Mixing it up with Caroline Shaw before Sunday's Twin Cities concert

Caroline ShawCourtesy of the artist

February 02, 2022

When Caroline Shaw won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her dazzling vocal work Partita for 8 Voices, one lingering doubt assailed her — she wasn’t sure that she was even a proper composer.

“That’s not really what I call myself,” she told one interviewer at the time.

Nine years later, she is still struggling to slot herself into a particular category.

“I used to just say I was a musician, then I started saying I was a singer, violinist, composer, producer,” she says. “But I think I’m going to go back to just ‘musician,’ because it encompasses a lot of different kinds of music-making and stops me getting pigeon-holed in a particular role.” 

Shaw turns 40 this year, and her career as a creator and performer remains remarkably eclectic, ranging from classical compositions to collaborations with rapper Kanye West, and solo work as a vocalist and string player.

On Sunday, Feb. 27, Twin Cities audiences get a chance to see the multifaceted Shaw in action for themselves, when she visits the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota for a concert. Her piano quartet Thousandth Orange and the string quartet Blueprint will feature, along with selections from the vocal work By and By, with Shaw as soloist.

Blueprint is the piece which forged Shaw’s Minnesota connection. It was written in 2016 for the Aizuri Quartet, at a time when Twin Cities violinist Ariana Kim was a member.

Kim is now artistic director of the Chamber Music Society and first met Shaw 10 years ago when they played together in the Knights, a New York-based chamber orchestra.

Kim describes Shaw’s music as “inventive, quirky and inviting,” and relishes her occasionally unorthodox instructions to performers — asking for one particular passage to sound like “brunchy gossip,” for example, and another like “a marble bust.”

Caroline Shaw
Lee Bollinger presents the Pulitzer Prize for Music to Caroline Shaw in New York City in 2013.
Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

The seemingly indefatigable Shaw also will unpack her viola at Sunday’s concert to participate in a performance of Mozart’s String Quintet in G minor — “a safe space,” she calls it, “playing second viola with four other players around you, and no solos to do.”

For Shaw, such variety is the spice of her musical life.

“I enjoy doing a lot of different things and having the opportunity to learn in different ways”, she says.

Such genre-hopping versatility is none too common among classical composers, many of whom concentrate mainly on composing. But for Shaw, mixing it all up is what matters.

“I’ve never been someone who writes music every day and has a schedule,” she says.

Event info Caroline Shaw with Chamber Music Society of Minnesota

“I just fit it in between traveling and rehearsals and performances, and that feels really good. It’s a break for my brain and feeds ideas.”

Immersing herself in the constantly changing flux of everyday living — not being a closed-off, “ivory tower” composer — has noticeably affected the type of music she ends up writing, she says.

“I really think a lot about the people I come in contact with in the rehearsal process, what music the musicians like to play, and what the feeling of playing music is,” she says. “So I always say to young composers that if they have a complex idea in mind, that’s great. But think about whether there’s a way to write that for players which takes three minutes to learn, not three hours — because people’s lives are really busy.”

Her life is no exception. She is embroiled in the process of writing her debut opera, a one-act piece due to be staged at Chicago Lyric Opera in spring 2023. Her work will be part of a triple bill that also includes operas by John Luther Adams and Daniel Bernard Roumain.

In four scenes lasting 40 minutes, her so-far-untitled opera has a sharp contemporary resonance.

“There are two main characters, which I’ve called A and B, a high and a low voice with no gender distinction. There’s also an eight-voice chorus and a full orchestra,” she says.

The opera shows Shaw’s two characters attempting to communicate with each other, first on a glitchy phone line, then on a train ride, then in a car with GPS spilling out instructions. The aim, Shaw says, is to write something “intimate, relatable and everyday,“unfreighted by the traditional operatic themes of myth and history.

“What it’s like to talk to somebody and not be able to reach them,” is her succinct summation of the libretto, co-written with Irish dramaturg Jocelyn Clark. “And the feeling of loneliness that is in there and really familiar to all of us”.

While her new opera clearly addresses pressing social issues about the difficulty of making personal connections in a world awash with digital flotsam and jetsam, it’s striking that she has so far mainly avoided inserting explicitly political content into her music.

This is, Shaw explains, a deliberate choice, at a point in time when views are sharply polarized in U.S. society and statements of personal belief open to misconception.

“I think there are many ways and many reasons to make music or art in the world, and I’m very grateful for those who are able to bring a certain point of view to audiences,” she says. “But I’m not always sure if I’m the right person to make certain statements, so I’m very careful about that.

“And music is something that I also love with my body, so I think the most honest thing I can do is to write from an intuitive place. That’s where a lot of my music comes from.”