What are you after, after all this time?

A conversation with Caroline Shaw, composer of string quartets performed this summer at CMNW and WVCMF

When I read that Pulitzer-winning composer-violinist-vocalist Caroline Shaw used to accompany dancers—improvising on the piano, percussion, and violin for dancers, three hours a rehearsal—I immediately thought of Lou Harrison. If you’ve read Senior Editor Brett Campbell’s Harrison biography (written with composer Bill Alves), you know all about one of Lou’s first music jobs, and one of the most formative: in 1937 Mills College hired him to accompany their dance classes. It was one of the major starting points on his path to greatness.

So if Shaw starts making her own instruments, that’ll practically make her the Harrison of the 21st century, because she already has the same knack for treating genre lines as suggestions, synthesizing old and new musical traditions, performing her own music, making friends all over the place, and crafting gorgeous melodies to weave into strange sounds and ear-tingling textures.

Chamber Music Northwest programmed a fair amount of her music this year (though not as much as Mozart or Meyer, unfortunately). We got repeat Northwest performances of her string quartet Entr’acte (last year it was Calidore, this year Rolston—and oenophiles just heard it at Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival). We also got the co-commissioned Northwest premiere of her new quartet Three Essays. CMNW even gave us two chances to hear Calidore playing the new one: once on a Fourth of July concert at Reed College (alongside equal helpings of great Copland and boring Copland), and the next day on a New@Noon concert (alongside works by Shulamit Ran and Jacob TV).

Entr’acte was a major highlight of CMNW 2017, holding its own alongside music by Joan Tower and Gabriella Smith, and it was lovely to hear it again. The three movements of Three Essays—”Nimrod,” “Echo,” and “Ruby”—take their inspiration from various extramusical sources, but their strength is that they stand on their own eight feet as pure string quartet music. My ear was delighted right from the opening of the first movement, named for the Tower of Babel’s legendary overseer. Noisy, gritty, overpressured bowing effects color subtle harmonies which shift around and resolve in unexpected ways, like Radiohead playing around with Haydn.

It was twenty minutes of pure bliss, dear reader, some of the sweetest, most satisfying string writing I’ve ever heard from a modern composer. It’s not quite Béla Bartók (whose six quartets are solidly in the same “will never, ever be topped” category as The Empire Strikes Back), but it’s certainly on par with the finest of what we might as well call Accessible Modern Classical Music.

Now, I’m not talking about bullshit Lite Classical. I’m talking about the good stuff, the stuff that’s intellectually and emotionally satisfying, novel and traditional, and challenging enough to hold your interest while still being conventionally tonal enough that when you’re done listening to it you feel satisfied instead of drained. In other words, Three Essays—like most of Shaw’s music—is much closer to Tower and Riley than Carter and Crumb.

And that’s a very good thing, because now that it’s been a full four decades since Minimalism Rescued Tonality From Serialism, we need more composers like Shaw (and Andy Akiho, and Nokuthula Ngwenyama, and Jessie Montgomery, and so on) who can embrace the strangeness unleashed by a century of experimentation while still working in the “classical” tradition and writing engaging harmonies and melodies that audiences can put in their pockets and take home with them.

Take a minute or twenty-four to listen through Shaw’s prizewinner, Partita for 8 Voices. The vocal effects are all over the place—sometimes reaching nearly Meredith Monk levels of weird—but the actual pitch content is considerably more pop-oriented than you initially realize. Same goes for Orange, an album of Shaw’s music released this April by the Attacca Quartet. The only force powerful enough to get Orange off my headphones and out of my head this spring was Danny Elfman’s Violin Concerto, released around the same time. And, weighing Shaw by pop-rock standards, she’s essentially just released her first album (we’ll consider Roomful of Teeth’s recording of Partita an early EP in this extended metaphor).

