Music By Caroline Shaw That Everyone Should Know

Dec 20, 2019

Six years ago, fifty bucks and an outside-the-box choir helped Caroline Shaw become the youngest person to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. Here's a look at some of what she's been doing more recently.

It’s now one of the greatest stories in classical music. It was 2013, and Shaw – a violinist and singer, as well as a composer – was just entering Princeton University’s graduate program in music composition when she submitted the score for her Partita for 8 Voices, accompanied by a recording of the work by the a cappella vocal group Roomful of Teeth, for consideration for the Pulitzer Prize.

The entry fee was only $50, practically a steal.

“I thought, I would love to get this group, Roomful of Teeth, and this piece in the ears of more people, because we were unknown. And it seemed like a relatively inexpensive way to do it,” Shaw said in a 2017 interview, which you can listen to in two parts:

A Conversation with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer Caroline Shaw, Part 1

A Conversation with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer Caroline Shaw, Part 2

Shaw’s historic Pulitzer win made her and Roomful of Teeth overnight successes. Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices was also suddenly on the map, opening up whole new vistas of sound and language in a cappella vocal music.

Roomful of Teeth performing Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices:

Since 2013, Shaw has continued to roll out new musical works of astonishing originality. Take, for instance, the string quartet works on Orange – the first full-length recording featuring Shaw’s music – performed by the Attacca Quartet.

There is something that Shaw has called “beautiful and ritualistic” about working in the venerable string quartet genre, a genre in which some of the world’s great composers – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bartok, Shostakovich – wrote some of their most substantial works. Shaw’s contributions to the string quartet follow in the footsteps of the genre’s true innovators.

Shaw's offbeat wit arrives with the recording’s first track, Entr’acte, which comes not in between works, but instead at the beginning of the list of tracks, as though the recording itself were the second (or third or fourth) act of some opera-in-progress.

The Attacca Quartet plays Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte:

Shaw’s writing for string quartet is masterful. The bold harmonic shifts are ideally suited to the instruments' natural resonance. Gliding between the traditional sounds of the instruments and moments of voiceless scratchiness is the kind of unexpected delight that, ironically, has come to be expected of Shaw’s music.

Then there is The Cutting Garden, the third track on Orange, and the second movement of Shaw’s Plan & Elevation: The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks. Shaw was inspired to compose Plan & Elevation while serving as the inaugural music fellow at the fabled Dumbarton Oaks estate. In The Cutting Garden, Shaw cleverly “gathers” fragments from string quartets by Ravel, Mozart and herself into a vase of musical “cuttings,” as though reciting lines of famous poems in order to internalize the talents of their authors.

The Attacca Quartet plays The Cutting Garden by Caroline Shaw:

A classical music bluestocking, Shaw is, however, also an omnivorous assimilator of styles. The Orangery, the fourth movement of Plan & Elevation, is redolent of the minimalism of Philip Glass and the world of film. It was actually a visual cue that inspired Shaw to write the movement, which, as Shaw puts it, “evokes the slim, fractured shadows” in the orangery of Dumbarton Oaks “as the light tries to peek through the leaves of the aging fig vine.”

The Attacca Quartet plays The Orangery by Caroline Shaw:

Shaw is just about at her best when she joins voice with string quartet, as she does in her reduction of the orchestral songs she composed for mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

One of those songs, Shaw’s And so, sparkles with crystalline string scoring and vocal lines that sometimes trickle out in self-effacing whispers, and at other times sail and soar:

Caroline Shaw sings her song And So with the Attacca Quartet:

And nothing in the art song repertoire or in the repertoire of folk song arrangements compares to Shaw’s haunting and moving By and By, an arrangement for voice and string quartet of the traditional American hymns Will there Be Any Stars in My Crown and I’ll Fly Away.

Caroline Shaw performs as soprano soloist with the Calder Quartet in her own By and By:

Shaw whittles the string quartet accompaniment down to its essence – arpeggios plucked and bowed back and forth, often across open strings. Echoes of American Primitivist guitar playing mingle with the rough-hewn soaring bowed arpeggios reminiscent of the solo violin lines of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending.

Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending, Nicola Benedetti and the London Philharmonci Orchestra

This exploration of Shaw’s works for string quartet excludes countless other works of different instrumentation. But it does include some of what seems to come most innately to a violinist-singer-composer with a unique view of how music of the past can become music of the future.