Home / Entertainment / Caroline Shaw on Writing Classical Music ‘Fan Fiction,’ and Her Top 4 Desert-Island Songs

Caroline Shaw on Writing Classical Music ‘Fan Fiction,’ and Her Top 4 Desert-Island Songs

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty 

One warm summer day, I met the composer Caroline Shaw in New York City, where we spent an hour in Central Park talking about her music. Not long after we found a bench, it began to rain, lightly at first and then harder and then really hard. But we had brought umbrellas, so we decided to ride it out. This was not, we gradually but inevitably realized, an especially wise decision, but we were each too stubborn to be the first to give up.

Coincidentally we are both from North Carolina and therefore reflexively polite, so there was a lot of “Should we move?” and “Are we under the right tree?” and “Are we under a tree at all?” Nevertheless, we stayed put and kept talking, even as the rain came down hard enough to sound like a third party in the conversation when I replayed my recording. By the time we finished talking, we were, umbrellas notwithstanding, thoroughly soaked. But not unhappy. It all seemed like one of those oddball moments in a bubble that came and went, never to exist again.

And then a strange thing happened: I found myself ghosting her, or ghosting the story, not entirely volitionally but thoroughly all the same. I wanted to write up the interview, and at the same time, I didn’t. It’s been nagging at me ever since.

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Instead, I spent what remained of the summer and then the fall listening and relistening to as much of Shaw’s work as I could find. And the more I listened, the more I wondered if I was equipped for this job.

Because the more you know about Shaw’s work and the trajectory of her career, the more intimidating she seems. She became, at the age of 30, the youngest person to win the Pulitzer prize for music (2013, Partita for Eight Voices). She has filled the decade since winning her Pulitzer by continuing to perform as a violinist and vocalist, all the while composing for orchestras, chamber ensembles, and soloists, often collaborating as a performer with those for whom she composes—in the classical realm but further afield as well, with such artists as Kanye West, Nas, The National, and at least one member of Arcade Fire. And she has written film scores. And won two Grammys. And even appeared, as herself, in season four of the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle.

And for Jeopardy Daily Double genealogical lagniappe, she’s the great-great-granddaughter and great-great-grandniece of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins (thus named because they hailed from what was then Siam).

Her work inspires articles with headlines like “Is Caroline Shaw Really the Future of Music?” and “Caroline Shaw Is Firing on All Creative Cylinders” and “Caroline Shaw Is Making Classical Cool.” Even the contrarian headline “Caroline Shaw Is Not Here to Save Classical Music” implies that someone thinks she is.

It’s all very overwhelming, especially when you stir in the fact that most of this activity takes place within the gated community of classical music. So, for a while there, months in fact, I choked. Until, finally, embarrassment overcame fear and I went back and listened again to the conversation I had with Shaw last summer. And that was the key to the puzzle, because in reviewing what she said about herself and music generally, I realized that the demon I was wrestling was in my head and nowhere else.

I’ve gone on at embarrassing length because I don’t think I’m the only one who ties themselves into knots over classical music. I think that intimidation sinks a lot of people. I also think it’s a mistake to get trapped like that. And I think the work of Caroline Shaw, not intentionally perhaps but all the same, is the perfect way to beat that particular devil. Because in her conversation, and certainly in her music, both in what she writes and what she performs, Shaw is not out to intimidate anyone.

Sooner or later, in most music stories introducing new work, a writer will resort to simile: This artist/band/string quartet/whatever sounds like… Taylor Swift or The Clash or Debussy or… This is not laziness, or not entirely laziness, because successfully describing music that readers haven’t heard yet is nearly impossible otherwise. And after all, most music, even original, innovative music, does sound like something that’s come before.

But trying to describe Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part, Shaw’s latest recording, 10 songs produced in collaboration with the So Quartet, I keep coming up empty-handed in the comparison department. It truly isn’t like anything I’ve heard before. At the same time, there’s something familiar about it, like an unmet friend. Set to music written by Shaw or in collaboration with members of the quartet, who are percussionists, or composed collaboratively in the studio, the lyrics come from texts by authors as disparate as James Joyce, Anne Carson, and the Book of Ruth. Some lyrics are originals by the group, and there are also two hymn or gospel song texts. And one ABBA cover.

My favorite song, the buoyant title cut, has a Shaw lyric. “That was really quick,” Shaw said. “We sort of made those chords and a sort of free-flow text in a short amount of time, and improvised a melody, and we did it once, and we said, let’s do it one more time, and I think the second try is what’s there on the record and more or less unedited and just what is.” Music cannot make us airborne, but this song comes close.