It would be all too easy to compare Shaw to the majestic Icelandic singer-composer-producer Björk. But honestly I’m not sure a more obscure comparison would be more suitable, so let’s just call Orange Shaw’s Debut—and then proceed to get all excited for her Post, her Homogenic, her Vespertine, her Medúlla. She’s just getting started, in other words, despite already having a pretty extensive career behind her, and we can’t wait to hear what she goes after next.


Arts Watch spoke with Caroline Shaw by phone in July. Her answers have been condensed and edited for flow and clarity.

On accompanying dancers

I improvised most of it, especially if I had a piano, cause I’m a terrible pianist. And I had my shortcuts and things I felt comfortable with—certain notes. And then on the violin or viola I would play in a Bach style, I might hint at some of the Bach Cello Suites and kind of go off on my own. But I’d say 90% of it was improvised, and it was a really great experience for a lot of reasons.

One is the experience of making that much music everyday is really good for my compositional chops, but also a way of figuring out what I like musically. And the feeling of understanding that music is not the most important thing in the room. It is not the focus. It should just be to serve the dancers. If I was doing the best job as an accompanist, no one would notice. They’d only look over if I was doing something really wrong. Or if you do something really incredible, but it’s rare. I tried to just maintain a presence that was supportive and quiet, which is a good lesson for young composers.

You’re always inspired by the best movers in the room; you always catch them, in a musical sense. But sometimes it needed to be ,“just give us 32 bars in this tempo in 3 with this kind of feel,” and those are good challenges too.

On composing and performing

I think there are many different ways to be mostly just a performer or just a composer. For a lot of big performers who haven’t felt empowered to be creative in the room, I think there are a lot more who are feeling able to write and try their hand at a new work, which is really exciting.

It was the generosity of Brad Wells, who started [Roomful of Teeth]. He encouraged the singers: if there was anything you wanted to try writing, anyone can write for the group, not just the two commissioned composers. So I saw this fun opportunity to make something new and to have a little time to try it out. And that’s how it started.

You can’t do that with an orchestra. It’s really hard. I’m also really lucky to have gotten to spend as much time in the group as I have. And it’s weird—I’m finding now I do a lot less trying things in the room. I should finish my pieces earlier, so that we can try things in the room.

Certain ensembles—like string quartet—I know how all the instruments work, and I’ve played all of them, and there is a deep familiarity with strings, so I don’t necessarily need to try things out. Same with the voice. But other things, like winds, or particular singers, it is really important to discuss things rather than just deliver a set score. 

On string technique, harmony and technology, and Calidore celllist Estelle Choi

I think most of it is muscle memory, where I know what it is going to feel like or what it would sound like. But certain logistical things, especially with strings, even violin—which I’ve played my entire life and do better than speaking—I will bring it out just to check a passage, to see if realistically it can be this fast or this awkward. That little grit sound that goes into the chord—that came from a vocal idea. It was trying to translate the sound of a vocal fry going into a chord. The beginning of writing Partita was that sound, and the analog of it felt like that over-pressure into a chord.

To generate harmony, I always do that at some sort of keyboard, or midi keyboard or piano. I have to sit down. My inner ear is ok, but I feel like the music doesn’t flow if I’m trying to imagine the harmonies. Sometimes audience members think they’re asking a question, but they’re actually making a comment. They’re saying, basically, “you have it so easy. Beethoven and Mozart couldn’t hear anything. Mozart didn’t have Sibelius. You used a program. You’re nothing.” I’m like, oh! It’s funny. Schumann totally sat down at the piano. He could not hear it all.

I hope that Estelle one day writes music! I think she has some secret quartet pieces in her that would be really fun. But we played a Mozart quartet pretty early on, and she’s amazing. She’s way better than I ever was. And she’s a really great colleague. She’s open and so confident in her musicianship that I hope to get to keep doing more things with them.

On Marilynne Robinson and music as language

I do find that there is something very related between speaking and writing music, and when I am writing I try to pace it like I would want to pace a conversation with somebody, or hearing a story. Where there are large scale pauses and small-scale pauses.

