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Composer Portraits: Caroline Shaw

This season Miller Theatre celebrates the 20th Anniversary of Composer Portraits. Writer Lara Pellegrinelli has been commissioned to create a snapshot of each composer in words through an exploration of their experiences of community, viewed through the prism of new music. 

“You write in order to create the kind of community that you want to be a part of.” — Caroline Shaw

Caroline Shaw’s very public track record as a composer and a performer might reasonably lead one to believe that vocal music is her métier.

“I’m known mostly for this one piece that I wrote for Roomful of Teeth called Partita for Eight Voices,” she says, making a statement so obvious—and with such futile humility—that she finds it difficult not to crack a smile. The stunning work won the Pulitzer Prize for Composition in 2013, making Shaw the award’s youngest recipient ever at the age of 30.

Photo by Kyle Dorosz

No one could have foreseen that outcome, including Shaw herself. Roomful of Teeth, then a fledgling ensemble, had little repertoire to call its own, let alone gigs on which to perform it. Shaw, a founding member, stepped up to contribute, developing Partita in rehearsals over a period of years. She sent it off to the Pulitzer committee hoping only to forge relationships that might lead to more work for the group. Indeed, Partita’s unexpected recognition brought them and its creator—a young woman who had only just begun formally studying composition—to the forefront of the classical music world and beyond.

Shaw’s pristine vocals and the vehicles that she has created for them have given her entry into highly visible, popular music circles. She has sung with Sara Bareilles and Ben Folds backed by the National Symphony Orchestra. She has collaborated with The National and Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry. She has remixed Kanye West’s “Say You Will” from 808’s & Heartbreak, and he featured her lofty, auto-tuned vocals on “Wolves” from Life of Pablo. An episode of Mozart in the Jungle revolves around aspiring conductor Hayley’s desire to premiere one of Shaw’s works—and Shaw’s uncharacteristically mean-spirited inclination to thwart them (leading to a memorable exchange with a mutual fictional acquaintance who snipes: “Cut the shit, Shaw. She’s talented.”).

Shaw’s predilection for vocal music can further be seen apart from the glare of the entertainment industry’s spotlight. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2016), premiered by Roomful of Teeth at the Ojai Music Festival, addresses solitude at a moment of political unrest in contemporary America with texts by award-winning poet Claudia Rankine. Its Motion Keeps (2013), Anni’s Constant (2014), and So Quietly (2016), a series of pieces for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, make ample use of that precocious, GRAMMY-winning ensemble’s ability to render crisp language, dynamically shifting harmonies, and inventive textural effects. In a spare video production, Shaw herself performs the incandescent And So with the backing of the Attacca Quartet, one of Three Songs (2016-18) originally written for mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

“I write for choirs and voices because I love it,” Shaw continues, exuding warmth and radical sincerity. “I think I also write empathetically for the voice because I’ve done it. I’m not interested in writing some cool piece just to impress people. I am writing to give the singers something to do together.”

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There is, however, another medium in which Shaw is equally at home. “I always have a string quartet in the pipeline,” she sets forth with comparable enthusiasm. “If someone were to ask me what I do, I would never say that I’m a chamber musician. But that’s where I fell in love with music as a teenager. I still love it as a kind of a metaphor for being in the world—for how you communicate with others, and how you support the people around you. It has good lessons to offer for any kind of collaboration.”

“I write for choirs and voices because I love it. . . .I’m not interested in writing some cool piece just to impress people. I am writing to give the singers something to do together.” — Caroline Shaw

As it would happen, Shaw, the phenom vocalist, has also been playing the violin since she was two years old; her mother, a Suzuki-method instructor, was her first teacher. Shaw isn’t exactly a newcomer to composition either, though she’d never taken a lesson until she entered the doctoral program at Princeton University in 2010. Setting notes on the page has long been an expression of her deep musicianship and idealism.

Like a future engineer who might busy herself by taking apart electronics, young Caroline disassembled what she heard and attempted to replicate it. When she played her first Mozart string quartet at the age of nine, for example, she wrote her own based on its model (though it was a bit off-kilter harmonically, she adds, in case anyone might be tempted to label her a prodigy). When Shaw played her first Brahms violin sonata during a summer at Kinhaven Music School in Vermont at the age of 14, she repeated the exercise, holing up for days in the so-called “Art Shack” to make her own. Back then, her writing was motivated by a call for student compositions to fill a concert, much in the same way she would contribute Partita to Roomful of Teeth years later.

