenious use of rests.

Listening to the lyrics, I could see that Shaw wanted to take the listener through a development of emotions and mindsets. At first the “narrator,” or “protagonist,” is tentative and not wanting to share their thoughts or feelings on whatever issue they are thinking of. But as Shaw develops her musical ideas, she also develops her text until the “narrator” is now ready to share their thoughts and ideas to be “a difference in the room” instead of sitting quietly.

The music itself spoke volumes. The tentativeness of the “narrator” at the beginning was highlighted, not only by the fact that we don’t hear any actual words until further into the song, but also the use of rests, which give the listener a sense of suspense, as if the singers are trying to tell you something but are not sure if they should share it or not. The rests also kept me very interested. They seemed to be different every time and much more organic, like a conversation inside one’s own head. When speaking, we do not just speak in rhythm with pauses in the same places like simpler music would sound when rests are placed on the same beat every-time. The flow is interrupted by small decisions in what we want to say next. Shaw has imitated, to the best of her ability, the act of decision making inside our heads.

Another thing that Shaw utilized to express the tentativeness at the beginning was the unified rhythm in the first section. It gave me the impression of someone just blending in with society and not wanting to be seen as different or as breaking the status quo. However, as the words started to turn toward thoughts of breaking out, the texture began to overlap with counterpoint, ostinatos, pedal points, and – above it all – soaring melodic lines.

Before the “narrator” changes their mind, there is a great deal of tension created by Shaw’s use of dissonances and suspensions, as well as a rhythmic motor of audible, almost percussive, breathing. But by the end of the composition, when the “narrator” has chosen to speak up, the music is now unified in rhythm and consonant, as if to say the “narrator” has completely made up their mind and is at peace with their decision.

Listening to this work, and other works by Shaw, I have noticed a trend in some of her writing. Not only does she seem inspired by minimalistic writing with her prevalent use of ostinatos but she also seems to have a deep connection to the music of the baroque period. Her use of counterpoint in So Quietly is exemplary and it is clear that she finds the development of ideas a key asset to her compositional technique. She has created a fresh new take on baroque counterpoint, which keeps the listener engaged and entertained with story-like developments of her ideas.

-Michelle Shaheen

Recording used:


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.

Fresh off the vine.

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.

Chris Beroes-Haigis

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