Caroline Shaw Is Firing on All Creative Cylinders

Victoria Looseleaf on August 15, 2019
Caroline Shaw

From singing onstage at the Hollywood Bowl with rapper Kanye West in 2015 to having the Los Angeles Philharmonic present her world premiere work, The Observatory, at that very same venue (Aug. 27 and 29), Caroline Shaw is decidedly firing on all creative cylinders. Indeed, since becoming the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013 for her Partita for Eight Voices, Shaw, now 37 and also a gifted violinist and producer, has been in demand by such musical boldfaced names as Renée Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, and Sō Percussion, and leading orchestras including the Baltimore Symphony, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the Seattle Symphony. 

Born in Greenville, North Carolina, and currently living in Manhattan, Shaw began playing the violin at age 2, with her mother, a Suzuki-method violin instructor. So enamored was Shaw with the instrument that she wrote her first string quartet in what she said was “early middle school,” eventually going on to earn a bachelor’s degree in music from Rice University in 2004, and a master’s degree in violin from Yale University in 2007. Shaw also enrolled in Princeton’s doctoral program in composition, but her über-active schedule hasn’t allowed her much time to finish the degree.

Between juggling commissions and performing as a member of the Grammy-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth (Partita was written for the octet, which was founded in 2009), she also continues to solo as a violinist. Shaw’s rapturous concerto, Lo, written in 2015, was dubbed a “masterpiece” by The Washington Post’s Simon Chin when she performed it with the North Carolina Symphony as part of the Shift festival at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in 2017.

Caroline Shaw's Orange with the Attacca Quartet

Not only does Shaw seem to be embracing her life post-Pulitzer, she is also on a musical tear. Last April her recording Orange, performed by the Attacca Quartet, was released by New Amsterdam and Nonesuch Records and is the first full-length album to exclusively feature works by Shaw. A love letter to the string quartet, the release is receiving rave reviews, with NPR placing it on its “Best Albums of 2019 So Far” list. I spoke with Shaw by phone in a conversation that included her approach to commissions, her attraction to hip-hop and the dream she has of one day working with choreographer Mark Morris. But first came that ubiquitous subject — the Pulitzer Prize, with the award citation praising Shaw’s Partita as “a highly polished and inventive a cappella work uniquely embracing speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies, and novel vocal effects.”

Okay, let’s talk about the Pulitzer. I understand you nominated yourself for the prize, which is not usually done — certainly not in journalism — and that the application fee is $75.

It’s actually $50, and I think that was partially why I did it. When I applied for school, applications were $100, so I thought, ‘This is crazy!’ I really submitted it because Roomful of Teeth wasn’t known that much at that time. We weren’t getting high-profile concerts and I thought that this was a great recording and I’m proud of this piece and I would like more people to hear it — even if it was just the five [Pulitzer Prize judges] in the room. That was the impetus. It was kind of on a whim, but it certainly changed a lot in my life.

In journalism, it’s different, because traditionally, you work for a large newspaper or magazine. They’re the gatekeepers, and maybe it doesn’t work for them, but in music, the gatekeepers are the orchestras, the opera companies. They’re the only ones sending things in, so it’s not considered. And very few people knew that I wrote music — I had no publishers, so no one would have ever considered the piece. It’s a very 21st-century approach, and I was living the life of a freelancer, so if nobody would speak for you, you would have to speak for yourself.

Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University, presenting the 2013 Music prize to Caroline Shaw.

You wrote Partita over three successive summers at Mass MoCA, beginning in 2009. Now that you have so many commissions — without the luxury of that much time — what are your considerations when composing, and what is your approach to the music?

They’re related. So, when I wrote Partita, that was just for myself, but now most of what I do is write for big ensembles, players on commissions. If I don’t have a deadline, I won’t finish anything. I like the challenge of certain restrictions, parameters, and I always have a few things going for myself, which get shoved to the side but are important journeys for me.

[As for] my approach, if it’s an individual singer, I do a deep dive into their voice — for one, and their personality. We have a chance to talk, and I can get a sense of what they like, the repertory they’ve been performing and something they might want to do that’s different. Ideally, I cater to them. If it’s a string quartet, I consider their style of playing, their general demeanor, and often personalities, which weirdly, figure in. If it’s a larger ensemble, maybe it’s their history, or if it’s different, I challenge myself to do something I haven’t done before.

I also like the restriction of length. If I know it’s to be 10–12 minutes, as a writer, it can be the bane of one’s existence, of course. But also, it really guides the form and it’s an important way to really use that. Once I’m writing the piece, I have a sense of how long I have to develop it and where the listener is along the way. I really think about where it will be first performed, as well. I’m less interested in the longevity of the piece than what time of day it is, what time of year, what is the hall like and what else is on the program. I take all of those things into consideration if it’s possible.

Let’s talk about your world premiere with the L.A. Phil, The Observatory. What was the genesis of the piece and what was your process? In your program notes, which are stream-of-consciousness-like and very cool, you say you were inspired by sci-fi films and the Griffith Observatory, as well as the data-driven stargazer Kendrick Smith.