Kinhaven, which Shaw cites as one of her great loves—along with the color yellow, otters, Beethoven Opus 74 string quartets, the smell of rosemary, and the sound of a janky mandolin . . . at least, according to her website—did even more for Shaw than establish composition as an activity any musician could and should try. Imagine a place for music where teens roam barefoot all summer, everyone is assigned a job to work regardless of their scholarship status, and no one is allowed to practice all day long. The camp does not have a vocal program, and yet all of its instrumentalists sing, learning English madrigals and Bach chorales every morning. This music can spontaneously burst forth anywhere the campers are gathered, including in the audience for the regular, three-hour-long student concerts on Friday nights. Campers let off steam after weekly faculty concerts by folk dancing. At the center of all this activity is the ostensible reason for being there: chamber music, not only a performance genre at which to excel, but a musical lingua franca and the social glue that binds this community together.

Historically, the string quartet as a genre was built for this purpose. It emerged during the Enlightenment, an era in which composers mixed with performers, and members of various strata of society filled choirs and orchestras, momentarily leveling distinctions between social classes. Music-making was inherently social, so much so that Goethe famously wrote in an 1829 letter that Beethoven’s string quartets resembled “four intelligent people conversing among themselves.”

“This notion of string quartets as social music has much to do with the traditional comparison between quartets and refined conversation” writes Edward Klorman in The Strad. “And to make this comparison was to pay the string quartet a high compliment: in the eighteenth century, conversation had been elevated to a bona fide art form worthy of meticulous cultivation, since displays of conversational wit carried great social cachet in Enlightenment salons. . . .Many people, including Haydn, owned popular books that offered tips and instruction on how to cultivate conversational skills.”

Even though Kinhaven is worlds apart from its Germanic antecedents, it imparted much the same values through its own joyous, nerdy, living musical culture, which has had a profound impact on generations of musicians—including Shaw. “It is a place that understands that so much of the way we make music is how we relate to others,” she says. “It is built on a total love of music and supporting each other, a special kind of community with its own special traditions.”

Shaw went on to major in Violin Performance at Rice University, at times escaping from the program’s intensity by singing in Gilbert and Sullivan productions, and in an a cappella group that performed, among other things, Ben Folds Five arrangements—prefiguring by a decade her star struck moment onstage with the singer/songwriter. Likewise, while pursuing her master’s in violin at Yale, Shaw joined the choir at New Haven’s Christ Church, reveling in candlelit Compline services late on Sunday evenings. Violin was not her path, she realized then. Or at least not her only path.

In between those two degrees, Shaw had spent a transformative year traveling across Europe on a prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. She went to study the aesthetic principles of historic formal gardens, and to write a series of string quartets in response to them. Although she never completed these compositions, they would influence much of what was to come.

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It should come as no surprise, then, that a sizeable portion of Shaw’s compositional output has been string quartets. Three of them—Punctum (2009, revised 2013), Entr’acte (2011, revised 2014), and Blueprint (2016)—will be performed on tonight’s program by the Attacca Quartet. Their recording Orange (New Amsterdam/Nonesuch), a full-length album dedicated to six of Shaw’s string works, was released last April. Shaw has toured with them, playing viola on the Mendelssohn String Quintet Opus 87, and singing And So live with their accompaniment. “It’s like she’s a member of the ensemble now,” says violinist Amy Schroeder.

“Whatever is on the page, she wants it to be more in the moment . . . the pieces are different every time we play them.” —Amy Schroeder

Shaw particularly likes working with small groups because it’s possible to harness the musical language they share. “When you’re writing for a group of people who know each other really well, and know so much other music together,” she explains, “the piece you write can be about much more than itself. It can encompass so many of the other things that they’ve done together, and the conversations they’ve had together.”

“Caroline is the epitome of a performing artist,” Schroeder asserts. “Whatever is on the page, she wants it to be more in the moment. When we see her rehearse, she likes to experiment. She’ll be listening, and, all of a sudden, will chime in to ask, ‘Do you think you could try this today?’ I love that about her, because it’s always inspiring, and the pieces are different every time we play them.”

