Caroline Shaw on learning the violin, touring with Kanye West, winning the Pulitzer and her first few hugely successful album releases

The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer tells Kate Wakeling how experiences from violin lessons as a child to touring with Kanye West have all helped to shape her musical imagination

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For Caroline Shaw, writing music is like ‘cooking someone you love a meal’. It’s a remarkably grounded statement from a composer who is the youngest ever recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for music, has premiered works at Carnegie Hall and the BBC Proms, toured the US with Kanye West and even featured as a guest star on the HBO hit comedy Mozart in the Jungle. Yet for Shaw, music remains as intimate and personal an endeavour as ever. And while she claims (unconvincingly, I would hazard) to be ‘no chef’, the blend of generosity, sensitivity and technical know-how needed to cook up a good meal for a friend makes sound sense to Shaw as an analogy: both food and music ‘should be nourishing and complex; they should be something that you can taste easily in the beginning before you find there’s much more underneath.’

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This sounds much like Shaw’s own music. Her work combines immediate, sensuous appeal with taut structural rigour. In turn, it has won plaudits in every corner of the music world. Often drawing obliquely on older forms, her compositions include an oratorio, The Listeners, which celebrates the Voyager space probes and features poetry drawn from five centuries of literature; Valencia, a string quartet that conjures up the ‘architecture’ of an orange from juice to peel to pips; Lo, a lyrical violin concerto (which Shaw premiered herself as the soloist); and the Baroque-inflected Partita for 8 Voices that proved to be her stepping stone to international success.

We spoke to ​Caroline Shaw recently for the Music to my Ears Podcast.

Whatever her dazzling CV, Shaw remains a warm and open presence in person. Indeed, she was pained to discover that her cameo in Mozart in the Jungle (where she played a version of herself) ‘was a little snarky. I would never be mean like that!’ Talking via Zoom from New York, she describes how ‘I never really decided I wanted to “write music” until my twenties. Before then I was always just making music for friends.’ This sensibility chimes across her work to this day. And as an accomplished violinist and singer, she remains keenly aware of the link between a score and its living, breathing performers: ‘I’m always thinking about the people who are going to play my music, about what it feels like to communicate with someone else, especially in chamber music. I love thinking about music as a gift for someone – as a form of conversation.’

Born in North Carolina, Shaw grew up immersed in music. Her mother was a Suzuki violin teacher and Shaw began learning the instrument aged two. She ‘always made up songs here and there’ and wrote her first string quartet by age ten, but composing initially took a backseat to the violin. In 2008, she moved to New York and joined the vocal octet Roomful of Teeth, for whom she began composing . In 2013, she won a Pulitzer Prize for Partita for 8 Voices, having submitted the composition to the jury on her own behalf. She had little expectation of winning but entered to gain recognition for Roomful of Teeth as a whole: ‘I thought: I might as well see what they think.’ She found out she’d won via a friend on Twitter.

Read all our reviews of Caroline Shaw’s recordings here.

This year sees three new releases of Shaw’s work. The first, Narrow Sea, features Sō Percussion, soprano Dawn Upshaw and pianist Gil Kalish. Its title work explores the importance of refuge and the idea of water (and music) as a means of journeying between this world and the next. ‘It’s funny,’ she reflects; ‘I say that I think about life beyond – and death – quite a lot, but when I actually try to think about it, it’s too scary. So that’s why I make music, I think. It’s like: I don’t want to really go there, so let me make a musical environment in which I could maybe think about these things.’

Read our review of Caroline Shaw’s Narrow Sea here.

Narrow Sea draws on four texts from The Sacred Harp, a collection of 19th-century American hymns. Responding to the ‘lilt and cadence’ of these texts, she crafted new melodies for them, and the result is a glimmering work that is at once melancholy, uplifting, playful and spiritual. ‘I guess it’s also rooted in the deep childhood experience of growing up in an Episcopal church and singing in church choirs. I’m not religious now but that ritual and structure, that relationship with text and that idea of creating an environment to think about larger things – it’s all really related to how I think of music.’

