What should a portrait of Caroline Shaw look like?
There’s Caroline Shaw the performer: a violinist and vocalist who grew up going to music camp and singing in choirs. There’s also the collaboratively minded composer who, at 30, became the youngest winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. And don’t forget the artist of surprising pop culture cameos, with appearances on tracks by Kanye West and the soundtrack for the recent film “Bombshell.”
That’s a lot for any one angle to capture. But, for me, what summed up these varied interests and activities was a revealing photograph of Ms. Shaw used by the Miller Theater at Columbia University to promote its Composer Portraits program of her music, performed on Thursday evening.
In the photo, she appears casually dressed against a millennial-pink backdrop; her smile is not only one of happiness, but also of carefree ease and approachability. The image connects all Ms. Shaw’s projects and performances: an audaciously uninhibited approach to music-making based on joy, omnivorous curiosity and congeniality — even as her work challenges your expectations and takes you by surprise.
On paper, the Miller concert looked like an incomplete portrait — just a few string quartets and a couple of works for voice and percussion — but it came as close as I could imagine to conveying the spirit of Ms. Shaw’s music.
The evening opened with those string pieces, performed by the Attacca Quartet — which is quickly becoming the authoritative ensemble for chamber works by Ms. Shaw, John Adams and, recently, Gabriella Smith. Their Shaw album “Orange” was one of the finest recordings of 2019, and last week won a Grammy Award.
Recordings are one thing, though, and live performance is another. In concert, these quartets — “Entr’acte,” “Punctum” and “Blueprint” — were even more impressive for their physicality, written as if to convey a conversation among the endearingly charismatic Attacca players.
Ms. Shaw writes with an affectionate understanding of how string instruments work, and how they have been treated in the past. Her music offers glimpses of Haydn, Bach and Beethoven — but taken apart and examined, the way someone might with a clock, then transformed. Unlike those old masters, though, she is free from conventions of genre and form. Her quartets string together quotation, homage and wholly original sound in a structure that can be explained in retrospect but never predicted in the moment.
What you don’t hear in these quartets is Ms. Shaw the collaborator who prefers to write for specific artists and occasions. But that came through in the second half of the program, in which she sang alongside So Percussion. After her brief cycle “Narrow Sea,” they presented selections from “Let the soil play its simple part,” a batch of 10 songs she recently wrote with the ensemble.
An album of these is in the works, and perhaps it’s time to start rolling out the singles. The four songs heard on Thursday are radio-ready: infectious and inviting, but by no means facile. One, “Lay All Your Love On Me,” seems like a laugh-out-loud tribute to Abba: four lines delivered with childlike simplicity — a straightforward vocal melody accompanied by a vibraphone — that, repeated and evolving, blossom into a chorale of surprising beauty.
“Let the soil play its simple part” is planned for release this year. Grammy nominators, take note.
Composer Portraits: Caroline Shaw
Performed on Thursday at the Miller Theater, Columbia University, Manhattan.
Source: Music - nytimes.com