COMPOSER PORTRAITS: CAROLINE SHAW | New York, Miller Theatre

Pots and pans are sprouting across the stage of the Miller Theatre. Granted, the pans are steel pan drums but the pots are pots. Okay, maybe they’re bowls? Crucially, their pastel-coloured presence creates an open, domestic feel this evening: a kitchen awaiting the arrival of its musician guests.

The two halves of this ‘Composer Portrait’ are divided between Attacca Quartet and Sō Percussion with an on-stage interview between Caroline and Melissa Smey bisecting them. This golden(-orange?) ratio allows the exploration of 3 (maybe more) facets of her music, mind and meanings. Still glowing from their win at the Grammys for this very music, Attacca play like they’re confidently in the middle of pitching a perfect game. Across the three pieces from Orange, we start to glimpse what Caroline has discussed in terms of composing in order to “create the kind of community that you want to be part of”. In ‘Punctum’, the players represent similar but different lines, both playful then somber, original and reverential, old and young. Furthermore, the Beethoven that Shaw jokes around with in ‘Blueprint’ confirms that this is a community that also embraces music nerds and subtle humour. So far, so Serioso.

Sō Percussion take the stage like it’s a Bon Iver show: plaid-clad and bearded, stepping over microphone cabling until they sit behind a first percussive station. Whereas Orange has been on heavy rotation across various parts of the known musical world, these songs are all relatively unknown and feature Caroline’s singing at the fulcrum. Forming 4/10ths of as yet unreleased Let the soil play its simple part, each song has a different flavour. We learned during her interview that these pieces are constructed for an audience in much the same way that a meal is designed for a dinner guest. If that’s the case, then Caroline Shaw must throw incredible dinner parties. Her ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ has hints of Wes Anderson and the use of poured water in ‘On Jordan’s Stormy banks I stand’ is intimate and tactile in the most subtly effective way. After a quick tea break to nurse the voice, the eponymous piece is delivered in a channeling of Blake (both James and William) and The Postal Service.

On more than one occasion, Shaw’s composition calls for multiple people to be gathered around a single instrument. Whether it’s the sharing of piano or marimba, this selfless, generous collaboration serves as the perfect metaphor when it comes to Caroline’s designed community. It’s the sort of community that makes you feel simultaneously welcomed and challenged. Maybe more tellingly, it’s the sort of community that says ‘hell yeah!’ to a conceptual cover of ABBA’s ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’. Amidst the pots and pans the community grows to the size of a university theatre, and we bask in that.

Find out about the Miller Theatre’s next Composer Portraits here and sample more of Caroline’s creations here.

The Prickle - About transp