Shaw is also unafraid to tackle the issues of the day in her music. ‘The Syrian refugee crisis was very much in my mind and is embedded in there in an oblique way. And I was also thinking about the water crisis all across the globe. I was thinking about the increasing rarity of clean water and how water will increasingly become a traded commodity and how awful that is.’ Narrow Sea is typically inventive in its soundworld. We hear water poured between ceramic bowls and flowerpots being struck, non-musical instruments chosen for ‘their relationship to the everyday, instruments that are not expensive or cultivated’. At one point in the work, the piano strings are gently hammered inside by the members of Sō Percussion. This technique references the hammer dulcimer of ‘older American music’ but is also a playful subversion of ‘the beast of the classical piano’.

Subverting the ‘classical beast’ also figures in Shaw’s second forthcoming disc, Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part. Here she plays with unseating the conventional status of the composer: ‘I’ve been thinking Creating hits: Caroline Shaw with regular collaborators Sō Percussion about ego… trying to erase it. I wanted to step away from the composer role so I thought, what if we do a project where everyone is coming to the table and everyone has creative input?’

Read our review of Caroline Shaw and Sō Percussion’s Let the Soil Play its Simple Part here.

Working again with the ‘very generous and curious’ Sō Percussion, Shaw’s prompt was to create the album from scratch ‘with no one person in charge, like a band writes in the studio’. The result is a collection of genre-bending songs, all of which feature Shaw’s radiant vocals. It is intriguing that that such a commonplace collaborative approach in the pop industry seems so radical in a more classical context.

She is, however, no stranger to the world of pop. In 2015, she happened to meet rapper Kanye West backstage after a performance of Partita in Los Angeles and the pair began to work together. Shaw ended up collaborating closely on West’s album The Life of Pablo and toured the US with him in 2016. After West’s personal and political implosion later that year, Shaw left the tour and they’re no longer in touch, but she’s glad for the experience in sparking ‘this really big shift in how I think about music’.

For one, she had a ‘crash course in in teaching myself lots of ways to make music with my computer as a producer that I hadn’t learnt at music school. All the kids these days can do this. And now I can.’ Furthermore, ‘there was a freedom I found in his approach to music which is very different from the modernist classical style that I know well. There’s more interest in “is this immediately satisfying? Do I like that sound?” It’s about being very in touch with your immediate sense of music.’

This ‘immediate sense of music’ plays out in colourful ways. ‘I don’t really call it synaesthesia. Or rather, I think we’re all a bit synaesthetic, but we either cultivate those weird sensibilities or they become background.’ For her, it makes perfect sense to describe a sound as ‘delicious… It goes back to my violin teacher growing up. She’d have me play a phrase then say, “this part is dark chocolate, this is milk chocolate, this is white chocolate” and I would just play differently.’

In turn, Shaw’s creative impulses often now stem from intriguing forms of musical ‘translation’. ‘I enjoy thinking of an object or a poem or a painting or a dance or anything that’s not music and then thinking, what if that thing was music? What would that sound like?’ The results of these thought experiments make for gloriously inventive music. Her string quartet Evergreen is structured around the physical elements of a tree Shaw encountered while walking on Galiano Island off the coast of Vancouver, with the work’s movements variously titled ‘Moss’, ‘Stem’, ‘Water’ and ‘Root’.

The challenges of the last year have only intensified the power of nature for her. ‘At the start of COVID times, I didn’t write any music for three months. I took a lot of long walks and listened to birds and watched the turtles. In a way it was really precious time. There wasn’t anything to do and I didn’t feel like doing it.’ This pause has since sparked a flurry of new work, but she misses the creative possibilities yielded by the unexpected, particularly with social encounters: ‘I miss meeting strangers, interacting with people I don’t know. There have been no surprises for a year.’ Whatever her wizardry with technology (‘my Kanye skills’), the opportunity to explore music-making online has not much interested her during the pandemic. For Shaw, music is about a vital, felt connection between people in a shared space: ‘I look forward to the time when we’ll be together again and I’m writing towards that. I don’t really want to write music for this time. I want to wait for when we can be humans together again.’

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Words by: Kate Wakeling