Exploring Composer Caroline Shaw’s Music for String Quartet

By Thomas May

Writing string quartets feels like a homecoming for Caroline Shaw. Deeply rooted in early formative experiences, her love of the medium serves as a kind of creative anchor. Amid the slipstreams and demands of a dizzyingly successful career, Shaw has been averaging a new composition for string quartet every year or couple of years. “I know what it feels like to play in a quartet and to pass ideas back and forth, to be part of the sound in that way,” she says.

How fitting, then, that the first full-length album devoted exclusively to her music showcases the string quartets of Caroline Shaw, which are given succulent, deeply engaging performances by the Attacca Quartet. Titled Orange, the album (released April 19 and also available for streaming on Spotify, Apple Music, and other digital service providers) is the inaugural release in a new partnership between Nonesuch and the New Amsterdam label that intends to provide a platform to contemporary American composers.

Orange is the result of a project by the Attacca Quartet called “Recently Added,” which involves in-depth considerations of the complete quartets of living composers—as opposed to new commissions, which can have more of an immediate buzz but are all too often flash-in-the-pan affairs. Previously, the Attaccas had focused to great acclaim on the string quartets of John Adams and Michael Ippolito.

“Playing Caroline’s work is so amazing,” says cellist Andrew Yee, who joined with fellow Juilliard students Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga (violins) and Nathan Schram (viola) to form Attacca in 2003. “It fits our personality and the way we think about music. We share an excitement and sense of wonder and joy, and so decided it was important for us to record her music.” Produced by the Attacca Quartet, Caroline Shaw, and Antonio Oliart, the recording was made over a four-day period at WGBH Studios in 2017.

That it has taken until now for an all–Caroline Shaw album to be released by an important label is surprising. Six years ago, when she was still 30, Shaw became the youngest recipient in the history of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, winning the coveted distinction in 2013 for her a cappella work Partita for 8 Voices—a composition whose stunning beauty can make you giddy from listening.

Shaw composed Partita for the indie classical, Grammy-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, of which she is a member. She also pursues an active performing career as a violinist, playing both Baroque and modern violin, and her repertoire includes her own violin concerto, Lo (2015), her debut orchestral work. On top of her highly in-demand career as a composer and performer, Shaw is a producer—most famously, for Kanye West—and a teacher.

Attacca Quartet

Over the years since her Pulitzer, commissions have poured in nonstop. The last few months alone have witnessed the world premieres of her piano concerto Watermark, written for Jonathan Biss (with the Seattle Symphony); a set of songs for Anne Sofie von Otter and Philharmonic Baroque; and her contribution (another string-quartet piece) to the Seven Last Words Project, an initiative by Juilliard’s historical-performance ensemble linking Haydn’s Seven Last Words with response pieces by contemporary composers. In August, Shaw’s most recent commission will appear on a Los Angeles Philharmonic program alongside Beethoven’s Ninth at the Hollywood Bowl.

Shaw already has some experience sharing a bill with Beethoven. Jonathan Biss commissioned Watermark specifically as a response to Beethoven’s C minor Piano Concerto and played both pieces side-by-side at the Seattle premiere in February. Indeed, an unforced affinity for conversing with music from the past characterizes Shaw’s musical thinking. Such moments of hearkening back are anything but pale imitation, nor do they unfold in the postmodern manner, as gestures of pastiche, irony, or deconstruction. What they suggest, rather, are the enigmatic afterimages of dreams being recalled and pieced together into alternate narratives.

This brand of vivid dialogue with the past—a signature of Shaw’s uniquely appealing voice—arguably reflects habits that became entwined in her musical DNA early on as a string-quartet player. Her links to the medium encompass her identities as a composer and performer. The string quartet was one of the first ensembles in which Shaw played. During her precocious musical upbringing in Greenville, South Carolina—she started learning violin from her mother via the Suzuki Method at the age of two—Shaw decided to found her own ensemble when she was in high school.

