Caroline Shaw and friends rock the house at Miller Theatre

Fri Feb 07, 2020 at 2:11 pm
Caroline Shaw collaborated with colleagues in her “Musical Portrait” Thursday night at Miller Theatre. Photo: Kait Moreno

Caroline Shaw probably doesn’t do windows.

Judging from her “Composer Portrait” concert at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre Thursday night, the composer-singer-violinist-violist-producer has everything else pretty much covered.

From snagging a Pulitzer Prize at age 30 to fulfilling commissions from Renée Fleming and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, from accompanying and remixing Kanye West to playing a rather unflattering version of herself in the streaming series Mozart in the Jungle, this busy artist has staked out a sizable territory in the consciousness of music fans.

Many a worthy musician has been fortunate to draw half a house to his or her Composer Portrait at Miller. Shaw’s concert was reportedly sold out far in advance.

As Miller’s executive director Melissa Smey said in a recent interview, there are “at least five different ways” to do a Composer Portrait of Shaw. A properly comprehensive one would presumably take all day, not Thursday’s two hours.

So the choice was made to emphasize the composer’s fascination with teamwork and community, as epitomized by the genre of string quartet—for which, she says, she always has a piece in the works—and by her collaboration with Sō Percussion on a recent piece and a forthcoming album.

The concert’s first half consisted of three Shaw pieces performed by the Attacca String Quartet—Amy Schroeder and Dominic Salerni, violins; Nathan Schram, viola; and Andrew Yee, cello–whose all-Shaw album Orange received last year’s Grammy Award for best chamber music/small ensemble performance.

After intermission, Shaw joined Sō Percussion onstage to perform their 2017 song cycle Narrow Sea and four songs from their album Let the soil play its simple part, the latter receiving their world premieres.

The Attacca Quartet

The composer has jokingly referred to her very playable and listenable string quartet Entr’acte as “like a gateway drug for new music,” and the same could be said for most of the music heard Thursday, with its clear textures, bursts of catchy rhythm, and familiar triad chords.

At the same time, a frisson of newness came from the shifts of light in the string tone and later in Shaw’s own voice, and from unpredictable juxtapositions of tempo.

In the program book and chatting onstage with director Smey, Shaw returned again and again to the subject of musical collaboration and co-creation, and one did feel on Thursday the performers’ investment in developing the music, not just interpreting a score. Shaw described an ensemble’s relationship and long experience of playing together as being itself a rare instrument to compose for.

Shaw cited specific moments in works by Haydn, Bach, and Beethoven as the jumping-off points for (respectively) her quartets Entr’acte, Punctum, and Blueprint. Those points where the masters disrupted their own functional harmony for expressive effect were intriguingly prolonged and elaborated in Thursday’s performances.

The effect often sounded new in a very old way, with the syncopated rhythms, straight string tone, and sliding triad harmonies echoing not Baroque or Classical models so much as dances from the Renaissance.

Entr’acte, true to its title, evoked the story between the story with elusive string effects such as near-toneless bowing, pizzicato and harmonics. The insubstantial pageant faded to the lone cello’s musing strum.

Punctum opened on the “point” of a unison note, then swelled with organ-like sonorities in strange microtonal chords before dwindling to a dialogue of single notes and an Ivesian whisper at the end.

Inspired by the “La Malinconia” movement of Beethoven’s Op. 18, no. 6 quartet, Blueprint recalled that composer’s restlessness and rhetorical verve with a hot mix of pizzicato and arco playing, emphatic chords, and a swirling accelerando near the end.

As she describes it, Shaw’s composing process is very context-specific as to performers, site, and other works on the program. The five-song cycle Narrow Sea, for example, was composed for singer Dawn Upshaw, pianist Gilbert Kalish, and Sō Percussion, and was to share the bill with several folksong-derived works by George Crumb. So Shaw went to her own folk source, the 19th-century spirituals collection The Sacred Harp, for the texts, which she fitted with new (but somewhat old-sounding) melodies.

Onstage Thursday Shaw described that evening’s performance by herself and the percussion group as “my cover of a Dawn Upshaw song.” The stage, full of percussion instruments, also bristled with at least 13 microphones, including one for Shaw, whose slender, vibratoless voice could drop to near-inaudibility or (rarely) rise to a piercing wail.

The texts’ watery metaphors and references to “going home” across the River Jordan received a fluid treatment from Sō Percussion players Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, and Jason Treuting, with a tinkle of tremolo on flower pots here and a glissando on piano strings there. The sound of Shaw pouring water into a bowl accompanied her evocative singing in “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand.”

This haunting concert piece was followed by a performance of a whole different character—a reenactment, in effect, of a recording session for an album with real pop potential. Shaw revealed yet another talent, as a lyricist adept in wordplay in the circling phrases of “Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part” (duetting with Quillen on steel pans that sounded uncannily like a harp), the layered looping of “Long Ago We Counted,” and the closing anthem “Other Song.” (“Lay All Your Love On Me” was a whispery, homophonic ABBA cover by Shaw and Sliwinski.)

Quillen’s drum-kit put a driving beat under “Long Ago” and “Other Song,” and Shaw operated the vocoder and loop pedal for some fantastic transformations and combinations of her own voice, opening up “Long Ago” vistas of time and space.

Upcoming Composer Portraits include Oscar Bettison, 8 p.m. February 20, and Dai Fujikura, 8 p.m. March 5, at Miller Theatre, Columbia University.; 212-854-7799.

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