Through the Looking-Glass: Caroline Shaw’s “Entr’acte”

composer Caroline Shaw (b. 1982) -photo by Dashon Burton/Courtesy of the artist
composer Caroline Shaw (b. 1982) -photo by Dashon Burton/Courtesy of the artist

 

You might not expect a contemporary American composer in her early 30s to be influenced by the music of Franz Joseph Haydn. But the Menuet of Haydn’s Op. 77, No. 2 String Quartet was the key that unlocked Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte, a 2011 work for string quartet. Shaw explains,

Entracte 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 minuets of Op. 77) suddenly takes you to the other side of Alice’s looking glass, in a kind of absurd, subtle, technicolor transition.

Entr’acte doesn’t overtly sound like Haydn (Listen to the Op. 77, No. 2 Menuet here. The “soulful shift” to D-flat major takes place at 2:10. Also notice the slyly comic way Haydn returns to the “A” section between 3:34 and 3:44). Throughout the piece we get subtle glimpses of classical and baroque music that has suddenly found itself in the wrong century. At moments, these fragments from an earlier time get a little unruly (the unchained baroque sequences around 6:22).

The opening is built on a descending ostinato bass line which breaks down into irregularity at the end of the phrase. The instruments seem to be sighing, mournfully and perhaps with exhaustion, foreshadowing later “sighs” which sound surprisingly vocal.

Here is the Calidore String Quartet playing Caroline Shaw’s Entracte:

A native of Greenville, North Carolina, Caroline Shaw began writing music at the age of ten. She studied the violin through the Suzuki method, later earning degrees in violin performance from Rice and Yale universities. In 2010, she entered a PhD program in composition at Princeton. At the age of 30, she became the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music after writing the a cappella composition, Partita for 8 Voices.

Night Traffic

rainy night traffic

There is a significant update to Monday’s post regarding the Hartford Wagner Festival’s plans to use a “virtual orchestra” in performances of the Ring Cycle. On Monday afternoon the Festival announced that performances would be postponed due to the controversy, which resulted in resignations of key members of the company. Although it was not mentioned in the released statement, an apparent lack of financial support may also have played a role. A Kickstarter campaign, initiated on May 30 with the fundraising goal of $25,000, has only resulted in a single $50.00 pledge. To get a sense of the “virtual orchestra,” listen to this sampled version of Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings and then compare it with the real thing.

While the “virtual orchestra” has met with resistance in the opera pit, computer processed sounds have led to a rich array of new colors and exciting compositional possibilities for contemporary composers. From amplified rock music to the faint hum of our lights and appliances, the sounds of electricity are all around us. These sounds shape our sensibilities in the way bird songs and bubbling brooks influenced Haydn or Schubert. In pop songs and avant-garde computer compositions, the recording has become elevated to a work of art in its own right. There are obvious drawbacks to the fixed and unchanging nature of a recording, as opposed to the spontaneity of acoustic performance. But acoustic and electric sounds will continue to blend in interesting new ways. In the twenty-first century, complex musical technology ranges from the violin to the computer.

Paul Lansky’s Night Traffic (1990) uses the processed, recorded sounds of cars passing in the night on a four lane highway in New Jersey. For me, the piece hints at an atmosphere of lonely isolation and the dehumanizing nature of modern technology. You may come away with a completely different feeling. As you listen, consider the sense of motion and edgy, metallic tonal colors. Read about the background of the piece here. Lansky offers this description of Night Traffic:

There is a kind of randomness, violence, and rhythmic intensity (and great Doppler shifts!) which draw upon and excite all sorts of musical perceptions.

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Retiring last month, Paul Lansky was a longtime member of Princeton University’s composition faculty. Recently, his music has shifted from computers, which he has described as “a kind of aural camera in the world”, to acoustic instruments. His 1973 tape piece, mild und leiseinspired by Wagner’s Tristan chordwas quoted in the Radiohead song, Idioteque.