Caroline Shaw is a living composer who stands apart from many of her predecessors with her accessibility to a wide audience, her clear communication of musical ideas, and her clean musical textures. Caroline Shaw’s compositional values, in fact, point towards music’s ability to communicate. In particular, she revels in the fact that music communicates things that cannot be expressed with words. While some of her music does have lyrics, her music communicates clearly and succinctly to a listener what spoken language cannot. Shaw evokes instrumental and harmonic colors particularly reminiscent of Philip Glass or Arvo Pärt, mixed with a clear nod towards Appalachian or Nordic folk traditions in terms of character and texture. Her recent album, Orange, recorded by the Attacca Quartet, quickly reminded me of another album, Last Leaf, an album of Nordic folk tunes arranged and recorded by the Danish String Quartet. Her chord voicings are more than often quite transparent. Her main musical material is kept present throughout a given piece, without too many added layers moving simultaneously, so it is quite easy to hear how each element of her music interacts. When she “shifts gears”, or moves to a new section, it is done in a readily understandable way that has a polished narrative. Overall, the affect of her music is delightful, lighthearted, and agreeable to the ear.
It is not a surprise then, that her music is decidedly “accessible” to a wide audience. She is widely recognized as a rising star in both the contemporary, classical and pop music spheres. She won a Grammy Award with her group Roomful of Teeth, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize (one of the most coveted classical music honors) for her composition Partita for 8 Voices, and has been involved in numerous collaborations with the famed Hip-Hop artist, Kanye West. Shaw’s ability to attract a wide audience is rooted in the way she values a clear communication of musical ideas. While her compositions range in complexity, intensity and intended audience, Shaw mostly stands in contrast to the academic or cerebral nature of some traditional Western composers of the 20th century. In some cases, such as with Roger Sessions, Elliott Carter, Charles Ives, or Charles Wuorinen, she actually shares the honor of winning a Pulitzer, but Shaw’s music could not be any more different. While the Pulitzer could be considered an elitist organization — perhaps more so in the past than in the present — Shaw is actually the perfect example of a composer who counters the entitled, snobby, unapproachable, and isolated reputation that the traditional Western classical music world often holds. When describing the compositional process for her Pulitzer Award winning piece Partita for 8 Voices, she recalled: “I’d just spent a year playing all this thorny contemporary music. And I remember thinking, ‘All I want to hear is just one chord.’ So that was the beginning of the piece, how to make that one thing I wanted to hear.”
After listening to a number of examples of Shaw’s music, I noticed that transitions and “gear changes” are Shaw’s definite strong points. She is acutely perceptive of the passage of time in her music, especially during moments of tension and release. She explained, when speaking on tension and release in her music: “To get there, you have to sort of lead into it with a particular kind of energy so that shift has meaning. It wasn’t just random. There’s something that’s been built up and stretched, and then there’s this real tension. If you just pull it just enough, it’s so amazing. And then you’re like: ‘Boom!” I think that this very quote sums up Shaw’s effervescent musical personality. She brings an almost a Mozartian joy to her music and does not seem to take her occupation too seriously. In the context of many of the heady, cerebral, and inaccessible composers of the 20th century, Caroline Shaw is a beautiful breath of fresh air. It is a perfect entry point for those who will want to learn which pieces Shaw quotes unapologetically in her music such as Ravel’s String Quartet in F major in the middle of Plan & Elevation or Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion in Punctum. For many, Caroline Shaw’s music is a wide open invitation to the classical world that makes no harsh judgements, requires no acquired tastes, and treats everyone’s intellects equally.
Anderson, Stacey. “Is Caroline Shaw Really the Future of Music?” The Guardian, June 9th, 2016, New York.
New Music USA, “Shaw: Yes, a Composer, but Perhaps not a Baker!” YouTube, March 2nd, 2015.
Woolfe, Zachary. “With Pulitzer, She Became a Composer”, The New York Times, April 17th, 2013, New York.
Barone, Joshua. “Three Composers on the Necessity and Pitfalls of Political Music”, The New York Times, Nov. 10th, 2017, New York.
North Carolina Symphony. “Five Questions with Composer and Musician Caroline Shaw”, YouTube, March 15th, 2017.