The album began as a happy accident. The So Quartet, with pianist Gilbert Kalish and the vocalist Dawn Upshaw, had been recording a five-part Shaw composition called The Narrow Sea, with lyrics taken from shape-note hymns. “Because Dawn Upshaw is so professional,” Shaw said, “we finished early. And there was a song I’d written a few months earlier with an orchestra called ‘Other Song,’ and I made this kind of one-page abstract reduction of it. So I said, why don’t we take this extra time and see where this goes. It went really well, so we said we should do something together.”

Basic recording for the album took three days. “I was sort of the creative director on Narrow Sea, with everything written down in advance,” Shaw explained. “And here we wanted to come in more like a band and build pieces in the studio.” On day one, she showed up with nothing composed in advance. “One of the anchors was that I knew I wanted to do four duets. The idea was that we’d come in and within one hour two of us would make something from scratch.

“When we went in, we didn’t intend to write 10 songs that are all under five minutes.” At first, there “were much longer sections and instrumental pieces, maybe a little more expansive and experimental than the final version on the record.”

Sometimes the words came first and sometimes it was the music. “‘To the Sky’ is a set text from an old shape note hymn, and ‘Gradual Dazzle’ is basically a complete setting of an Anne Carson poem. For those songs I had the text in front and improvised a melody that felt like it sat well. And then [So percussionist] Adam Swilinksi would slip me little pieces of Ulysses. That’s an instance of having an anchor text and finding the melody along the way. ”

The results are songs that sound neither like pop songs nor land solidly in classical territory. Each melody finds its own form—no verse verse chorus bridge progressions here—and the lyrics are elliptical, evocative, and sometimes more about sound than sense. “I’m always a little fearful about direct content in songs—songs being directly about something,” Shaw says. “If you fold things in and sort of work around it, there’s something very beautiful about that.” With that in mind, consider this album exhibit A.

With a freckled, friendly aspect—short-haired and lithe at 39, she has that look that people blandly like to call youthful, by which they generally mean that the person addressed does not look their age, but in Shaw’s case this means that the way she looks has more to do with openness and curiosity than with innocence or naivete.

She is an energetic conversationalist, game for almost any topic. The only time she balked was when she was asked for her five top candidates for a desert-island disc, and then it was to object that five was way too restrictive. And she addresses questions with such enthusiasm and velocity that you might not notice, until you replay the interview, that she is also unsettlingly articulate, one of those people who really do speak in complete paragraphs.

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She’s been a musician since forever, beginning with violin when she was two. Her home town of Greenville, N.C. had a robust Suzuki instruction program. “My mom was a Suzuki teacher, and there were like hundreds of kids in Greenville who played the violin. So it was a big social thing. I played music so I could see my friends. I didn’t like to practice. I didn’t really understand what music was, but I liked doing things with people.”

At some point, though, very early, the music bug hit. “I have this memory of playing a simple Clara Schumann piano trio as a child, and I remember that performance just being completely in that moment, where there’s nothing else that exists.

“I kind of joke about it, but music is there in everything all the time, you can just pluck it out of the air. But the thing I keep going to is it’s this miraculous way to pass the time. It’s like the most humble way I can think of to describe music and also the most meaningful. It’s a way we have found to pass the time before we go.”

Shaw attended Rice University as an undergraduate and Yale for her Masters, specializing in music but as a performer, not as a composition student. Composing in a serious way came later.

“I loved making music when I was little, but I never really thought you could call that a composer,” she said. “Making up songs and singing them was just something to do. There were occasions where because I was violinist I would have a recital and I would write something for it. And then I began to write music for dancers. But because I was never in a composition class at Rice or Yale, I never really was part of that world.”

The turning point, the moment when she truly caught the composing bug, came “when I wrote the last movement of the Partita, which is called ‘Passacaglia,’ which was really just an experiment with Roomful of Teeth in 2009.” An a cappella group of which Shaw is a member, Roomful of Teeth has a mostly contemporary repertoire and explores an array of global singing styles and traditions, embracing the experimental both in its performances as well as the composers whose work it performs. “It was like anybody who wants to try something can try it, so I spent every last second that was free making this little six-minute piece. It went really well. And I thought, I loved doing that and want to do more.”

Four years later, the completed piece captured the 2013 Pulitizer for music, with the jury praising the composition as “a highly polished and inventive a cappella work uniquely embracing speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects.” After that, Shaw would continue to perform, but she became more in demand as a composer.

“You define yourself by what you do,” Shaw said, “and right now I write a lot of music so I guess I am a—I don’t know if I’d use the word composer… I try to use the word musician as often as possible because it’s a bigger umbrella. A lot of people from different traditions or backgrounds don’t feel comfortable calling themselves composers, because it feels like putting people in boxes, and the idea now is that music should be open and porous.”

Her compositions are very much the work of someone who is both an instrumentalist and a vocalist. Many people who write music are competent or better on an instrument, but few are as gifted as Shaw and fewer still know first hand what singing is all about. Anyone who has ever sung in a choir or chorus, upon hearing one of her compositions, would recognize a kindred soul.