They are the most wide-ranging program notes I’ve ever written. Usually I’m very concise — not more than 100 words — and this is a large piece [of writing], and I’m vague. But the first thing I thought about was the hall, who the [LA Phil] are, their history, and I knew it would be performed at the Bowl on a late summer evening. I also knew that I would be preceding Beethoven’s Ninth, and this piece has nothing to do with that.

Thinking that this was Hollywood, it’s also about the history of the film industry — and sci-fi is one of my favorite genres. Some of my most recent films are Interstellar, Arrival and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The first 10 minutes of that film and the Ligeti and the Strauss are amazing [so] I was thinking on that large scale. It was two years ago that I knew I was going to write the piece, and I was in the middle of writing it and had ideas for certain gestures. I knew, for example, what I wanted the beginning to sound like.

Then I was in LA to record some vocals for a soundtrack for [film composer] Teddy Shapiro, so one morning before I went to his studio I stopped at the Observatory and there were rotating patterns in the sky. Another inspiration was Kendrick Smith. He’s kind of a famous cosmologist, but also a really interesting guy, and I took loose inspiration from the things he studied. I got to the observatory and there’s a vantage point standing on that hill looking down. It feels like when you’re constructing an orchestral score [because] there are so many moving parts and small details that are part of a larger sound. There was a relationship between writing for such a large ensemble and looking out at the sky.

How long is the work, what is the orchestration like, and what are your thoughts on Xian Zhang conducting?

Caroline Shaw | Credit: Stefan Cohen

The piece clocks in at 18 minutes and it’s a pretty full orchestra — triple winds, triple brass. It’s the first piece I’ve ever written for an orchestration that large. I try to be tidy and efficient [but the LA Phil] already had all the players for the Ninth — though in my piece there’s no choral [component] because it wasn’t part of the original commission.

I met Xian earlier this summer. She’s the [Music Director] with the New Jersey Symphony [Orchestra] and she’s incredible. You don’t meet many conductors who can inspire an orchestra like that. I went to a few rehearsals and am so excited to work with her. If I’m writing for a singer, I tailor it to them, and in a weird way she became an inspiration for the piece. I wanted to make it better for her, and spent another couple of weeks chiseling it out.

I also talked to her on the phone about what she’d been conducting lately, and again, in strange ways, it became part of the piece because she said she would love to conduct the Ring Cycle. She wants to work on that scale, so this idea of a large-scale world became a part of my thinking.

In 2015 you worked with Kanye West on a remixed version of his “Say You Will,” which you co-produced and is basically hip-hop meets postmodern choral music. I’ve got to ask what it was like working with him and are you still in touch?

We’re in touch every so often, but he started making political pronouncements that made me angry and upset. I cut ties for a while, but I was on his [“Saint] Pablo” tour in the fall of 2016 and was basically singing with him in these huge arenas. I had never been to one and I quit the tour around that time. I did work on his most recent album, Ye, last year. I’m wary, but he’s also an artist who thinks differently from other musicians, and I appreciate the kind of confidence he inspires in other people — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

What’s on your play list and do you get to many live performances these days?

I don’t listen regularly to music unless I’m really taking a break from writing. I’m not a huge Broadway fan, but yesterday I went to the closing of The Prom, the musical. It’s not music that I ever choose to listen to, but it was great to see an audience applauding at every moment. I wish classical audiences were like that. But I don’t listen to Broadway; I listen to early music. It’s something that kind of grounds me, so I go to Bach most of the time.

I’m also going into deep dives of hip-hop to figure out what’s out there now. There are certain artists — Kendrick Lamar — and his [To Pimp a] Butterfly is incredible. There’s a young rapper named Chika Oranika, her stage name is Chika. She has more of an internet presence and hasn’t released an official album yet [but] I really admire her work and check into what she’s doing. And Tierra Whack is like a wild musical artistic brain.

I wish I could say that I do get to live concerts, but mostly I’m either performing, attending something of my own, or I’m home writing. When I’m writing, which is basically all the time, I don’t listen to music at all. I read a lot of poetry on the internet and I follow a bunch of Twitter poets who are constantly sharing. That’s where I do most of my artistic digging.

What kind of pressure do you feel as a composer to keep, shall we say, topping yourself?

Pressure — that’s a strong word. Mostly I try to make something that I want to listen to. I remember that Mark Morris in some interview he’d done years ago said, “I make dances so that I have something to look at. You’re really making it for yourself.” That’s something I hadn’t heard before or seen before, and it has to satisfy those instincts and that desire to hear something put together in a way that I enjoy and understand. That’s my goal and so far, it’s been a pretty good guide.

I try to keep my musical life challenging and interesting, but I’m never thinking it needs to be the next great thing. Who knows what that is? Every listener is different. I’m not thinking of posterity or longevity. It’s more about writing for that performance, what that evening or day is and what that can mean for people who are there. I write for myself but keep that audience in mind, the way a chef cooks for others — it’s nourishing and interesting.

It sounds like Mark Morris has had an impact on your creative life.

It’s a dream to one day work with him because I admire him a lot. He doesn’t know it, but there was a part of Partita where I was thinking very much about him. I had played the Baroque violin with the [Mark Morris] company when it went to Moscow about 10 years ago [to perform Dido and Aeneas], and he was conducting. I was so moved by his love of the music, such deep, deep love, that it was a life-changing moment for me.