Adam Sliwinski of Sō Percussion, who will be performing with Shaw on the song cycle Narrow Sea and a set of songs from their upcoming, as-yet untitled, collaboratively written recording project, shares that view. “The biggest space is in the process of composition,” he says. “She is so willing and generous about soliciting input from collaborators and performers along the way. It actually feels like we’re making something up together. But then she has a gift and a confidence for knowing when it’s the right moment to step in as the composer and tell us what to play.”

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Tonight’s concert brings Shaw’s string music and vocal music together. The musical language she has created demonstrates just how fully she is steeped in the traditions of classical music, how keen she is to write her relationship to a formidable body of literature, and how invested she is in recontextualizing that past in this present moment. Sometimes, Shaw writes to illuminate elements of the history of the musical forms themselves.

The three string quartets, for example, reference specific works by Bach, Haydn, and Beethoven as their respective starting points, causing Shaw to liken them to a kind of “chamber music fan fiction”: they take small moments and enlarge them to tell entirely new stories. Highly musically literate works, they concern themselves with shared moments, expressive shifts, and transitions. They find their beauty in what strings—and voices—do best away from the equal temperament of the piano, finding deep resonance in their harmonic voicings and tuning.

In keeping with other song cycles Shaw has written, the movements of Narrow Sea are linked through her selection of texts from The Sacred Harp, a nineteenth-century American hymnal. “I love using older texts and reinventing them,” she says. Shaw grew up in North Carolina with an affinity for roots music, which existed on the periphery of her sound world. These songs excavate the past to express concerns for our world here and now.

But, most importantly, this program represents Shaw’s ethos as a composer whose creations were intended to be shaped by the participants as social beings within the context of their relationships. At one time, chamber music would have been made by intimates—families, friends and relations, fellow townspeople and congregants—or initiated that social intimacy. Tonight, it will be made by the most highly skilled professionals, who Shaw has given “something to do together.” And she has given us something to do together as well, with an optimism set to carry this music into the future.

Entr’acte (2011)

Shaw composed Entr’acte after hearing the Brentano Quartet play Haydn’s Op. 77 No. 2, “with their spare and soulful shift to the D-flat major trio in the minuet,” she writes in her composer’s note to the score. “I love the way that some music suddenly takes you to the other side of Alice’s looking glass, in a kind of absurd, subtle, Technicolor transition.”

Like that minuet and trio from Op. 77, No. 2, Shaw has structured Entr’acte in three large sections, closing the form with a return to her gentle opening. The melodic and harmonic materials are elegant and simple, yet Shaw multiplies the number of intense expressive shifts exponentially from Haydn’s singular looking glass. She challenges the ensemble members to find their own ways to blend and move together as a dynamic unit, and leaves a great deal of the work’s subtle character in their capable hands. Shaw has even “given us license for some improvisation,” Schroeder explains. “At the end, she gives the cello his notes, but then says to go on playing as if you are telling an old, forgotten story.”

Entr’acte was also written expressly so that it could be played by string quartets with no new-music experience. Consequently, Shaw has coached musicians as young as teenagers in its performance. “People say this piece is like a gateway drug for new music,” she claims, tongue-in-cheek.

Punctum (2009/2013)

Shaw writes that Punctum is “essentially an exercise in nostalgia, inspired by Roland Barthes’ description of the ‘unexpected’ in photographs, and, in particular, by his extended description of the elusive ‘Winter Garden’ photo in his 1980 book Camera Lucida. . . .One could also say the piece is about the sensation of a particular secondary dominant [harmony] in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

Camera Lucida is Barthes’ meditation on the significance of a single childhood photograph of his recently departed mother, in which he defines the studium, the subject, meaning, and context of the picture; and the punctum, a detail, like a necklace, that holds the eye and is associated with deep memory—that which literally “pierces the viewer.” Shaw found herself similarly attracted to a specific chord in the opening phrase of the chorale in the St. Matthew Passion. “It has a squeeze to it,” she says, sharply inhaling. “It guts me every time.”

If one is familiar with the chorale, one cannot help but hear its scattered strains within Punctum as the piece unfolds, but Shaw withholds the critical harmony. She assembles decontextualized fragments prismatically until members of the quartet align for the chorale’s direct quotation, uniting on the harmony that causes her to catch her breath. Schroeder calls the conclusion that follows “haunting.” She says, “It’s the most beautiful ending to any string quartet I’ve ever played.”