The catalyst was experiencing a concert by an all-female quartet in Greenville. “I was determined to find friends to play in a quartet together, and that’s what we did,” says Shaw. “We called ourselves the Atticus Quartet and we rocked the local Barnes & Noble cafe. I made business cards and was a huge nerd about it. Right away, we started digging into the serious rep”—with works like Beethoven’s Op. 18, No. 4, which later inspired another of her responses, Blueprint from 2016 (one of a few Shaw quartets that are not included on Orange).


“We studied these pieces so intensely: Beethoven, Schubert, Shostakovich,” recalls violist Kirsten Swanson, a Greenville-based chamber and orchestral musician who formed the Atticus Quartet with Shaw. Swanson has been close friends with the composer since they were both toddlers learning violin from Shaw’s mother. “We felt so supported by our community, and while we were only high schoolers, we took it very seriously. And Caroline always brought a musical intelligence and maturity to our rehearsals.”


But they also made time for fun. “We went through a disco phase, and Caroline wrote an arrangement of ‘I Will Survive’ for our quartet, which was our encore,” Swanson says. “You can hear and see her gift for string writing even then.”

Ever since then, Shaw feels like she’s with family when she collaborates with string quartets, and can’t seem to get enough of this form of making music. Among the quartets she has performed with or written for, in addition to Attacca, are the Dover, Calidore, Aizuri, Jasper, Brooklyn Rider, FLUX, Brentano, and JACK. According to Sam Quintal, violist of the Jasper Quartet, “Caroline Shaw’s performance experience in both voice and violin is clear in her writing, which achieves sincere clarity of color and expression. She is both thoughtful and humble in her approach to composition and performance, and that shines through in the music that she makes.”

Atticus lasted into her college years, vacations back in Greenville affording a chance to get together again (and even pack off for an impromptu road trip that included getting a coaching session from the Ying Quartet in exchange for Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Swanson recalls). After resettling in New York, Shaw became part of the erstwhile Franklin Quartet for a couple of years. Her fellow violinist of the time, Alex Fortes (he now plays with A Far Cry and other ensembles), points to the flair for improvisation that is another key element of Shaw’s musical personality.

“We had just met and were discussing plans in a bar in the Upper West Side where a farewell celebration for the owner was happening, and we ended up improvising for everyone there. Caroline then became the instigator for a casual improvisation series we offered on Monday nights.”

The experience also proved invaluable in enhancing Shaw’s confidence as a composer. Amid the standard repertoire they played together as the Franklins, she would occasionally have her colleagues try out something she was working on, according to Fortes. By way of example, he mentions Punctum (2009), the very first quartet Shaw wrote.

In another characteristically personal echo of the past, the piece weaves in a fragment of the best-known chorale from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion—as if in an act of remembering. Shaw sought her colleagues’ advice about using Punctum to apply to graduate school at Princeton. “She was a little shy about her role as a composer. And yet she would show us these things that were so kaleidoscopic and amazing!”

Another time, when she was working on Entr’acte (her take on the Haydn minuet and trio form, which now heads Orange’s tracklist), Shaw would ask Fortes to try out techniques to determine how feasible they were for other violinists—like a novel way to produce a pizzicato. “She had found an interesting timbre by stopping the string with the bow on the bridge and plucking with the left hand that becomes one of the elements in Entr’acte, giving a very delicate but sustained sound,” he explains.

Entr’acte, which Shaw composed while in grad school at Princeton, has gone on to have a curious alternative life in pop culture. She wrote a version for strings and small wind ensemble for an episode in the fourth season of the web-TV series Mozart in the Jungle, in which a conductor tries to impress Shaw (who plays herself) by having a band play the piece outside her apartment in a surprise audition.



“I always knew Caroline would do something impressive, but I didn’t know in what medium she would do it,” says Swanson. She recalls being initially surprised when Shaw first discussed applying to graduate school for composition. While she had started out her musical life so young, the shift to a focus on composing came “a bit late in the game—late meaning as a doctoral student, not as an undergraduate,” Swanson explains. “I was surprised because I didn’t know she was so passionate about it. I privately worried about her because the field can be such a struggle.” But then she heard Partita for the first time, just months before it won the Pulitzer. “I remember feeling floored by how beautiful it was, and I didn’t worry about her after that.”

