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Three Essays


The convergence of music and language is a phenomenon that fascinates Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Caroline Shaw. In 2016, Shaw was deeply troubled by the national unrest leading to and resulting from that year's presidential election. Much like in the Covid-19 epidemic, she saw language being used to spread information about current events but also, and increasingly, to spread confusion and misinformation. This was the catalyst for a collection of Three Essays, which were written for and premiered by our quartet at the BBC Proms in 2018. Shaw’s Three Essays address language’s power to stir emotion and spread information and ideas through written, spoken and digital forms.

The ‘First Essay’ subtitled ‘Nimrod’ alludes to the biblical figure of Nimrod, overseer of the construction of the Tower of Babel. The story, which seeks to explain the origin of the world’s languages, takes place following the Great Flood, when all of mankind speaks in a common tongue. Led by Nimrod, the human race seeks to construct a tower tall enough to reach heaven. In response, God confounds their speech, making the builders unintelligible to one another and halting the construction.

Shaw takes the idea of language’s potential to communicate and miscommunicate and encodes it into a series of unrelated sections of material that imitate the lilt and flow of spoken language. Shaw then weaves these disparate parts and disintegrating material together with colorful and imaginative transitions. The music of these transitions picks up where the language-like fragments leave off in order to unite the work as a compelling and cohesive whole.

Shaw writes that the ‘Second Essay: Echo’ 'touches on a number of references: the concept of the ‘echo chamber’ that social media fosters in our political discourse; the ‘echo’ function in the Hypertext Preprocessor programming language; and of course the effect of an echo'. This slow movement follows a simple harmonic progression which over time picks up tempo until it reaches the climax, a loop ending in a frenzy of incoherence. The idea of our social media accounts as an echo chamber for our own opinions is a well-documented trend across the globe. The cacophonous climax of this movement demonstrates the potential disintegration that comes from hearing only the echo of our own opinions.

The ‘Third Essay: Ruby’ brings the philosophical and musical elements of the first two essays together. Continuing in the vein of fragmentation explored in the ‘First Essay’, the ‘Third Essay’ attempts to tame it into a logical order. According to Shaw, 'the title [Ruby] refers both to the programming language Ruby (developed in Japan in the mid-1990s), as well the simple beauty of the gemstone for which the language was named'. The music is dotted with repeated and insistent D’s which seem almost like a binary code surrounding the melodic fragments. The ‘Third Essay’ points to the increasing integration of language and technology in our society’s future.

from notes by Calidore String Quartet © 2020


Schumann, Shaw & Shostakovich: Babel
Studio Master: SIGCD650Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


No 1: Nimrod
Track 5 on SIGCD650 [8'34] Download only
No 2: Echo
Track 6 on SIGCD650 [4'18] Download only
No 3: Ruby
Track 7 on SIGCD650 [5'24] Download only

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