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Nonesuch releases “Evergreen”, the second album of works by Caroline Shaw of the New Yorker Attacca Quartet.

Evergreen is the second project to unite composer Caroline Shaw with the Attacca Quartet. The previous, Orange, released in 2019, won the Grammy for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance the following year, and is now followed by a work built around The Evergreen, the twenty-one-minute title suite – commissioned by Third Angle New Music, one of Portland, Oregon’s leading cultural non-profits – and released on 5 March 2020, just before the global confinement of the covid-19 pandemic. It is the only work so far unreleased on disc, in a sprawling, hour-long album consisting of five other previously premiered and recorded pieces: one more suite for string quartet – Three Essays, twenty minutes long – one shorter piece for string quartet – Blueprint – and three works written for string quartet and voice (she is also a member of the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth).

Shaw’s creative impulses often arise from intriguing forms of musical translation. Without going to the extreme of synaesthesia, Shaw has once said that she likes to “think of an object, a poem, a painting, a dance or anything that isn’t music, and then think what if that thing were music. What would it sound like?”. The results of these mental experiments give rise to gloriously inventive music. The Evergreen, the suite, consists of four movements entitled, in order, Moss, Stem, Water and Root. Shaw herself described the piece at the time as an offering to a particular tree in a coniferous forest on Galiano Island, located on the Canadian side of the Strait of Georgia, which separates Canada and the United States on the Pacific coast.

Three Essays is a three-movement suite composed in 2016 for and premiered by the New York quartet Calidore (and included on their 2020 album Babel, released by Signum Records). Although the first of the “essays”, Nimrod, might bring to mind one of Edgar Elgar’s fourteen Enigma Variations, its real inspiration is, within that “translatory” impulse that music has for Shaw, the power of language to evoke feelings and disseminate information and ideas in written, spoken and digital form. Shaw has explained that the piece “began as a simple exercise in interpreting the melody and rhythm of one of my favourite writers, Marilynne Robinson, in music. The title refers to the legendary biblical character Nimrod, who oversaw the construction of the Tower of Babel, a city designed to be tall enough to reach the heavens”.

Also composed in 2016, Blueprint was originally written for the Aizuri Quartet and is a harmonic reduction of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 6 in B flat major, op. 18-6. As a violinist and violist, Shaw herself has performed this piece many times and she explains that it is a conversation “with Beethoven, with Haydn (his teacher and the ‘father’ of the string quartet), and with the joys and melancholy of his opus 18-6”. Slightly later is And So, the second of the three songs that make up the Is A Rose trilogy (released on the 2020 album PBO& Caroline Shaw), which Caroline Shaw wrote for the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale and the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, who had also sung another of the pieces included on this album, Cant voi l’aube, a poem by the 12th-century troubadour Gace Brulé, which Shaw composed for von Otter and included on her 2016 album So Many Things.

Much more recent is Other Song, a piece sung by Caroline Shaw and originally released in 2021 on Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part, the joint album released by the American composer and the percussion quartet Sõ Percussion.