In completely nonmusical terms, there is something generously warm and sensual about Shaw’s music, an openness that teases your ear and draws you in. Its energy seduces your complicity and spurs your imagination, and it’s not surprising to find out that the composer herself is synesthetic—one of those people who sees particular colors when they hear certain sounds and musical tones. The album Orange references that color in the titles of several selections, and the vinyl record itself is tinted an orange so delicious-looking you want to bite into it. “Often color is somehow a big part of it, flavor,” Shaw said. “I don’t talk about it a lot. My belief is that we are all synesthetic to some degree. I think it’s how we’re able to memorize things. I don’t think about it consciously, but if asked to articulate in this thing we call language what something is, I just rely on metaphor and relationships and associations.”

Another hallmark of Shaw’s music is its joyful embrace of older musical forms (the Partita’s four movements take their titles from Baroque dance forms), and sometimes she will interpolate an almost direct quote from an earlier composer (her string quartet Punctum builds toward the melody from Bach’s main chorale in the Matthew Passion).

“I love music so deeply and I fell in love with music early, early on, and I was playing new things where I felt like they were missing the thing that made me love music. Sometimes it was harmony, sometimes it was a kind of conversational quality in music. I just wanted to make the stuff that was in my head.

“I really don’t know what that impulse is. Like why do writers decide to write a story with that character and that plot and that language and that point of view that has never been told? Somehow we have this impulse to make that thing that didn’t exist before.

“And also I found in rehearsals that I could do the music pretty easily, so I could just think about other things in rehearsal. Just thinking about how it could have been done differently or what I would have done, and then begin to… make that. I joke that now and forever a lot of what I write will be classical music fan fiction because I love this thing so much, but what if it did that?! What if this is what had happened, wouldn’t that be fun? Maybe it’s not a very grand ambition, but it keeps me writing from a place of love, which is something I have to go to periodically to make sure I’m on the right spot.

“In hip hop, sampling is about that—loving this little piece of music so much and then building something out of the repetition and fragmentation of that. Again, it’s making something out of love and then having something to say over it.”

The pandemic for Shaw, like a lot of us, became a time to take stock. “It was very strange at first. For the first few months I didn’t compose anything, I didn’t do social media. I went home to North Carolina for a while and looked at the turtles in the swamp.”

Some things she didn’t miss at all. “I’d gotten to a place where I was on a plane a lot, going places. I don’t miss that.”

Some things, she discovered, she missed deeply. “I miss singing with people. That’s the thing I missed the most. Singing on Zoom or recording by yourself is horrible. I will go on record and say it is a horrible, horrible thing. Singing is about all the micro decisions you make when resonating with someone else. Or playing. You’re making these very intuitive micro decisions constantly, and that’s one of the things I really love about it. The sound of other people near you. I miss that a lot. There’s something about just being with people in a room. I think we make music as a reason for people to be in a room together. Before you die, you might as well do something to pass the time… with people. And I missed that.”

While she waits for the world to open back up, she reflects on how her identities as composer, instrumentalist, and vocalist interact and influence one another. Sometimes, she says, it gets chaotic, but rarely in a bad way. “I’m probably too close to it now to articulate any reasonable description of that process. I know that I probably write differently because of everyone I’ve ever met. And every piece I’ve ever played. And that’s why, if someone asks me to do something that I’ve never done before and I don’t know how to do, that’s the greatest reason to say yes. It’s about finding another door and finding out more about who you are. I feel really lucky in that. To open a lot of doors.”

Encore: Caroline Shaw’s spur of the moment, rainy day desert island selections:

“I have a Spotify playlist that’s just labeled Drugs. I don’t do drugs, but it’s music that are drugs to me. One of these is this anonymous 18th-century song that Cecilia Bartoli sings, and it’s just the most simple, beautiful thing. ‘O Leggiadri Occhi Belli.’

“There’s a Beethoven string quartet, op. 74, it’s called ‘The Harp,’ which I got to sight read with some friends a couple of days ago, and about 90 percent of the way through you have the best moment in music ever.

“Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You,’ which is actually Dolly Parton, that might make it on there.

“Oh, the one I’m obsessed with lately, Schubert’s ‘An die Musik.’ It’s one of those things that I almost gloss over, like it’s just a nice Schubert song. But I was watching this four-part Netflix series Unorthodox, and in the fourth episode the main character sings ‘An die Musik’ in this way that is just absolutely heartbreaking. I will listen to that for an hour on repeat while walking. Every single day. And I don’t know why.

“Sometimes you don’t know why. You just fall in love with something. And then sometimes you fall out of love with them, and you can’t listen to them anymore. That would be hard on desert islands.”

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