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Coffee Conversation: Caroline Shaw

Caroline shaw

When you meet Caroline Shaw, your initial reaction is: She seems fairly ordinary. She keeps her hair short, dresses for comfort more than style, and speaks in a hushed, hurried voice. She talks about squeezing in gigs and rehearsal time, or being late on a deadline just like the scores of other freelance musicians trying to make ends meet in NYC, many of whom are her friends and frequent collaborators.

And yet, you also quickly get the sense that there's something different about her: a clear sense of purpose; an intense focus; a quiet confidence, which she seems to have had long before she won the Pulitzer earlier this year for Partita for 8 Voices.

Caroline and I met for coffee near her Hell's Kitchen apartment last week, where we spoke for an hour about everything from freelancing to Tuvan throat singing and Beyoncé. During our conversation, Caroline made mention of the fact that she's been a FoM reader since moving to NYC in 2008.

"I was trying to figure out what’s happening here, what to go see and what to do," she told me. "And so I bookmarked Feast of Music, because you go to a lot of stuff, and it was really hard for me to figure out what to go to. So, I've been a fan for a long time." 

I've only recently become a fan of Caroline's, but I'm catching up quickly. More highlights from our chat below.

On Learning the Violin: I grew up in eastern North Carolina. Violin was my first instrument. I don't even remember starting: I'd say I was two years old. My Mom was a teacher, and my older brothers played, so it was just always around. I didn't grow up playing bluegrass—I grew up in a classical household—but that music was always around. My grandmother was from Mt. Airy, which is the epicenter of bluegrass fiddle music. 

At Rice (University), they were directing us towards orchestral playing, but I really wanted to play chamber music. I had this dream that if I could be in a string quartet like the ones I knew—the ones that mix education with playing—that's all I wanted to do. Then I got really sad when I realized that I might never find those people, and I might never be good enough.

On Singing: I grew up in an Episcopal household, so I grew up singing hymns in church. When I got to Yale for grad school, I found out they have a huge choral program and the choral director always needed singers. And then, I got a job singing at Christ Church New Haven. I became known as the person who could sing the right notes at the right time, and blend, and not get in anyone's way (laughs). And I like that; it's a very quiet role.

When I moved to New York, I auditioned for three different churches my first week here. Trinity Church was one of them. I knew of Caleb and some others from Christ Church New Haven who ended up at Trinity, so I auditioned there not really thinking I would get it. I ended up being hired as a floater for the Bach B Minor Mass, and I've continued to fill in occasionally since then. But, I've never been a full member of the choir.

On Roomful of Teeth: Around this time, Brad (Wells) was starting Roomful of Teeth, but he wasn't finding the singers he wanted. So, he went to Caleb and asked him if he knew of any good singers. Caleb gave him a big list of singers to listen to, and I was one of them. And, that's how I got hired.

I see Roomful of Teeth as more of an instrumental ensemble than a choir. We don't really sing words, so much as make sounds with our voices. 

Every summer, we've done a two- to three-week residency at Mass MoCA, which is where I worked on Partita. We didn't do it this past summer, because we didn't have enough money. When the (Pulitzer) news broke, everyone was like: "Oh man, all this stuff is happening, and we are so broke!" (laughs) It was very sad. But we're getting more chances to perform now, which means more together time. 

On Writing Partita: During that first summer, Judd Greenstein and Rinde Eckert were there to write pieces for us, but Brad had an open call for anyone else who wanted to write something for the group. At first, I didnt know at first I was going to write a big thing. I Started with "Passacaglia." I honestly don’t know what the impetus for it was, other than wanting a certain kind of clarity. I started with this chord in the beginning and then a chord in the middle. 

I thought about "Courante," the second part, the whole year but didn't write anything. I knew we were going to study Indian throat singing, and I'd been listening to a lot of that, developing a general idea of what I wanted to. When we got back to Mass MoCA, there was something about being there with the group that kind of forced something to come out. Not to mention, there was a deadline. 

Then I knew that I wanted to write an allemande and a sarabande, and I had an idea as to what those could be. I knew that "Allemande" would be a final answer to "Passacaglia," in a way. The order wasn't something I felt strongly about initially, but that's how Partita goes for me—"Allemande" has to start, and "Passacaglia" has to finish.

The instructions (apart from Sol LeWitt's) are from square dancing. Originally, it was going to start with the lyric "to the left, to the left," but that was when Beyoncé just came out with that song ["Irreplaceable"] where she sings "to the left, to the left" over and over. So, I had to change it. (laughs)

At some point, I realized: Now I have a couple of scores and recordings, and I can apply to grad school. (Caroline entered the PhD program at Princeton in 2010.) 

On being nominated for a Grammy: At first, I wasn't sure if the whole thing belonged on the album. I told Brad I didn't want to take up too much space. I guess it worked out. (laughs)

On Winning the Pulitzer: There's been a certain amount of guilt and embarrassment, for sure. I mean, there are lots of people who have written much more than I have who haven't won. But, at the same time, I feel pretty comfortable with it. I worked really hard on Partita, and I really liked the way it came out. And, I still like listening to it. 

Since winning, I've had the chance to speak to some students in high school and college, and I've just really tried to be honest with them. I want to speak sincerely to them. I've also been struck by the reaction of young women, and I realize that there's a certain significance in the fact that I'm a woman composer. I understand what it means.

Winning hasn't really affected me in any negative way. I feel pretty confident and clear about the music I want to write. 

On Future Performances: To date, only Roomful of Teeth has performed Partitaand there are certain things that are good about keeping it that way. But, sure, in time I think it would be great if other groups could perform it. I think that's what everyone wants, but it would probably require some kind of residency, since there are several things written into the score that only we would understand. 

I've also gotten offers from several dance companies to choreograph Partita, but to date, I haven't been interested. Partita isn't really a dance piece: it's inspired by dance, it evokes the spirit of dance. That said, there are one or two choreographers who, if they were to approach me, I would probably do it.

On What's Next: I'm writing something for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus right now (the BYC performed Its Motion Keeps this past Saturday.) And, I've been commissioned to write something new for Roomful of Teeth and the string orchestra A Far Cry, which I'm really excited about. That'll happen sometime next year.

On Being a Young Composer: I think people forget sometimes that there have always been young composers. Schubert was only 31 when he died. I guess that means I only have one more year, then! (laughs)

Caroline's site is streaming all of Partita, as well as most of her other compositions. You can also download the full album from iTunes. Or, for something completely different, check out Q2's remixes of Partita by eight different artists.