ALBUM REVIEW: Caroline Shaw’s ‘Orange’

Caroline Shaw. Photo by Kait Moreno.

It’s not often that we stop for a while to enjoy the simpler things in life: a juicy orange, for example, or a Haydn String Quartet. For composer, violinist, and vocalist Caroline Shaw, these moments taken to stop and reflect are important sources of inspiration. Even a sparse, elegant image of an orange can turn into “a celebration of the simple, immediate, unadorned beauty of a natural, every day, familiar thing.”

On her collaborative album with the Attacca Quartet, Orange, Shaw invites us to pause for a bit of thought about the familiar forms of both plants and string quartets, resulting in an album that is as vibrant and colorful as any garden.

Best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning composition Partita for 8 Voices, Shaw is something of a musical polymath: as a vocalist in Roomful of Teeth, violinist with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, award-winning composer, and wide-ranging collaborator, Shaw has proven herself to be an artist and musician who is wonderfully difficult to pin down.

This is certainly the case in her newest album collaboration, which consists of six works for string quartet written over roughly the past ten years. Here, you can find much of the same deconstruction of classical forms found in her Partita for 8 Voices, but using a musical language tailored to the quirks and traditions of the string quartet.

The album begins with Entr’acte, a warping extension of the traditional minuet and trio form. After opening with dramatically swelling and pulsing chords, the music seems to wind its way into some more unfamiliar territory, eventually growing to include harmonics, unpitched brushing of the bow, and pizzicato. Throughout, Shaw continues to weave in and deconstruct more traditional sequences, harmonies, and chord progressions in fresh and sometimes startling ways.

Rather than a classical form, the next piece celebrates the form of the humble Valencia orange. Bright, arpeggiated harmonics and pizzicato open Valencia, but the music quickly loses stability as glissandos and powerful chordal swells are added to the texture. Shaw describes her use of “somewhat viscous chords and melodies” in this brief work, which could find parallels in the bold tanginess of an orange’s taste. At its core, though, it is a celebration of the rounded, brightly colored curves of this simple and abundant food.

The longest piece on the album, Plan and Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks), is a five-movement meditation on a different natural landscape: the sprawling garden at Dumbarton Oaks, where Shaw spent time as a musician in residence. Here, Shaw draws inspiration from fixtures of the estate, such as a stately beech tree or the sunlit orangery. In the second movement, Shaw quotes passages from classic quartet repertoire, such as Ravel and Mozart, cutting out and reinterpreting this older material alongside segments of her own work much like you might arrange a bouquet of flowers. The final movement begins with strummed chords in the cello and chirping, high-pitched pizzicatos from the violins before growing to include dramatic sustained harmonies. Eventually, the rest of the quartet fades away to leave a violinist quietly strumming the same contemplative chords, like a bird singing at twilight.

Attacca Quartet.

In the next three pieces, Shaw continues to find inspiration in classic forms and music of the past. Punctum, which Shaw calls “an exercise in nostalgia,” is a winding, sequence-filled exploration of what happens when classical techniques and harmonic progressions are used in a fragmented, non-classical way. Her 16-minute string quartet Ritornello 2.sq.2.j.a deconstructs the classical ritornello form, in which a musical idea continues to return with little digressions in between. In Shaw’s reimagining, a simple musical idea begins the piece before being warped and spun through passages featuring the Attacca Quartet playing wild, fluttering harmonics and glissandos, striking the string with the wood of the bow, and droning on powerful, open chords.

Limestone and Felt finishes off the album by drawing inspiration from both the warm resonance and cold stone features of a cavernous gothic chapel, making for a piece that is by turns percussive and plucky or resonant and contemplative.

Much like the rest of Shaw’s wide-ranging work as a musician, Orange draws on a variety of techniques, traditions, and forms. Certain themes, though, continue to inspire and tie these pieces together, such as the order, simplicity, and beauty of nature or the forms and ideals of our musical traditions. On Orange, Shaw and the Attacca Quartet find elegance and charm in both the humble orange and the well-loved music of the past, inviting us to discover something new amid the familiar.

