Changing the Mold of Contemporary Classical Music

Caroline Shaw, a 36 year old Pulitzer Prize winner, has taken the classical music world by storm. Shaw is a vocalist, violinist and composer whose music reflects the past, Western art classical tradition, while keeping up with the expectations and trends of today. Most importantly, one does not need “to have a PhD in Ligeti to understand her language.”[1] Shaw strives for simplicity and beauty above all, creating aurally pleasing music the audience can relate to. What enhances this connection between Shaw and the audience are her collaborations with notable indie-rock and hip hop artists, such as Arcade Fire and Kanye West.[2] These projects have put her in the spotlight of the music scene, pushing her away from the idea of genre labeling and towards the image of a well-rounded, diverse artist she truly is. Shaw’s success lies in her “complete disinterest in musical boundaries”,[3] as well as the aura of approachability and familiarity she transcends, whether through her music or personality. People tend to naturally gravitate towards what is pleasant and enjoyable. Shaw is fulfilling those familiar desires by stepping away from the expectations of what contemporary classical music should be and creating music that the “common man” can enjoy.

In the modern world, there is a constant push for progress and the creation of a completely original product, resulting in ever-increasing complexity. In music however, these values do not always apply. People have a tendency to be drawn toward the aesthetic: the beautiful, the pleasing, the consonant, creating the theory that “a preference for simple tonality is wired into the human brain.”[4] Even though Shaw does occasionally provide short snippets of the “avant-garde”, she does so gracefully. For the most part, her writing style reflects the Classical era of music with its simple form, phrasing and an incredibly transparent texture. By employing a “Mozart-like” sense of craft and melodic line[5], Shaw fulfills this desire for lyricism and comprehension, resulting in an enjoyable atmosphere for the common listener to connect to. By stepping away from the somewhat frequent ambiguity that captures a majority of the contemporary classical music world, Shaw is gaining popularity and serves as proof that one does not need to compose incredibly complex works in order to be acknowledged and recognized.

Much of Shaw’s success lies not only in how well she incorporates different eras of classical music in her writing, but also in how brilliantly she merges the worlds of popular music, whether folk, indie rock or hip hop, with her classically trained background. Shaw states “that she writes for performers who share her love of music, not to satisfy scholastic norms.”[6] With this complete push away from genre labeling, she utilizes the freedom to experiment with artists who have different attitudes toward music, doing away with the misconception of what 21st century classical music should be. With these collaborations, Shaw is creating music that is accessible to all, and is serving as a protagonist of what the future might hold for classical music.

In order for classical music to stay relevant, it needs to become “ordinary and accessible to everyone.”[7], whether through composing in a similar fashion to the “Greats” and reiterating the already familiar ideas to the audience, or by merging classical music with other popular genres. Caroline Shaw is leading this charge by removing the elitism and complexity tied to the conception of classical music, proving that one does not need to produce the most perplexing, intricate works to be successful. Sometimes, simplicity is the key. With a focus on this, Caroline Shaw is helping to redefine classical music by creating pleasant and indiscriminate works to be enjoyed by all.

Ivana Biliskov

Bibliography

Anderson, Stacey. “Is Caroline Shaw Really the Future of Music?” The Guardian. June 09, 2016.

Accessed April 30, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jun/09/caroline-shaw-classical-music-kanye-west

Greene, Jayson. “Meet Composer Caroline Shaw, Kanye West’s New Pulitzer

Prize-Winning Collaborator.” Pitchfork. October 20, 2015. Accessed April 30, 2019. https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/940-meet-composer-caroline-shaw-kanye-wests-new-pulitzer-prize-winning-collaborator/.

Hambrick, Jennifer. “A Conversation with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer Caroline Shaw, Part

2.” WOSU Radio. March 29, 2018. Accessed April 30, 2019. https://radio.wosu.org/post/conversation-pulitzer-prize-winning-composer-caroline-shaw-part-2#stream/0.

Ross, Alex. “Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music? | Alex Ross.” The Guardian. November

28, 2010. Accessed April 30, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/nov/28/alex-ross-modern-classical-music.

Schiavo, Paul. “Caroline Shaw: A Pulitzer Prize Is Just the Beginning.” Seattle Symphony.

January 28, 2019. Accessed April 30, 2019. https://www.seattlesymphony.org/watch-listen/beyondthestage/caroline-shaw.

Wang, Juan. “Classical Music: A Norm of “Common” Culture Embedded in Cultural

Consumption and Cultural Diversity.” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 47, no. 2 (2016): 195-205. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/44234969.


[1] Stacey Anderson, “Is Caroline Shaw Really the Future of Music?” The Guardian, June 09, 2016, Accessed April 30, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jun/09/caroline-shaw-classical-music-kanye-west.  

[2] Jayson Greene,  “Meet Composer Caroline Shaw, Kanye West’s New Pulitzer Prize-Winning Collaborator,” Pitchfork, October 20, 2015, Accessed April 30, 2019, https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/940-meet-composer-caroline-shaw-kanye-wests-new-pulitzer-prize-winning-collaborator/.

[3] Paul Schiavo, “Caroline Shaw: A Pulitzer Prize Is Just the Beginning,” Seattle Symphony,

January 28, 2019,  Accessed April 30, 2019, https://www.seattlesymphony.org/watch-listen/beyondthestage/caroline-shaw.

[4] Alex Ross, “Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music? | Alex Ross,” The Guardian, November 28, 2010,  Accessed April 30, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/nov/28/alex-ross-modern-classical-music.

[5] Jennifer Hambrick,  “A Conversation with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer Caroline Shaw, Part 2,” WOSU Radio, March 29, 2018, Accessed April 30, 2019, https://radio.wosu.org/post/conversation-pulitzer-prize-winning-composer-caroline-shaw-part-2#stream/0.

[6] Schiavo, “Caroline Shaw: A Pulitzer Prize Is Just the Beginning,”.

[7] Juan Wang, “Classical Music: A Norm of “Common” Culture Embedded in Cultural

Consumption and Cultural Diversity,” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 47, no. 2 (2016): 203, http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/44234969.

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