Who knew the Spokane String Quartet and rapper Kanye West have similar tastes? Both find the work of composer Caroline Shaw astonishing. And both want to share her singular music with larger audiences.
The SSQ will follow in West’s daring footsteps by performing one of the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer’s pieces at its season opener this Sunday at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.
The rapper West began his collaborations with the classical composer, vocalist and violinist three years ago when he enlisted Shaw’s help in a remix of his 2008 hit “Say You Will.” She was also featured on “Wolves” and contributed vocals to “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2,” both from West’s seventh studio album, “The Life of Pablo.” Shaw’s other pop collaborations include songs with Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, and The National.
A darling of both the pop and classical worlds, Shaw even appeared as herself in season 4 of the Amazon Prime series “Mozart in the Jungle.” The story line involved a main character seeking to premiere her piece “Hi” in a competition for conductors.
SSQ violinist Amanda Howard-Phillips discovered Shaw on the advice of Morihiko Nakahara, the Spokane Symphony resident conductor and music director candidate. He knew Howard-Phillips was always on the hunt for music by young composers, particularly female composers, to add to the quartet’s repertoire.
“I wanted to dislike Caroline Shaw at first – it doesn’t seem fair that one person can be so talented. Save some for the rest of us!” Howard-Phillips said. “But her undeniable genius won me over.”
Shaw won her Pulitzer in music in 2013 for her “Partita for 8 Voices,” an a capella work written for the Grammy-winning ensemble Roomful of Teeth, of which she is a member. The Pulitzer jury cited Shaw’s inventive embrace of speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects.
Even Shaw’s online presence elicits pangs of envy.
“Her Instagram (@carolineadelaideshaw) is ridiculously charming,” Howard-Phillips said. “She posts a lot of photos of her fire escape vegetable garden at her New York apartment, and her various soft-boiled eggs.”
But in the end, it’s Shaw’s original music that enthralled SSQ members Howard-Phillips, first violin Maeusz Wolski, violist Jeannette Wee-Yang and cellist Helen Byrne. This Sunday, they will feature Shaw’s “Entr’acte,” a spellbinding piece written for string quartet.
Shaw was inspired to compose “Entr’acte” in 2011 after hearing the Brentano Quartet play Joseph Haydn’s Op. 77 No. 2 – with that quartet’s spare and soulful shift to the D-flat major trio in the minuet. Shaw has written that she structured the piece like a minuet and trio, riffing on that classical form, but taking it a little further.
“I love the way some music suddenly takes you to the other side of Alice’s looking glass, in a kind of absurd, subtle, Technicolor transition,” Shaw wrote about “Entr’acte.”
The rest of the program the SSQ will perform is more traditional classical fare, but no less mesmerizing: a Haydn quartet, Op. 50 no. 6, and Antonin Dvorák’s quartet, Op. 105. The juxtaposition is appropriate and exciting: It’s a showcase of the avant garde of different eras, bold for their times, and now.
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