Caroline Shaw is the youngest ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, for her choral work Partita. The moment I heard this work, I freaked out and went directly to her website, anxiously and hopefully searching for piano works. Partita affected me so much that I couldn’t not play Gustave Le Gray once I found it. (if you haven’t heard it, check it out here and here)

This is a beautiful, thoughtful work. There aren’t any pyrotechnics or epic romantic Titanic moments – this is a piece about slow unfoldings, meditative listening and the sound between the notes. The expressive indications are wonderfully whimsical but just evocative enough to grasp.

like a photograph slowly developing on waxed paper

like an expensive Hermès silk cravate?

what’s written is just a guideline – not exact.

solid and simple, like the appalachian foothills

and my favourite:

a linen hymn

Like these ideas, performing the piece, imagining the piece, listening to the piece is an exercise in opening yourself to the ephemeral and ethereal. Understanding the difference between time and pulse, and sustaining long lines without any effort – these are some of the things you’ll need to master. Rhythmically, there is mostly simplicity, but the parts that are complex need to sound equally simple – that’s just plain difficult.

The entrance of the Chopin Mazurka fragment midway fits in perfectly with the rest of the work. To me it speaks of gentle nostalgia, defined movement in space and an elegant and graceful melancholy.

The pictured photograph by the eponymous Gustave Le Gray is very fitting for this work. It is a real journey, full of meaning, full of feeling; I am not sure where it is supposed to go, or when you get there. Maybe that is the point. Maybe it is not.

This would be a good work for anyone learning about sustaining things, containing things, listening to things and fitting in/getting out of the way. So, pretty much anyone.

Notes to the Performer:

  • Practise the rhythms a lot, so they don’t sound like rhythms
  • Two things that really help with colour and timbre are subtle gradations of timing and voicing. Do a lot of experimentation. Don’t stop experimenting. Don’t stop imagining new experiments.
  • When working on pieces like this, it’s useful to me to not imagine holding back, but rather letting go. One image I use is to never stop moving, always be going somewhere, no matter how slowly I move. I find that stopping in quiet music is a sure path to the dreaded unsound.

Title:  Gustave Le Gray   

Composer:  Caroline Shaw

Country:  United States

Duration:  14 min

Date of Composition:  2012

Publisher:  Caroline Shaw Editions

Purchase Link:

Commission: Amy Yang

Dedication:  Amy Yang

Premiere: Amy Yang, 2012, Princeton

Performance History:  

  • Amy Yang, May 2012, Princeton University, NJ, USA
  • Enrico Maria Polimanti, January 2014, Aula Magna-Università di Roma Tre, Rome, Italy
  • Gregory Oh, Feb 2016, Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, ON, Canada


Note by Caroline Shaw:

Chopin’s opus 17 A minor Mazurka is one of the most exquisite, perfect pieces of music ever made. The opening alone contains a potent poetic balance between the viscosity and density of the descending harmonic progression and the floating onion skin of the loose, chromatic melody above. Or, in fewer words – it’s very prosciutto and mint. When someone asks me, “So what is your music like?” – I’ll sometimes answer (depending on who’s asking), “Kind of like sashimi?” That is, it’s often made of chords and sequences presented in their raw, naked, preciously unadorned state – vividly fresh and new, yet utterly familiar. Chopin is a different type of chef. He covers much more harmonic real estate than I do, and his sequences are more varied and inventive. He weaves a textured narrative through his harmony that takes you through different characters and landscapes, whereas I’d sometimes be happy listening to a single well-framed, perfectly voiced triad. But the frame is the hard part – designing the perfectly attuned and legible internal system of logic and memory that is strong but subtle enough to support an authentic emotional experience of return. (Not to get all Proustian or anything.) In some way that I can’t really understand or articulate yet, photographs can do this with a remarkable economy of means. Translating that elusive syntax into music is an interesting challenge. Then again, sometimes music is just music. Gustave Le Gray is a multi-layered portrait of Op. 17 #4 using some of Chopin’s ingredients overlaid and hinged together with my own. It was written expressly for pianist Amy Yang, who is one of the truest artists I’ve ever met.

via Caroline Shaw Editions

Caroline Adelaide Shaw is a New York-based musician—vocalist, violinist, composer, and producer—who performs in solo and collaborative projects. She is the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, for Partita for 8 Voices, written for the Grammy-winning Roomful of Teeth, of which she is a member. Recent commissions include new works for the Dover Quartet, the Calidore Quartet, the Aizuri Quartet, FLUX Quartet, Brooklyn Rider, Anne Sofie von Otter, The Crossing, Roomful of Teeth, yMusic, ACME, ICE, A Far Cry, Philharmonia Baroque, the Baltimore Symphony, and Carnegie Hall’s Ensemble Connect. In the 2017–18 season, Caroline’s new works will be premiered by Renée Fleming with Inon Barnatan, Dawn Upshaw with Sō Percussion and Gil Kalish, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with John Lithgow, the Britten Sinfonietta, TENET with the Metropolis Ensemble, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, the Netherlands Chamber Choir, and Luciana Souza with A Far Cry. Future seasons will include a new piano concerto for Jonathan Biss with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and a new work for the LA Phil. Caroline’s scoring of visual work includes the soundtrack for the feature film To Keep the Light as well as collaborations with Kanye West. She studied at Yale, Rice, and Princeton, and she has held residencies at Dumbarton Oaks, the Banff Centre, Music on Main, and the Vail Dance Festival. Caroline loves the color yellow, otters, Beethoven opus 74, Mozart opera, Kinhaven, the smell of rosemary, and the sound of a janky mandolin.

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