I just happened to start with Suzuki violin, in which the theory and method is based on “anyone can learn music.” Because anyone can learn to speak. So the ideas are tied together, which is a really nice idea. It acknowledges the genius and brilliance and talent of every single person on this earth. What we do when we are speaking is so much more complex than singing, really. I’m always surprised when people say they don’t sing. Well, you actually just did something amazingly complex by telling me that.

I could definitely qualify [Robinson] as a starting point for [Three Essays]. Ultimately it had to be a piece of music, to work as a piece of music.  But before I wrote anything, I just listened to a lot of recordings of her speaking. I liked her writing because there is a certain pace to her sentences, even in her novels and written work, that you can hear when she is reading her essays. It is a very spiritual, old-fashioned kind of sound.

When I was writing that piece, she had just done an interview with Obama. They took a walk, speaking about morality and American issues, and [Nimrod] also started to become tied to this feeling of breakdown of the country. It was 2016 when I was writing it, so there was some really tough stuff happening, and the movement started out with this gentle, comfortable lilt that hints at the Copland Americana, but pretty soon after twists out of that.

I’m also interested in the structure of essays. You hear a really good writer and they present one idea in the beginning and talk about all the details of it, and by the end you realize it was about something completely different. So there was a sense of reveal. I don’t know if any of that really translated to the piece, but it was a fun way of trying to think about music, and it was a wonderful guide as I was writing the piece. I definitely wouldn’t claim that that piece exactly latched on to those particular elements of the essay, because I just didn’t find that a very satisfying way of making music in the end. It had to write itself, but there was a guide alongside. A conceptual touchstone.

It could be a totally bullshit composition concept. A lot of time when you are talking about new music, it comes very close to bullshit very quickly, so I’m trying to avoid that. I feel very secure in what I just said, but I feel like if I keep talking it would be very terrible!

On boundaries and openness

I definitely wouldn’t say that [boundaries] don’t matter, that the borders aren’t there. I see them all the time and they shape things in ways we don’t quite realize. If I’m writing a piece for orchestra, it’s not all going to sound like the production I do for Kanye. They might be conceptually related in the back of my mind, but I think my career gets put into that narrative pretty quickly because I do a lot of different things.

And I’m very pro breaking down the walls between these things. I’d love to throw out genre, I’d love to throw out gender, I’d love to throw out borders—but I understand how these things have developed. Ultimately, you just want to make the music that is right for you, that works for you, that sounds and feels good to you, and also is ethical and is for people who are making the music.

If someone asks me to do something that I’ve never done or don’t know how to do, I’ll probably say yes, just because I want to learn about it, and that was what it was like working with Kanye and in the hip-hop world. It was something I absolutely don’t know how to do, but I’m going to be myself and be honest in this and see what comes out. So far, that’s still a very interesting way of thinking about music for me. But I would love to see a world where everyone feels empowered to be creative. However we need to get there, I support that.

The poet Anne Carson wrote this thing in a program note I saw recently that I keep thinking about. She talks about genre and says, “genre is basically a matter of occasion, e.g. if you’re invited to a wedding you write a wedding song.” And I like that. It means there is an imprint of the occasion, or the people, or the instruments.

“What are you after, after all this time?”

[Editor: our favorite closing question is “if you were me, what would you ask you?” Shaw delivered this challenge.]

I’d ask myself the same thing I asked myself about six years ago when I wrote a little song. And that was: “what are you after, after all this time?” And I will keep asking myself that as I keep getting older.

It’s a different answer every day. Today, in this moment—I don’t have an answer for that right now. I don’t. Speechless. That’s an important question to be asked. What would you answer? What are you after?

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2 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    For all you Caroline Shaw fans, I suggest giving Dobrinka Tabakova’s music a try. She is a British/Bulgarian composer that turns 40 next year.

    *** Dobrinka Tabakova – String Paths – ECM Label ***

    A truly rare talent in that her music sounds fresh & as though you’ve always known it at the same time. How does she do dat?

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