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Celesta’ by Michael Jon Fink

by Peter Tracy

Even at their most outgoing, instruments like the celesta tend to hide in larger ensembles, coming out of the texture for little moments here and there. Perhaps this is because the celesta tends to be a quiet instrument: its tuned metal bars give off a delicate ring that is subtle and long lasting, but won’t compete with a horn section or timpani.

On his latest album, appropriately titled Celesta, Los Angeles-based composer Michael Jon Fink moves the instrument to center stage. Rather than burying the instrument in a larger ensemble, Fink applies his sparse, tranquil, and quietly mysterious musical language to this often-overlooked instrument, creating what is among the largest ever collections of music for solo celesta.

Comprised of twelve short pieces performed by the composer, this is an album in which less is more. Ranging from under one minute long to just over six, the pieces as a whole form something of an arc, at times melancholic, joyful, nostalgic, or pensive, but always quiet and spacious.

This suite of sorts begins with “Call,” a gently lilting melody over bell-like arpeggiations that is reminiscent of a tune from an ancient music box. “Cold Pastoral” features two lines in sparse counterpoint, with a simple and repetitive, yet slowly varying melodic phrase that brings to mind a lake frozen in the dead of winter. The pensive stillness takes on a nostalgic tone in “Bells,” with pentatonic melodies that twinkle like a wind chime. “From the Singing River” turns things in a more mysterious direction, with little melodic variations that seems to circle around without ever arriving at their final destination.

The following two pieces, “First Star, Last Star” and “Post-Impression” continue this trend, tending toward pensive arpeggiated melodies with plenty of space to let the instrument’s soft tones reverberate. By “Ruins,” things have settled into a meditative trance, with the title helping to inspire a feeling of something that has been lost to the past. Slightly more active pieces follow, with the tenuously hopeful “Sunless” incorporating some of the lower notes of the five-octave celesta and the eerie “Nocturne for the Three Times” drifting through incredibly sparse and atmospheric textures.

“Softly Yellowed Moon” is equally enigmatic, with two lines providing melody and harmony that wind their way down into the longest piece on the album, “Triptych.” Loosely divided into three parts, the piece begins with a quietly wandering melody over a left-hand ostinato before moving into what is the most openly joyful music of the album. Eventually, the music reaches an almost animated conclusion featuring crescendos in tight harmony and the celesta sounding more bell-like than ever. The appropriately named “After the End,” then, seems to question this borderline excitement, leaving us with a somber and unsettlingly harmonized reflection.

Still, the album avoids drawing a clear conclusion. Is there a story here in the space between the notes, or are we just meant to reflect on the round tones of the celesta as they fade into silence? Each piece feels like a small and crystalline world of its own, inviting the listener to discover their own meaning for themselves.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Derek Hunter Wilson’s ‘Catalogue of Trying’

by Maggie Molloy

Derek Hunter Wilson. Photo by Nika States.

Expansive panoramas of Willamette Falls form the basis of a new music video for Derek Hunter Wilson’s “Catalogue of Trying.” Shot by Portland photographer and filmmaker Chloé Jarnac, the images reflect the inherent tension between nature and industry.

It’s a theme echoed throughout Wilson’s new album Steel, Wood, & Air (named after the instruments it features: piano, strings, and bass clarinet). In it, the pianist and composer focuses on the elemental aspects of music, exploring color, texture, and timbre through introspective works that highlight the essence of the instruments themselves. Recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubbing, the resulting works highlight the organic nature of music-making, even amid a technology-driven world.

We’re thrilled to premiere the music video for Wilson’s “Catalogue of Trying.”


Derek Hunter Wilson’s new album Steel, Wood, & Air is out now on Beacon Sound. Click here for more information.

ALBUM REVIEW: Ashley Bathgate’s ‘ASH’

by Peter Tracy

Photo by Bill Wadman.

The Bach Cello Suites are unavoidable: cellists from around the world grow up playing them, audiences revere them, and they keep finding their way into movies, TV shows, and pop culture. Even for cellists like new music superstar and Bang on A Can All-Star Ashley Bathgate, the Bach suites remain a staple of the repertoire, and after over 200 years they continue to inspire not just performers, but composers as well.

