For a little while, it seemed like Caroline Shaw was performing in the Triangle every few months. In the span of a few years, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, violinist, and singer has performed at Duke with the vocal group Roomful of Teeth and jammed with violinist Jennifer Curtis at the Cat's Cradle Back Room, among other local gigs. Since winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013, Shaw has been in high demand, but she still manages to make her way back to her native North Carolina for performances.
This month, she's enjoying an extended stay with the North Carolina Symphony, in preparation for its participation in SHIFT: A Festival of American Orchestras in Washington, D.C., at the end of the month. The N.C. Symphony's contribution will showcase contemporary composers with connections to North Carolina, and Shaw will be the featured soloist, performing her violin concerto Lo. While she's in Raleigh, she'll also join a string quartet of symphony members for the latest edition of the symphony's more casual series at Kings.
The Friday night show with the symphony quartet at Kings features two chamber works by Shaw: Valencia, a propulsive portrait of the elaborate structure of the Valencia orange; and By and By, a spacious reimagining of various hymns, including "I'll Fly Away," for voice and string quartet. By and By varies a little each time Shaw performs it, and part of that sense of difference has to do with the way she adapts the songs. So much of their original feel comes from their chord progressions, the way the emphasis changes on certain words and at predictable intervals. Shaw discards the chords, along with much of the original melodies, to create something more rhapsodic and open. Over a bed of drones or oscillating chords, she recasts familiar tunes into a kind of ecstatic plainsong. Drama emerges from interactions between text, texture, and line, rather than melody and harmony. Since each of the songs that comprise By and By is a vision of death and the afterlife, stripping them of their harmonic roots moves them a step or two further from this temporal realm.
This weekend also marks the North Carolina Symphony's second performance of Lo, which it co-commissioned and first performed in November 2015. It's unusual for a performer to play the same work with an orchestra two seasons in a row, and even more so with a new work, which makes this occasion all the more exciting. As both a composer and performer, Shaw notes that she's feeling far less stress about this performance than she was for its premiere. She says she knows more about the piece, how she ought to play it, and how the orchestra will respond.
Lo is what happens to a violin concerto when you subtract the ego. Shaw's part doesn't draw unnecessary attention to itself, instead, it revels in simple highlights: the long rising scale that opens the piece, some flickering arpeggios dotted here and there, an unadorned melody built around a single upward leap. There are soloistic moments, but they always seem to emerge from within the orchestra. Intriguingly, the solo is only partially notated: Shaw has a general idea of what she wants to do in a section, but the exact implementation varies. Last time she played it with the symphony, she said her part was about seventy-five percent set. Now she reports that it's "about ninety-four-point-three percent set now"—she's left herself some wiggle room in a few sections. As a performer, Shaw is concerned about dialogue and camaraderie, about being a coequal member of the ensemble rather than some interloper standing out in front.
Shaw's dual concern for simplicity and community allows her to perform a weird musical inversion. In so much of Lo, the writing for the orchestra is far more complex than anything going on with the soloist. The scale that opens the work is subsumed by shifting groups of instruments playing odd, sometimes unrelated chord progressions in lopsided rhythms. Elsewhere, while a limber violin melody soars overhead, Shaw instructs the winds to play "spunky" interlocking polyrhythms to create a fuzzy cloud of harmony. Her harmonic language is rooted alternately in English Baroque dances and modern pop songs, meaning that there are lots of tonal chords that move in strange ways. For instance, the third movement grows entirely from an enticing four-chord loop in the vibraphone that persists, even as Shaw surrounds it with chaos. But that chaos almost always comes from the orchestra, from Shaw-as-composer rather than Shaw-as-soloist.
All of these works display the fundamental tension at play between activity and stasis in Shaw's music. Each piece has long stretches where a static musical ground serves as the base around which a whirlwind of other activity swirls. Once the active part has worn itself out, that static base is still there, thrumming along. It's a fascinating way to make music—one that's always open to new possibilities.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Chaos By Design"