Caroline Shaw: Of Carnegie and Kanye
Being fully free to pursue life on your own terms is everyone’s dream. The composer Caroline Shaw sees no boundaries—musical or otherwise.
Caroline Shaw is an award-winning composer, singer, and violinist. In 2013, she became the youngest-ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her Partita for 8 Voices.
Shaw was born in 1982 in Greenville, NC, and started playing the violin when she was 2. She studied violin performance at Rice University and Yale University and completed a PhD in composition at Princeton University. She wrote her Pulitzer-winning Partita for 8 Voices for the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, which received a 2014 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance for its recording of the piece. Her work has been commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Society, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Carnegie Hall, and Bang on a Can, among other groups. She composed the music for the 2018 film Madeline’s Madeline.
Shaw performs as a violinist and vocalist for numerous ensembles, including American Contemporary Music Ensemble, Trinity Wall Street Choir, and Roomful of Teeth. She sang on several songs by rapper Kanye West, including the 2016 single “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2.”
Though all of her life ‘til then had been dedicated to music, Caroline Shaw’s breakthrough came at age 30 when, in 2013, she became the youngest ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her Partita for 8 Voices. It all started in a most unassuming way—with a simple vocal experiment Shaw wanted to try with her a cappella group, Roomful of Teeth.
Caroline Shaw: Partita did not start as Partita, the big piece. It was literally ♪ Ah ♪! That’s the beginning of the piece in my brain which was in Passacaglia, the fourth movement.
AJC: It sounds exactly like somebody going, “I’ve got to write some music. What the hell am I gonna do?”
Shaw: ♪ Ah ♪ I know! But this feeling, like something you don’t even know what the sound is, and then erupting suddenly into the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard.
Partita also went on to win a Grammy for Roomful of Teeth. These days, Shaw is busy with a multitude of other projects including recently, a song cycle for superstar soprano Renée Fleming. She says that what they all have in common is the ability to communicate the full range of human emotion.
AJC: Do you ever have the abject loneliness or the ecstatic joy and go, “Boom, there’s a tune for that?”
Shaw: [laughs] It’s so amazing to imagine. I think that I depend sometimes, as a musician, on being in touch with the abject loneliness and the ecstatic joy. I think that feels really important to me, and that’s not in all music. Some music that I write is about just the, like, interesting conversation, or an interesting meal or sports game—like all these different kinds of patterns that make music interesting. But the reason I’m probably a musician is that I sort of fell in love with those feelings of total joy and total tragedy in music.
Shaw came to music early. Her mother was a violin teacher and began giving her daughter lessons at age two, and her formal musical training continues today. She’s currently studying for a Ph.D. in Composition at Princeton. Yet, she says, she has studiously avoided many of the more constraining traditions of academia.
Shaw: I think because I know that I’m someone who likes to sort of follow rules, or please, and you want to do something right, and this is how I learn. But I also saw a lot of people sort of… I don’t know, boxed in, or feeling like they needed to please people within a certain community. And I don’t want to have that as some sort of hold up. But at the same time, I write music for the players. Maybe not the composers, but the people who are playing it, who love music and that, sort of, those are the people that I’m thinking about. But I avoided—
AJC: I’m really interested in that idea because a lot of it comes from the fact that, A) you can’t write a concerto without learning how to play scales and you should kind of learn the rules so you can break them. But you just didn’t learn the rules, so you didn’t know what you were breaking?
Shaw: I think I knew the rules that I didn’t care about. I learned those, and I wasn’t interested. And there were other rules that no one talked about, that I am really interested in, just sort of… are not rules, but—
Shaw: Traditions, yeah.
AJC: Received wisdom?
Shaw: Yeah, received wisdom that you get without anyone saying exactly what it is. But there’s an intuitive sense about what is interesting about this harmony going to the next one, or the shape of this melody, or where it occurs in the form of the movement, that I hope sort of operates in the music that I’m writing. I don’t know, but those are my teachers, I guess. Older music feels kind of like my teacher. But also the world we live in now, the music that’s being written now, those are all teachers in a way. I always say there are gifts all around. There are teachers everywhere.
Even sometimes in unexpected places. In 2014, Kanye West approached her about a possible collaboration. A year later, they released her remix of his 2008 track, “Say You Will.”
Shaw: I feel like the original song, I really love because it’s just these two beeps from an 808 drum machine and simple melody. But he had this sort of synthesized, not very interesting vocal choral part underneath. What if you let the song have the space that it needs? ‘Cause that’s the essence of the song. It’s devastating and heartbreaking. And then turn it on to the opposite place in four seconds. And that’s what I wanted to try to do. So you take the devastation and the emptiness, but rather than letting it just sit there—which he did, which I love, that’s what I love about the song—what if you just foreground all of the tragedy that’s underneath, and just put it out front?
Since then, Shaw and West have become regular collaborators. But, for her, it’s not about his celebrity, but his unique approach to music.
Shaw: Everyone knows how to write a pretty song, right? You put the beat, the pretty harmony, you find four chords, and you can write a pretty melody. But someone who has a really good sense of harmony and melody, good tune writing, and then, something that’s surprising… So with Kanye West, it’s just I don’t really know what he’s gonna do. And he doesn’t write just a song, and it’s not just a rap song. It’s not just words over a beat. It’s taking lots of different things together and letting them… seeing what they do side by side, and then cutting things out and adding more things in.
But beneath every pursuit is the nagging question every creator has faced.
AJC: How do you know when it’s original? How do you know when you’re not stealing?
Shaw: I don’t know. I tried something recently. It was like, “I really feel like this has existed somewhere else.” And there was no way for me to find out, ’cause I was actually trying to write a melody that felt like you had heard it before. So obviously, it sounds like you’ve heard it before—and maybe you have, but it’s so simple. It’s kind of, just… ♪ sings ♪
Shaw: It’s really simple so I have no idea if it’s original or not.
AJC: That’s an earworm.
AJC: That’s in my head now.
AJC: What was that for?
Shaw: It’s for this piece for a children’s concert using a story called The Mountain That Loved A Bird. It’s the most beautiful story. Again, that is a story that’s about joy and extreme sadness, so I wanted to write something that we could actually teach the kids and families to sing, and then you hear it. There’s a bird in the story that sings. The line in the book is that suddenly… Joy is the name of the bird. She stops and sings the first music that the mountain—who’s also her friend—the mountain has ever heard. So trying to imagine, kind of, this really simple, basic melody.
And though her music is never child’s play, there is an exciting newness to everything Caroline Shaw creates.