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Out of the Box: Caroline Shaw's "Orange"

Composer Caroline Shaw
Kait Moreno, 2017
Composer Caroline Shaw

One of today's most compelling compositional voices is channeled through the dynamic playing of the Attacca Quartet in a 2019 GRAMMY-winning release.

Out of the Box is a feature on CRB focusing both on recent releases and on music that lands outside the typical classical "strike zone." And this inaugural Out of the Box feature accomplishes both, with unmatched grace, elegance, and fire.

WHAT: Caroline Shaw & the Attacca Quartet:Orange. Released April 19, 2019. 

"Hello! Welcome to my garden. Thanks for coming, and stay for as long as you like." - Caroline Shaw

The Attacca Quartet recorded this album in the CRB Fraser Performance Studio, with our lead engineer, Antonio Oliart Ros, producing the whole thing alongside the quartet and the composer, while also single-handedly recording and mixing it. It's an album we all take a great deal of pride in around here, but that's not why I chose it for the first OOTB (more on that later). Incidentally it is the first album dedicated exclusively to Caroline Shaw's quartet music.

WHY I THINK YOU'LL LOVE ORANGE: It's tempting to say "because just trust me" (this is what I say whenever I play it for someone new), but if you want more than that, then I think you'll love it for how it piques your curiosity, for how warm it is, and for how it balances new sounds with old like, as Caroline Shaw says, "a pattern that you seem to know until you don't."

MUST LISTEN TRACK: "Plan & Elevation," (Tracks 3-7) ... but also "Valencia" (Track 2)... eh, just listen to it all, it's good.

As I set out on this new weekly project, exploring and writing about new albums and new sounds in the classical world that I think you'll greatly enjoy as well, I feel I should first make a confession: I find writing about music to be quite difficult. As the old line says, writing about music is sort of like dancing about architecture. After all, if I want you to listen to an album because I think it's really great, why not simply say so?

Not that I don't feel strongly about why I think you should listen to an album like Orange, nor that emphatic sentences about why I find Caroline Shaw's music great aren't clawing to get out. They are. I like that she invites us into her music like a good friend challenging you to be your better self. I really like how Shaw toys with and extends the sonic palette of the instrument or voice she's writing for, moving well beyond what I thought was possible for either, but not to the point where I get so lost in the gnarly complexity that I miss the music. I like that you truly get the sense that she is sharing her music with us and welcoming us to enjoy it with her.

But, the simple point is that this album is really, really good, and I think all you need to do is listen to a few seconds of it to realize why. 

So, just start at track one, and let ‘er rip.

With that being said, I do want to share some of Caroline Shaw's wonderful liner notes with you, since she does do a magnificent job of writing about music (nevermind the dancing architecture line above). 

"Hello!" she begins the liner notes of Orange, "Welcome to my garden. I've been cultivating string quartets for a few years now, and it is a joy that I get to share them with you, thanks to my fellow gardeners in the Attacca Quartet." I mean come on, how great is that?

She continues: "Here you'll find no radical reinvention of this centuries-old combination of ingredients [meaning the typical string quartet – two violins, a viola, and a cello]. The colors are vivid and familiar, and the shapes of the leaves follow a pattern that you seem to know until you don't." 

Caroline Shaw and the Attacca Quartet, 2019
Credit Jorsand Diaz
Caroline Shaw and the Attacca Quartet

Consider for example the simple Valencia orange, which is simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary. Orange the album, Shaw says, is much the same: it’s “a celebration of the simple, immediate, unadorned beauty of a natural, everyday, familiar thing."

Could never have put it better myself. I think you'll really enjoy what Caroline Shaw and the Attacca Quartet have come up with. As she says, it’s familiar and not - and excitingly so. So! If you have a moment, spend it with Orange.

And, as Shaw says to close her liner notes: "Thanks for coming, and stay as long as you like."

For more on the Attacca Quartet, visit their website.

Chris Voss is the Weekday Afternoon Host and a Producer for CRB.