Caroline Shaw: Evergreen

Caroline Shaw: Evergreen

There’s something reassuringly timeless about Caroline Shaw’s music. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, violinist, and singer, best-known for her Partita for 8 Voices, writes in a style that evokes works from the distant past, yet sounds freshly minted, clear, and direct in its expression of powerful emotions. Her latest album, Evergreen, stands in company with its predecessor Orange, both recorded by the New York-based Attacca Quartet. The tracklist includes Three Essays for string quartet, the Beethoven-inspired Blueprint, and The Evergreen, four pieces deeply rooted in the natural world. Shaw complements the colors of her rich string mix with her own heart-melting voice in two songs and a beguiling setting of lyrics from 12th-century France. The Evergreen tracklist was road-tested in performance long before Shaw and the Attaccas reached the recording studio. “I’ve written a lot more music for string quartet since Orange,” the composer tells Apple Music. “We wanted a follow-up that shows where things are now. The Evergreen feels, to me, like it’s a sister to Plan & Elevation from Orange. And the Three Essays feel tied to Entr’acte from the earlier album. We sprinkled the three songs into this tracklist because I’ve been performing them a lot with Attacca. They seem to weave in another aspect of the music that I make, but this is chiefly an album of the pieces we’ve been performing together.” Shaw’s deep knowledge of early music and the core string quartet repertoire surfaces throughout Evergreen. The opening track, First Essay (Nimrod), for instance, conjures up the soundworld of a 16th-century English viol consort before venturing into increasingly knotty musical territory. “I appreciate the comparison to viol consort music,” she notes. “That music was often in five-part harmony where you’d have instruments and voices doubling each other. It was a really blended sound. Those composers were excited to discover new things, like the vertical harmonies of the triad. They loved triads, and we still do. Turns out they’re pretty nice!” Read on, as Caroline Shaw takes us through each piece on Evergreen. Three Essays: First Essay (Nimrod) “I wrote First Essay for the Calidore String Quartet in 2016. I was listening to the audio edition of Marilynne Robinson’s essays The Givenness of Things while the US was ramping up for the 2016 presidential election. So, I became aware of her careful handling of ideas and, at the same time, of a chaotic splintering of ideas, truth, and communication—I held both in mind while writing First Essay. I composed much of it backstage while playing in Kanye West’s Life of Pablo tour. I’d use the time before each show to compose and then go on stage in front of 20,000 people. It was a bananas experience! There was something absolutely maddening and chaotic about that. The chaos and creative possibilities are in this piece, which I named ‘Nimrod’ after the biblical character who commissioned the Tower of Babel.” Three Essays: Second Essay (Echo) “I was reading about the echo function in PHP Hypertext Preprocessor, a scripting language used to create dynamic web pages, while creating this piece. I’m not super fluent in PHP or other computer languages, but I do enjoy reading about them and have done some HTML writing. I can’t say there’s an obvious analog to the music, but ‘Echo’ has a dual meaning. As well as PHP, I was thinking about those internet echo chambers where you can feel like you and your opinions are always right. So, the title has several different meanings, none of which are very firm.” Three Essays: Third Essay (Ruby) “I love the dynamics between quartet players. It’s not only about what we can do with our instruments, but how we lock into each other. I enjoy throwing a little chaos into that dynamic, while knowing how to come out of it confidently. That’s maybe the thing I love most about the ‘Third Essay,’ which has moments of a splintering, brutal world. And then it flips into an old-fashioned chord progression, but one that’s broken down, so it’s both something familiar and foreign. Although I wouldn’t put too much weight on it, the programming language Ruby was part of the deep dive that helped me start this piece.” And So “This started with me having fun with language. I hadn’t written many lyrics at that point, but I’d composed a song for the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter called Red, Red Rose to the famous Robert Burns poem about how love never dies. And So was the next song in what became a trilogy. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. And I’ve recently been getting a little bit choked up when I sing it. There’s a deep feeling of wondering about what life is like after you lose someone you love or what their life is like after you’re gone. The song has little references to climate change without being on the nose about it. I’ve found it means something different now than it did when I wrote it.” Blueprint “I grew up listening to classical composers who reference older music. There was so much irony in their approach to those references. But I quote Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 6 here without that sense of irony or wanting to break the piece down. I hope people understand that I’m not just ripping off Beethoven! There’s a great love for the work. Blueprint was my fun conversation gift to the Aizuri Quartet, which takes its name from ‘aizuri-e,’ a style of Japanese woodblock printing that mainly uses blue ink. String quartets spend a lot of time sight-reading. You get together and read a bunch of music, have fun, and mess up. Blueprint is like a strange dream memory of that experience.” Other Song “This was one of my first songs. I did a show at the Kennedy Center with the American pop singer and wonderful songwriter Sara Bareilles. She’s a great musician! She had a hit called ‘Love Song,’ which was all over the radio in the late noughties. Its chorus was like, ‘I’m not going to write you a love song because...’—it’s a song about songwriting. So, I wrote Other Song as my answer to her song about that! And it’s something that, for me, is about how you have to let music take you where it wants to go. There’s a surface message to that song and a much deeper one.” The Evergreen: I. Moss “This started with a walk I took in January 2020 in an evergreen forest on Galiano Island—or Swiikw, to give it its Indigenous name—just off the west coast of Canada. It was the end of a busy week, and I took my last walk there in the morning. I slowed down with every step, becoming more aware of everything around me. I somehow sensed the wisdom in those old trees. I read Richard Power's beautiful novel The Overstory while writing this piece, which is essentially a collection of overlapping tales about trees, and kept recalling that forest. “Sometimes I think about a person that I don’t want to disappoint when writing music. But a single moss-covered tree was my guide when writing these pieces. The woods in the Pacific Northwest are very wet and full of moss and feel like nowhere else. And you hear the silence, listen closer, and notice all the things that are happening in that silence. Little tiny bits, like moss, soft but incredibly complex beneath the surface.” The Evergreen: II. Stem “As a listener, I want something that’s strong and rising. That’s where the idea came from for ‘Stem’—something that has a very clear structure and strength to it.” The Evergreen: III. Water “I love this movement. There’d been a rare blizzard a few days before I went to the forest, but the snow had almost fully melted by the time I was there. I could hear the sound of dripping water everywhere and see different shades of green and the parallax motion of tree trunks at different distances. This idea that things shift in and out of the foreground and move at different paces is something you can use in web design. I ask string quartets who play the piece now to vary the strength of pizzicato, so sometimes loud, sometimes soft, with assorted colors of pizzicato to evoke the sound of dripping water.” The Evergreen: IV. Root “Root has several meanings. It’s the last part of the tree, which is the most important. And it gestures towards this idea of the basso continuo, the cello that plays its line beneath the other instruments from which something grows above. What grows sounds very different from the root below. There’s also the feeling of this piece being a gesture to my roots in Baroque music, which is how I came into this world of music as a kid. At the end of the piece, the ostinato cello disappears, and this little melody just floats away and dissolves.” Cant voi l’aube “The lyrics of this song are attributed to the French trouvère or composer-poet Gace Brulé, who was born around 1160. But they could easily have been written by a woman. Nobody knows what the original would have sounded like because we don’t have the music. I have a real affinity for the harmonic language and rhythms of early music and did not shy away from using those there. I think there’s such a thing as rhyme in music, so it’s pleasing to go back to things like Cant voi l’aube, that were written long ago as song lyrics, and set them in a fresh way.”

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