Bringing the Past into the Present

Caroline Shaw was born in Greenville, North Carolina in the year 1982. She is an American composer, and an active violinist and vocalist. Through listening to her music, it is clear Shaw has developed a unique compositional voice that blends western classical traditions, folk hymns, world music, and her own unique compositional voice. Some characteristics of her music include the use of extended techniques, repetition and development of themes, and a sense of “simplicity” as the overall aesthetic of many of her compositions. This approach is different from many modern composers who try to push the envelope of musical expression to a new level. Caroline Shaw composes in a way that explores musicality in a manner that is accessible to a wide variety of audiences. One unique aspect surrounding some of Shaw’s works is the use of older pieces as compositional material and inspiration for her works.

In an interview with the Seattle Symphony about her piano concerto Watermark, Shaw talks about the process behind finding material for the piece. Shaw drew inspiration from different themes and motives found in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and wanted to explore the essence of the piece. Shaw presents different musical ideas that she has written, different themes written by Beethoven that she has altered, and even direct quotes from Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. This results in a composition that shows clear ties to the past while showing a modern direction for new compositions. Another example of this process is how she wrote By and By.

By and By is based on different hymns that are taken from their original contexts. Shaw explores different tonalities, timbres, and musical combinations throughout this piece to dig into the meaning of the words. In Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown, there are moments where the strings are supporting the vocals with light accompaniment. At other points, the stings are playing unison staccato chords to provide a contrast in feel. She approaches I’ll Fly Away by taking the harmonic aspect of the hymn and trying to develop different ways it can be heard. This mixture of hymns and modern music creates a very unique composition that is very accessible to many listeners in the way it is presented. Caroline Shaw has incorporated non-western musics into many of her works. 

One in particular is Taxidermy, where Shaw has used inspiration from Balinese gamelan music to influence the instrumentation of the work. In the case of Taxidermy, she included flower pots as a melodic instrument. When played simultaneously, the instruments produce a timbre similar to the gamelan instruments. The instruments are traditionally slightly out of tune with one another, which creates a shimmering effect between each instrument. In Taxidermy, this is heard between the timbre of the flower pots and keyboard instruments. Shaw also explores other musical areas from gamelan style, including a cyclic form and musical development. Throughout the piece, a common theme is introduced for a moment. After a brief period, the theme is gradually elaborated upon until it takes on a completely new character. These are used throughout Taxidermyto continually give the piece forward motion and development.

Throughout these three compositions, there are many different influences from classical traditions, folk hymns, and world music that are present. Shaw is also able to take components of these musical areas, then put her own musical voice into the mix. The result are pieces that stand in many different musical arenas. Shaw is able to bring many aspects of the classical tradition into the modern age, and also move it in a new direction. Her pieces are unique, full of heritage, and can be viewed as compositions that serve the role as a multi-faceted musical work that can take a listener to any area of music they may want to hear. 

Trice Mayhall



“a: Gamelan ensembles and instrumentation.” Oxford Music Online.26 Apr. 2019.

Chacko, Rachel. 2014 “American gamelan.” Grove Music Online.26 Apr. 2019.

Harnish, David. 2013 “Gamelan.” Grove Music Online.26 Apr. 2019.

McGraw, Andrew C. 2014 “Balinese gamelan.” Grove Music Online.27 Apr. 2019.

McLEAN, EDWIN. “Understanding Contemporary Music.” American Music Teacher 27, no. 1 (1977): 17.

Wilhoite, Meg. 2015 “Shaw, Caroline.” Grove Music Online.26 Apr. 2019.


“At the Piano with Jonathan Biss and Caroline Shaw / Seattle Symphony”. YouTube Video, 13:46. Posted by “Seattle Symphony”, January 30, 2019.

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