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The Making of the Composer Portrait of Caroline Shaw

Melissa Smey

Miller Theatre commissioned writer Lara Pellegrinelli to create the program notes for the 20th year of Composer Portraits as well as a series of Q&As with Executive Director Melissa Smey. Here is the fifth installment, centering around our upcoming Portrait featuring the music of Caroline Shaw.   




Q. Did you know about Caroline Shaw before she became the youngest person ever to win the Pulitzer Prize in Composition in 2013?

A. Yes, all the way back when we did James Dillon’s Nine Rivers in 2011. The production put us in a different light as a venue by featuring The Crossing as the chorus. So we started hearing from some new people. Brad Wells, the founder of Roomful of Teeth, of which Caroline is a member, was one of them. And I know I had heard about Caroline herself. Because everyone was talking about her. Oh, my God. There’s this phenomenal musician who can do all of these things.


Photo by Kyle Dorosz for Miller Theatre

The challenge became trying to see how we might work with Caroline on a Composer Portrait. It was an example where you have a very public association between a composer and a brilliant ensemble – and I’m a huge fan of them as a group – but there’s not a clear overlap with what we’re good at doing as a venue. Caroline also plays violin in an amazing quartet called The Hands Free with James Moore (guitar/banjo), Nathan Koci (accordion) and Eleonore Oppenheim (bass), who is in our Carnival of the Animals every year and has been playing in Oklahoma. I had been trying to schedule them on a pop up concert here for ages, and I’ve finally got one on the books for April 14.


Q. The first piece I heard of Caroline’s wasn’t Partita for 8 Voices, for which she won the Pulitzer, but Valencia, a string quartet circulating via a video made by the Jasper Quartet. I was struck by the music’s incredible brightness. Then, when I eventually heard Roomful of Teeth sing Partita, it made sense as coming from the same musician, someone who thinks about timbre and tuning, and what happens in performance with other people.

A. Yes, I know! She has – and requires – an active ear in her pieces.

I should choose my words with care because other composers might quibble with this, but I also wanted to say that I think Caroline marks a generational divide where composers didn’t have choose what they wanted to do. They could just do everything. She sings. She plays violin and sometimes viola. And she composes. She embodies every element of her creative practice in a way that’s just confident and strong.


Q. But in terms of putting the portrait together, you had to make some choices. What was your thinking in assembling this concert, in which the Attacca Quartet will play three of her string quartets, and Shaw herself will perform a song cycle and other vocal works with Sō Percussion, an unusual combination?

A. There were at least five different ways that I could have done a Caroline Shaw portrait. New York audiences have had many opportunities to hear her vocal music, and to hear from her as a performer in a vocal context. But she has such a deep rapport with so many young string quartets that I was really keen on highlighting this aspect of her work.

There is really an embarrassment of riches in terms of the number of ensembles that can interpret her music beautifully and for whom she's written. We’re already seeing more performances of her quartets, including those by the Attacca; they released a complete album of Caroline’s work for string quartet titled Orange (New Amsterdam/Nonesuch) last spring. I have literally been listening to Entr’acte on repeat, and repeat, and repeat. They’ll be doing that one here, as well as Punctum and Blueprint.  


Q. As compositions that come to us within a tradition, there's a clarity and vividness to these works that I greatly appreciate.

A. Yes. Visceral is not quite the right word. And tactile is not the either, but there's something very direct about them. They take minimalism and go beyond it, also looping back to classical forms and ideas—all three of these quartets have explicit relationships with the past through composers like Bach, Haydn, and Beethoven. To me, that feels warm and inviting. It’s approachable. And it’s exuberant. It feels like she's making something fresh and completely new. It's a beautiful synthesis of those inspirations.

The bonus in putting together this concert is that Caroline loves Sō Percussion, and they love her. Putting them on the stage together came up as a wonderful suggestion. We often worked with Sō when Miller’s Composer Portraits series was getting started. I think the first time they were here was for the David Lang Portrait. The opportunity to have them come back and work with us again is terrific. They will do a song cycle titled Narrow Sea that Caroline originally wrote for soprano Dawn Upshaw, but wanted to sing herself. And also a song set from a recording project they have together that’s still in the works. I figure if Caroline wants to sing on her Portrait, she should. She should be able to do it all.

Photo of Melissa Smey by Kyle Dorosz for Miller Theatre.

Related Composer Portrait posts:

Melissa Smey: Portrait of a Curator in Evolution

Bridging Traditions with Bright Sheng

Pushing Boundaries with Annea Lockwood

The Path to Vijay Iyer’s Composer Portrait

20 Years of Composer Portraits and 10 Years as Executive Director

8 Questions to Executive Director Melissa Smey About Composer Portraits

Melissa Smey on Anthony Braxton at 75

Cracking the Code: David T. Little 

How Tyshawn Sorey’s Portrait Came About 

Why is John Zorn so important?

More People Need to Know About Wang Lu

Building the Unique Universe of Du Yun's Composer Portrait

Bringing Kate Soper’s IPSA DIXIT to Miller