Caroline Shaw, the luminary New York composer, stands as a testament to what unwavering dedication and passion can achieve. From her humble beginnings in North Carolina as a violinist, to her meteoric rise as the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, Shaw’s journey is one of tenacity, vision, and prodigious talent.
Many know her as the GRAMMY®-winning vocalist of the ensemble Roomful of Teeth, but beyond her prowess as a performer, Shaw’s unique voice as a composer resonates deeply, carving out a space for her in the annals of music history.
In this program, we explore her 2011 composition, Entr’acte, a mesmerizing reflection on the classical past through a contemporary lens. Inspired by the Brentano Quartet's rendition of Haydn's String Quartet Op. 77 No. 2, Shaw’s piece evokes a dreamscape where time seems elastic, and the boundaries between eras blur. In Shaw’s words, “Entr’acte was written in 2011 after hearing the Brentano Quartet play Haydn’s Op. 77 No. 2 — with their spare and soulful shift to the D-flat major trio in the minuet. It is structured like a minuet and trio, riffing on that classical form but taking it a little further. I love the way some music (like the minuet of Op. 77) suddenly takes you to the other side of Alice’s looking glass, in a kind of absurd, subtle, technicolor transition.”
The opening strains of Entr’acte conjure up an ethereal realm, with a hymn-like theme that feels both familiar and distant. This ghostly tune, however, is ephemeral. It disintegrates into a series of disjointed phrases, painting an audioscape of fading memories and echoing pasts. Shaw adeptly employs a variety of techniques – from pitch-less bow noise to the sighing notes reminiscent of breath – crafting a piece that engages, challenges, and enchants.
As the composition progresses, the structure, rooted in the minuet form, reveals itself. This classical backbone is juxtaposed with contemporary ruptures, with unexpected transitions that hint at the clash of times and styles. Shaw’s approach to dynamics is exquisite; hushed moments swell into majestic chords, reminiscent of nature's quiet revelations that crescendo into awe-inspiring panoramas.
The playful pizzicato section brings a refreshing zest, mimicking the sporadic rainfall between a clear sky and a downpour, evoking nature's unpredictable beauty. This flirtation with time and rhythm, where Shaw alternates between varying time signatures, feels rebellious and tantalizing.
Entr’acte might be described as a bridge between epochs. From its opening, which reminds us of ancient hymns and ancestral melodies, to its climax that feels contemporary and avant-garde, Shaw invites us on a journey. And by its end, listeners are left with an echoing silence, a poignant reminder of the transient nature of music and time.
Caroline Shaw's genius lies not just in her ability to craft beautiful music but also in her talent for bridging worlds. Whether it's the bygone era of Haydn or the experimental sounds of today, she seamlessly connects them, crafting a narrative that’s both timeless and timely.
Instrumentation – strings
Duration – 12 minutes
~ Kenneth Bean
Georg and Joyce Albers-Schonberg Assistant Conductor
Princeton Symphony Orchestra
Photo credit: Kait Moreno