Willie Reviews Caroline Shaw & Attacca Quartet’s “Orange”

Willie Reviews Caroline Shaw & Attacca Quartet’s “Orange”


Pulitzer-prize winning composer Caroline Shaw’s first full-length album of her own compositions, performed by the Attacca Quartet, takes a step back in time by way of plants and gardens. Exploring both centuries-old musical history and deeply personal recollection, the album contains the broad appeal that has earned Shaw an entirely unique place in the new music scene. RPM’s review:


About a month ago, I heard Caroline Shaw introduce her piece Watermark at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. She focused on the task of implanting Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto into her own work and mentioned both the challenge and the game of finding Beethoven’s traces. She tracked him down to literal watermarks in his manuscripts, but the piece was an astonishing remix of an untouchable classic (for the record, Watermark was the highlight of the evening on a program rounded out by actual Beethoven). Unsurprisingly, Shaw did not stop there. Much of her music attempts to see through history. Consider an orange.

An orange is not unlike an orangery in structure—both require semi-permeable sections, a durable exterior, and are made to symmetrical, beautiful specifications. The difference, however, is that orangeries, gorgeous and massive greenhouses built by the European absolute monarchs of the 17th and 18th centuries, have long since been abandoned for modern structures. What remains of the orangeries are stone and glass monuments living on through their grand architecture and sight value. And now we can see that the showpiece was always the only goal. Growing citrus was entirely secondary. The architectural forms of the royal orangeries sit naked for visitor. The buildings mimicked the perfect balance of the orange but lacked the orange’s persistence. Now they are old and the orange is not.

Orangery in Schweriner, Germany, photo by Richard Schröder


Similar are the exercises of building a home for a plant and fitting music into the corset of classicism. You can form an obsession in attempting to recapture the state of mind in which the thing was made. Why exactly did the monarchs hop on the orangery trend? Why exactly do we revere certain sets of harmonic movements? Six of Caroline Shaw’s pieces for string quartet that dance around this and other resonant themes are performed by the Attacca Quartet on Orange. Old sounds and recollections of old sounds abound. The composer pushes the fractured string quartet form to extremes and then holds back in, as it happens, the perfect order of enlightenment. Shaw lets us watch the still-ongoing development of compositional history.

The centerpiece of the album is “Plan & Elevation,” separated into five movements. Set up by five different occasions for plant growth, we see different amounts of human intervention in each. The first movement, “Ellipse,” recalls the exactness and slightly warped circularity of a garden. The same two-voice theme appears the whole way through, exploring textures and volumes, but never reaching too far. It takes on different tones, but reluctantly returns with a bigness or a smallness, always counted out by a plucked rhythm right on time. The world moves around the garden walker, who never moves in their own frame of reference. The livelier “The Cutting Garden” presents the threat of being clipped by shears. A gardener’s wrath exploits the natural growth of a plant for its eventual, snipped fate. “Herbaceous Border” introduces itself with scratchy tones, sketching out the colorful gardens lining the walls of a garden. The strident melody of a rogue violin pulls them along, introducing a consciousness into their plant-ness. The last two movements celebrate this injected form of order. “The Orangery,” my central foothold for the album, introduces the cavernous inside of the structure. It anticipates the awe of whoever steps inside and performs its role as the eye of the storm. “The Beech Tree” expands and reaches the wild again. It loses the parallel lines and allows the strings to pluck out of phase. In its shady overgrowth, the rising theme of plant beauty gets to sit out in the sun. Still, the grandeur of the plants sounds much same regardless of setting, identified by sudden climaxes and the same few themes. While architecture changes around them, their plants maintain a calming aura of completeness. The moments that stand out are never the loud conflicts, but instead the pauses. The music invites you to sit with it until a human hand throws it out of balance.


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The string quartet form has some clear advantages for these pieces. The strings’ movement and flexibility allows Shaw to stay inside a historical frame of reference even as bows clink and bounce. The string quartet is possibly the nimblest ensemble, owing to the subtle cues given and received between musicians (there’s a reason string quartets are among the bounciest performers in the classical world!). The Attacca Quartet (Amy Schroeder, Keiko Tokunaga, Nathan Schram, and Andrew Yee) is fantastic at drawing out the shifting time signatures and pulses in the score. Every repeat feels newly interpreted, and the quartet brings invention after invention.

Another highlight in the album’s pursuit of something like classicism is Punctum. Inspired by Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, it alternately fixates on a single note and runs through an entire harmonic sequence in the blink of an eye. The inattentiveness of certain sections takes the classical mode out of its emotional impact, separating what Barthes calls the “studium” and the “punctum,” or the academic study and the deep, personal feeling of it. Shaw encourages us to feel the punctum in the quartet’s extremely emotive responses to obsessive, droning passages. They then breeze through sections with a lot of up-and-down movement in a comically simple texture and rhythm. The rushed sections have the bare bones to create affecting music, but their execution and ornamentation forces them to exist only as a catalogue of musical techniques. Shaw writes the contrasting sections upside down to the ear and is able to dampen the intellectual response. The piece ends with a long, rich passage, stretching itself out for miles and miles.

Attacca Quartet and Caroline Shaw, photo by Jorsand Diaz


“Entr’acte” comes at the start of the album but carries the name of a thing used between acts of a longer performance, suggesting it follows something we all have heard independently. Something unspoken precedes the album, which is a beautiful and humbling thought. The piece makes use of the repeat, a device I mentioned earlier but which is used liberally throughout. In some music, it can masquerade as an unnecessary option (just ask a young Glenn Gould) or a burden to the freedom of the performer, but it’s a necessity for the kinds of distinct sections created by Shaw. The first and frequent theme in “Entr’acte” puzzles with and flips a Beethoven-y short-short-short-long motif. Like an overture, it introduces different moods and themes, but these themes return only in vague recollection throughout the album. It works as a theatrical starter, just without the explicit payoff you might get in something like Carmen.

It is a happy thought that one of our greatest living composers is everywhere at once right now. Caroline Shaw is constantly composing, producing (for artists like Kanye West and Nas), performing, premiering, and fighting the good fight for good music. This album is likely going to win all sorts of awards, so get on board now! Orange is agile and it is wistful, but most of all it is music for you to listen to. The orange-y wholeness of each piece does not punish or judge. It delights and invites you in to access it freely. So be gentle with your plants and give Orange a try.

Score: Out of the cold and into the orangery’s radiance.