Caroline Shaw’s new album Orange, performed by Attacca Quartet, is full of surprises.
The album cover shows an orange with leaves still attached, sitting in a beautifully composed shot on a grey background – an emoji brought to life. You almost expect to see ‘ce n’est pas une orange’ neatly painted underneath. And Magritte might well have approved of the playfulness in Shaw’s music, which revels in sudden juxtapositions and draws on surprising canonic references and reconstructions. In ‘Punctum’, a chorale tune steps in like a beautiful sad ghost.
The condensed freedom of these pieces puts them in the realm of the chamber music ‘Phantasy’ ideal, once espoused by Walter Willson Cobbett – though even he might have baulked at Shaw’s daring.
In her notes, Shaw uses the metaphor of a ‘garden’, tended to by herself and the quartet, and writes that the album is ‘a celebration of the simple, immediate, unadorned beauty of a natural, everyday, familiar thing’. Which is lovely – I like gardens – but that might make it sound a bit zen and meditative, when this music bursts with vitality. If this is a garden, it might be one experienced through a child’s eyes – unburdened by expectations and endlessly imaginative in its responses.
There is certainly an appealing directness and woody wholesomeness to many of Shaw’s ideas, which seem to grow from a deeply-bedded understanding of the colours of the string quartet, the grainy physicality of bowing and its sympathetic vibrations. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the arcing rainbow of rich, widely spaced chords which unfold magnificently in The Beech Tree, the final movement of ‘Plan And Elevation’.
In such moments, the zesty naturalness of the orange is an apt symbol. This is music with a bright zing that can’t be ignored. And it’s hard to imagine that the album could ever be performed by anything other than a string quartet, so surely is it crafted for its chosen tools, and so resolutely is it all executed by Attacca.
Orange is a release that, whatever you make of it, is certainly never boring.