It was Partita that first caught the Attacca Quartet’s attention as well. Andrew Yee recalls encountering a Roomful of Teeth concert when Attacca was at the Bravo! Vail Music Festival. “I remember them singing the Passacaglia [the final section] and breaking down crying. I looked over at Amy [Schroeder] to see her having the same reaction. Right away, I thought: I want to play her music and I want to be her friend.”

Both of which the Attacca musicians proceeded to do. Yee says his collaboration with Shaw led him to rediscover the role of visual art in his life. They get together not only to play and listen to music but also share time painting and drawing. When Orange’s release was announced, Nonesuch and Bandcamp offered a pre-order promotional: an exclusive, hand-signed print of one of the abstract paintings Shaw and Attacca made together (a study of the composer’s favorite yellow palette).

The link between Shaw’s vocal and instrumental personalities is not merely coincidental. Yee explains that Attacca’s standard rehearsal technique as a quartet is to sing everything first. “It’s a way to make sure we know what the music is supposed to sound like in our head.”

Yee adds that this is one reason they’ve been drawn to Shaw’s music. “She sings as well as plays the violin. There’s something about her personality that makes its way into how she writes. Everything that she writes is not only playable but also very singable. And so it is something in our vocabulary. A little gesture might be very simple but gives you the impression that it has always existed—almost as if you’re hearing the ‘Ode to Joy’ for the first time. There is oftentimes this wave of joy that moves over you when you play her music—and you’re not sure what did it.”

Yee also sees an affinity between Shaw’s personality and Attacca’s aesthetic. “When we rehearse, we try to keep a sort of childlike wonder alongside the technical matters of tuning and bowing. Keeping ideas fresh is very important to the way that we perform.”


The album title Orange is meant to hint at this ability to convey a wondrous quality that is at the same time honest and unpretentious, according to Yee. “Even though it’s familiar, there’s something magical about an orange. Something beautiful and simple—a clean statement.” Shaw describes the album as celebrating “the simple, immediate, unadorned beauty of a natural, everyday, familiar thing.”

Most of Shaw’s quartets are single-movement compositions. Plan and Elevation, in contrast, follows a different pattern. It emerged from a period she spent as the first-ever composer-in-residence at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. Shaw linked together five individual pieces, each relating to a different garden at Dumbarton Oaks to fashion Plan and Elevation.

Dumbarton Oaks is also the theme that Attacca and Shaw settled on when they commissioned filmmaker Tristan Cook to create a video to accompany Orange. (A clip corresponding to the fourth section of Plan and Elevation—“The Orangery”—is available on YouTube.)

Attacca recommended Cook after some previous work together, Yee says, “because we love the way he sees classical music. He created a 15-minute, wordless film to Caroline’s music that is a portrait of the grounds. But it also conveys what the Dumbarton Oaks gardens mean to the people there. The intent of this project is not just to have it for ourselves but to send it to film festivals.”

The collaboration reflects the diversity of Shaw’s creative interests, which extend to painting, photography, and writing, among other pursuits. Another work on Orange, Ritornello 2.sq.2.j.a, derives from a longer project that similarly involved a visual dimension (including stock ocean video). Inspired by the function of the instrumental ritornellos in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Ritornello encapsulates an idea that lies at the heart of Shaw’s singular vision: the haunting sense of alternate possibilities when a familiar strain comes back, again and again.

Rounding out Orange are the shorter pieces Valencia (another tribute to the simple beauty of a fruit) and Limestone & Felt, a duo for violin and viola. The Attacca Quartet has planned a US-European tour with Shaw for the coming season around their new album. Along with string quartets, they will perform rarities for voice and quartet and Mendelssohn’s Op. 87 String Quintet (with Shaw joining in on viola).

For Shaw, this chamber-music medium offers an expressive outlet that she never tires of returning to: “It’s like a check-in point for me, something that I always have cooking on the stove. Writing quartets is the thing I come back to after my other projects take me in different directions.”