Blueprint (2016)

Blueprints are the familiar, standard architectural representation of a proposed architectural structure. When Shaw started her work on this commission, originally for the Aizuri Quartet, it was with a similarly skeletal floor plan: a harmonic reduction of a passage from Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 6, a piece she knows intimately from playing it “in performance and in joyous late-night reading sessions with musician friends.”

More specifically, Shaw was drawn to La Malinconia, the tentative, emotionally equivocal adagio that transitions to a breezy Allegretto quasi Allegro and the piece’s ultimate conclusion; Shaw’s Punctum has a similar character to this unpredictable journey. The reduced structure becomes the framework for a modest compendium of Beethovenian vocabulary and gesture, delivered with idiomatic precision and wit.

“Chamber music is ultimately about conversation without words,” Shaw writes. “We talk to each other with our dynamics and articulations, and we try to give voice to the composers whose music has inspired us to gather in the same room and play. Blueprint is also a conversation—with Beethoven, with Haydn (his teacher and the “father” of the string quartet), and with the joys and malinconia of his Op. 18, No. 6.”

Narrow Sea (2017)

Narrow Sea, a song cycle in five movements, was commissioned for vocalist Dawn Upshaw with pianist Gil Kalish and Sō Percussion, and has been revised for Shaw to perform herself as the vocalist. The piece was conceived to be paired with George Crumb’s The Winds of Destiny American Songbook IV, Songs of Strife, Love, Mystery, and Exultation: a Cycle of American Civil War Songs, Folk Songs, and Spirituals.

Shaw makes a similar journey into Americana for Narrow Sea, drawing her texts from The Sacred Harp, a nineteenth-century collection of Anglo-American spirituals: Wayfaring Stranger, which frames the work as both its first and its concluding movement; This is a Land of Pure Delight; Sweet Rivers of Redeeming Love; and On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand. Set in entirely new melodies, the texts are linked through the subject of water.

“The River Jordan has a long history as a trope in song,” Shaw explains. “Rivers can signify going home, and crossing rivers will serve as a metaphor for death. I’m reminded of the role of water in the movement of people today—in migration, the refugee crisis, and crossing borders.” The combination of voice with percussion—including ceramic bowls, flowerpots, and a piano played like a dulcimer—provides these hymns with their own rich, sound world.

Selected songs from Let the soil play its simple part (2019)

Having relished their work together on Narrow Sea, Shaw and Sō Percussion decided to record together as a band. After five days in the studio, they had completed a project with ten original tracks, all collaboratively created. The album is expected to be released in 2020 and represents Shaw’s debut as a solo vocal artist.

“For many of the songs,” Sliwinski explains, “the structure and instrumental texture would be composed by either Sō’s Jason Treuting or Eric Cha-Beach. That would provide a kind of framework for the piece. Caroline would then write or borrow lyrics from one of the sources we were using and compose a melody.” Those texts include writings by James Joyce, ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, The Book of Ruth, and Shaw herself. They debut here in live performance, with Shaw at the microphone, and Sō drawing on their vast toolkit of instruments and techniques.

“The thrill in this collaboration lies partly in the sense that each entity adds dimensions to the other’s music, which revitalizes them both,” writes Sliwinski in his composer’s note. “Shaw gives voice and melody to the years of experimentation in rhythm, color, and complexity that define Sō’s work over two decades and more than twenty albums. And Sō opens a world of sonic possibilities and rhythmic virtuosity which expands Shaw’s palette beyond the vocal and string writing for which she is best known.”

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Shaw believes that the way she writes music has the potential to engender the kind of ideal community she would like to be part of. True to her musical upbringing, she resists the hierarchical divisions between composers and performers, preferring to be referred to simply as a musician. She likens compositional activities to creating “playgrounds” that offer some freedom for exploration to her performers.

“If you write something where you want to indicate all of the details on the score and tell everyone exactly what to do,” she says, “you’re setting up a dynamic where you’ve designated experts and technicians with clear divisions of labor. I am trying to empower those who are making the music to be part of the creative process.”


Lara Pellegrinelli is a scholar and a journalist, who contributes to NPR and The New York Times. She teaches at The New School and Bard’s Microcollege at Brooklyn Public Library.

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