Caroline Shaw and So Percussion
Photo: Anja Schutz / Nonesuch Records

Caroline Shaw and Sō Percussion Reunite for Genre-Defying LP

The combined forces of composer/vocalist/violinist Caroline Shaw and accomplished ensemble Sō Percussion continue to thrill and amaze.

Rectangles and Circumstance
Caroline Shaw and Sō Percussion
14 June 2024

Caroline Shaw is a musician and composer who is seemingly always searching for new sounds that go beyond traditional boundaries and often check the boxes of a variety of genres. Known primarily as a classical composer, the North Carolina native has collaborated with ensembles like Roomful of Teeth, Alarm Will Sound, and Attacca Quartet. Over the past few years, she has found a powerful bond with Sō Percussion, with whom she collaborated on her latest dazzling release, Rectangles and Circumstance.

Sō Percussion recorded with Shaw on her Grammy-winning 2021 album Narrow Sea (which also featured performances by soprano Dawn Upshaw and pianist Gil Kalish) and strengthened their collaborative bonds with her even further later that year with Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part. While Shaw’s previous collaborators have certainly garnered plenty of critical and artistic acclaim – her composition Partita for 8 Voices, performed and recorded by Roomful of Teeth, made her the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music – this third release with the percussion ensemble gives one the impression that this is a collaboration that is bearing the most consistent musical fruit.

Rectangles and Circumstance has a slightly harsher edge than the earthier, more ambient Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part, and the textures and complexity of this new album often result in an experience that begs for repeated listens. Sō Percussion – consisting of Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Silwinski, and Jason Treuting – assisted Shaw with a great deal of lyric preparation and melodic groundwork beforehand. Many of the songs began with instrumental pieces or fragments provided by Cha-Beach or Treuting. Silwinski explains in the liner notes, “Caroline, Eric, and I sourced a group of 19th-century poems that shaped its expressive mode (and) ended up using verses by Christina Rosetti, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, and William Blake… the lyrics on this album by members of the band contain wordplay that explores the same profound feelings explored by Blake and Dickinson.”

Despite the eras in which this lyric inspiration originated, Rectangles and Circumstance conveys a contemporary musical feel without ever really seeming overly anachronistic. The industrial backdrop of the title track greets the listener with musical complexity nicely complemented by Caroline Shaw’s gorgeous alto. In 2009, singer and composer Brad Wells once auditioned Shaw for a vocal ensemble and noted, “(She) doesn’t have that larger, developed classical solo voice, but what I heard (in the audition) was boatloads of musicality.”

The wide-ranging “boatload” that Wells referred to is certainly present all over Rectangles and Circumstance, often straying outside recognizable genres. “Sing On” has Shaw vocalizing over an overdubbed chorus of her effects-tinged multitracked voices while a jittery drum beat brings to mind the off-kilter buzz of Radiohead. This type of controlled mania works in excellent contrast with more measured performances, such as on the deliberately paced “Like a Drum”, which moves at a slower tempo but with no fewer layers or texture.

The more ethereal, ballad-like tracks are breathtaking in their grace. “And So”, which takes inspiration from Gertrude Stein’s 1913 poem “Sacred Emily” (quoting the poem’s line “A rose is a rose is a rose”), begins with a light, effortless touch and even maintains that soft clarity in the final third of the song, with the full band in play. “The Parting Glass” is similarly angelic, with what sounds like a glass harmonica providing the perfect, warm introduction. Even as slightly chaotic clusters of bells appear later in the song, it’s still an oddly soothing sensation.

Elsewhere, the odd “This” is charming in its quirkiness, with the word “this” often repeated during the beginning and at other places in the performance, sounding like a sort of Steve Reich-like minimalist experiment, with various other playful vocal gymnastics reminiscent of Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices. The final track, “To Music”, is a breathtaking interpretation of Franz Schubert’s “An die Musik”, with the melody slowed down, vocal passages stretched out, and harmonies highlighted. Compared to Schubert’s original composition, it may initially seem to be a vast departure from the source material. That may be true, but the warm sonic touches and the care that Caroline Shaw and Sō Percussion have taken in unpacking this composition and deliberately laying all the different parts out for the world to examine and savor is perhaps the ultimate tribute to this 200-year-old composition.

Clearly, Caroline Shaw has found kindred spirits in the members of Sō Percussion. What began with Narrow Sea and continued with Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part has matured even further with the indescribably beautiful Rectangles and Circumstance. Here’s hoping this artistic collaboration continues to bear fruit.

RATING 8 / 10