Contemporary composer: Caroline Shaw | Gramophone
Pulitzer Prize winner, who has worked with Renée Fleming and Kanye West, has a lot going for her, says Jonathan Shipley
What were you doing when you were 30? Caroline Shaw is unlikely to forget it, as it was her age when she received the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The year was 2013, and the accolade was for her a cappella room Partita (2009-11) for eight voices. Composed for the vocal group Roomful of Teeth, of which she was (and still is) a member, the work was released on their Grammy-winning self-titled debut album in October 2012. It didn’t receive its full premiere until November. the following year, when the band performed at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York.
Partita for eight voices made Shaw the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. And in 2019, The Guardian ranked it as the 20th greatest work of classical music since 2000. All for good reason – the piece is a vocal ballad. It begins with a spoken word: “On the side. On the side. To the side and around’ – followed by a wall of harmonized euphoria. It continues with tides of songs coming together and then falling apart; flooding and falling. The work as a whole is inventive and pulls out all the stops as to what a mouth and a pair of lungs can do: speech, whispers, sighs, wordless melodies and various other vocal techniques. It was inspired by artist Sol LeWitt Wall drawing 305 – ‘born’, as Shaw puts it, ‘out of a love of surface and structure, of the human voice, of dance and strained ligaments, of music, and of our fundamental desire to draw a line of ‘one point to another’.
Shaw’s musical career, ironically perhaps, has followed anything but a straight line. Rather than traveling on a single track, it’s a “big bang” of music – ever-expanding and twinkling with starlight. She has worked with artists like soprano Renée Fleming and rapper Kanye West. She has written string quartets as well as film music. She has worked with pianist Jonathan Biss and with multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry of the indie rock band Arcade Fire.
Born in Greenville, North Carolina, Shaw was only two years old when a violin and bow found their way into her hands, having been given to her by her first music teacher: her mother. By the age of 10, she was composing her own music. And so continued his budding musical life. In 2004, she earned a Bachelor of Music in Violin Performance from Rice University in Houston; three years later, she earned her master’s degree in the same subject from Yale University. In 2010, she entered Princeton University as a student in the doctoral program in composition.
‘To the Hands’ has anguished breaths, choppy strings, a cacophony of lyrics and fine webs of crystalline prayers
Shaw’s works have been performed by Roomful of Teeth, Sō Percussion, American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), Mark Morris Dance Group Ensemble, Bretano Quartet and many others. His vocal compositions go far beyond his Pulitzer Prize-winning piece. Take, for example, In the hands (2016), a six-part, 19-minute work that begins as new Gregorian chants formed for the opening scene of a Ridley Scott epic. The piece continues with refrains and anguished breaths; angelic chords and accompaniment of restless strings; a cacophony of spoken words and fine delicate webs of crystalline prayer.
There’s also his 2021 cover of Abba’s disco song Put all your love on me, for voice and marimba. The original is stripped bare, then slowed to move like a river of cold honey, before being reconstructed with haunting background vocals and undercurrents of indistinguishable noise from the singers’ mouths: like insects talkers or a handful of typewriters from a room down the hall. From a decade earlier, By and by for voice and string quartet defines the song Will there be stars in my crownplucked strings reminiscent of the old American anthem.
His vocal styles have become more readily available lately. narrow sea (2017) is the title track from an album released in January 2021. Written for Sō Percussion, Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish, it is an exploration of folk songs with a panoply of sounds – ceramics, hums, flowerpots, a piano played like a dulcimer by five people at the same time. The piece is inspired by the text of The sacred harpa collection of shape-note hymns first published in the 19th century.
Even more recent is a collaboration album with Sō Percussion entitled “Let the Soil Play its Simple Part”. Released in the summer of 2021 and produced by Grammy-winning engineer Jonathan Low, the album reflects the ever-evolving interests of Shaw and his collaborators. Words of James Joyce can be heard; other inspirations include a poem by Anne Carson and the Bible’s Book of Ruth.
Although perhaps best known for her inventive vocal work, Shaw is also drawn to the strings. The Attacca Quartet’s album ‘Orange’ (2019) includes six pieces she wrote for string quartet. Rooted in classical tradition but refracted through a contemporary lens, the works feature dramatic shifts in tempo, mood and texture. After perusing his entire catalogue, one might perhaps describe these works for string quartet as “Shawesque”: alongside hints of mystery and melancholy, a bright future awaits them – just as it surely must. be the case for the composer herself.
This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today