In fact, Bathgate recently commissioned the composers of the New York-based collective Sleeping Giant to write a Bach-inspired six movement suite for her newest album ASH, continuing the long-standing tradition of bringing Bach’s influence into the present day.

Bathgate gave Sleeping Giant composers Timo Andres, Christopher Cerrone, Jacob Cooper, Ted Hearne, Robert Honstein, and Andrew Norman rather simple instructions: take any inspiration you find from Bach’s music and write one movement each to form a collaborative suite. With movements from some of today’s most innovative and stylistically diverse composers, these simple instructions have resulted in a bold and imaginative new work.

The album begins with a contribution from Andrew Norman titled “For Ashley”: a fast-paced, upbeat introduction inspired by the repetitive arpeggiation of the Fourth Suite Prelude. Repeated staccato patterns morph and transform to include rhythmic variation, chords, and harmonics, resulting in a piece that is always in motion. Christopher Cerrone’s “On Being Wrong” takes us in a totally different direction: reverb and pre-recorded cello merge together with Bathgate’s live performance to create a layered and resonant piece including both driving rhythms and meditative, open harmonic passages.

Described by the composer as a “madcap gigue,” Timo Andres’ “Small Wonder” continues the suite with some more chaotic energy. Small, eclectic musical cells build on each other, Baroque dance rhythms continually surfacing along with cheeky quotes from Bach’s gigues. The fourth piece in the suite, Jacob Cooper’s “Ley Line,” takes similarly direct inspiration: a moment from the end of the Fifth Suite Prelude featuring an open string drone is stretched out and reimagined to be over ten minutes long. Bathgate’s playing becomes frantic and raspy as the harmonies grow more and more dissonant over the drone, making for a continuous sense of tension that rises and falls throughout.

Perhaps the most unique moment on the album comes in the form of Ted Hearne’s “DaVZ23BzMHo,” whose title references a Youtube video the piece samples. Hearne manipulates music from a 90s-era commercial into a wash of reverb and atmosphere, placing Bathgate’s resonant chords and harmonics on top. The hazy and slowed down music seems to have a mind of its own, stopping and starting to leave Bathgate alone in meditative silence or sliding unpredictably in and out of tune. The cello vies for attention over the chaotic backdrop, playing increasingly dissonant harmonies until the two come together again and Bathgate is left droning off into silence.

Robert Honstein’s “Orison” takes things in an even more atmospheric direction. Inspired by the resonance of the cello in huge cathedral spaces, Honstein’s piece is built around reverb, with each successive note playing a duet of sorts with the continued ringing of the previous ones. “Orison” is a Middle English word for prayer, and if Hearne’s piece was tenuously meditative, Honstein’s is calm and reflective: single tones and chords ring out in regular succession, leaving plenty of space in between to end the suite with the equivalent of a contemplative Sarabande.

While ASH is something of a showcase for Sleeping Giant, it’s Bathgate’s vibrant energy as a performer that unites the album and amplifies the composers’ voices. From Norman’s sharp rhythms to Hearne’s slow-motion dreamscapes and Honstein’s reverb-soaked sense of calm, Bathgate showcases an ability to adapt to any stylistic challenge and bring her own voice to the mix.

On ASH, the composers of Sleeping Giant draw wildly different inspiration from Bach’s music and filter these inspirations through their own distinctive styles, which is a testament to the diversity and lasting impact of Bach’s music. While each piece grew out of Bach’s Cello Suites, the pieces that make up this collaboration present a wide range of musical ideas and techniques that continue to explore, much as Bach did, the possibilities of the cello as a solo instrument.

John Lunn on Pop Music, Minimalism, and Composing for Downton Abbey

by Dacia Clay

The long-awaited Downton Abbey movie has just been released, as has its fantastic score by John Lunn. Lunn is the Emmy Award-winning composer of the soundtrack for the Downton Abbey TV show as well.

In this interview, he talks about his surprising musical roots in pop and minimalism, how you can hear those influences in the music for Downton, what it’s like to write for the show and the movie, and he even reveals (gasp!) a movie spoiler.