Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw has done it all, from film to television to opera to rap. By Ramona Koval.
Composer Caroline Shaw
Composer Caroline Shaw is particular about her eggs.
Her Instagram account reveals little beyond her love of music and performing with others, and her preference for eating soft-boiled eggs cooked for the precise combination of a firm white, a chalky outer yolk and a liquid centre. Six minutes and 15 seconds. She searches for music pieces of exactly that duration to play during the procedure.
I’m not usually attuned to incidental music in film or television, but I was alert to the startling theme for the BBC television series Marriage and the distinctive incidental music for the American series Fleishman Is in Trouble. Caroline Shaw wrote both and her music makes an immediate connection with ears and hearts and minds.
Australian audiences will have a chance to hear Shaw’s work live this month. Her piece Entr’acte features in the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Dvořák’s Serenade concert, which will be touring to Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Newcastle after opening in Sydney this week.
Her work includes her Pulitzer Prize-winning a cappella composition – won in 2013 when she was 30 – Partita for Eight Voices, performed by Shaw as one of the eight singers in the group Roomful of Teeth; her playing her own music as a violinist in various string quartets; as an accompanist to dancers; as a singer with Sō Percussion; as a producer with Kanye West – with whom she parted ways when he supported Donald Trump – and United States rapper Nas; works written for US sopranos Renée Fleming and Dawn Upshaw; a piano work for Jonathan Biss and the Seattle Symphony.
Her work as vocalist or composer has appeared in many podcasts, television shows and films, including The Humans, Bombshell, Yellowjackets, Maid, Dark, Beyonce’s Homecoming, Tár, Dolly Parton’s America and More Perfect. She has composed more than 100 commissioned works over the past 10 years, as well as doing university teaching stints and residencies.
Who is this 41-year-old woman, fair, fresh-faced and friendly in her publicity shots and on her Instagram account? When does she sleep? She’s not a big talker, although on my Zoom interview with her in the light of her Zurich day, where she is finishing a commission, she is unfailingly nice, laughing at my jokes and thinking seriously about her answers.
Shaw grew up in Greenville, North Carolina, home of the world’s largest hammock manufacturer. Her father is a pulmonary physician who talked to her about the diagnostics of breath, and her mother is a singer and teacher of Suzuki-method violin. A few Instagram photos show a serious little girl smiling while playing a tiny violin. She sang in the Episcopal church choir and loved the feeling of singing in community. She would go on to earn degrees in violin from Rice and Yale universities and has an honorary doctorate in music from Yale. She began writing music as a 10-year-old.
Partita for Eight Voices was composed over three summers from 2009 to 2011. She entered it in the Pulitzer for the 2013 award and, to her surprise, it won and her star rose in the music world. “There was very little expectation of me, and I decided I’m not going to live in fear,” she says. “Will I be able to live up to it? No one knows what I can do, and I don’t know if I can write music, and if I can’t write another thing, I’ll do something else. I can still play the violin and sing.
“The thing I know about myself is that I deeply loved music from when I was a kid. It would make me cry. It was the thing that I was obsessed with and moved by. It’s spiritual and there’s magic in there somewhere. And if I can tap into that when I’m writing, I’ll be okay.”
Her egg project reveals a devotion to precision, even perfection, and yet Shaw is clearly democratic about what other musicians might bring to her works. She considers it a gift when people want to play her music and is happiest when someone plays it in an original way, when they have made a decision about how to play a certain part, and she encourages players not to feel too tied to the score.
“I might seem like a control freak with my egg timing. I grew up playing classical music at a time when it was changing from a culture of ‘you must do it this way’ and not really a friendly atmosphere, especially for new music,” she says. “And I sidestepped the composition academic world. But I saw the need for empathy on both sides. It’s really important in music making and recognising every day the gift of being a musician or being alive, getting to make things with people and knowing that life is short, there’s just no reason not to be kind. There’s nothing to get upset with in music.”
The magic of music has sustained her, even as a controversy about Partita emerged in 2019, years after the big prize. Roomful of Teeth was entranced by all possibilities of expression made by the human voice and engaged a range of singers of non-traditional vocal techniques, including Tuvan throat-singing, Korean p’ansori, yodelling, Inuit katajjaq techniques and belting. Shaw used them in various ways in Partita along with spoken word, grumbles, hums and other breathing techniques.
However, someone they had not worked with claimed on Twitter that RoT had offended the Inuit by using the technique in the work. This was a blow. Shaw and RoT’s then artistic director Brad Wells’s response was that the breathing patterns they had used were sufficiently distinct from katajjaq to be something new but acknowledged they couldn’t be the arbiters of that distinction.
Shaw is clearly still stung by the experience. “I would never have written that section of that piece had it been the conversation at the time in 2010,” she says. “My memory of it was a lovely time of sharing and that making that part of the piece was really encouraged and celebrated. But even though they may have felt good about teaching us, not everyone in that community does, and I really respect that.”
She still loves Partita and is proud of it. It came from a place of love, but RoT doesn’t sing that part that way anymore. The breath is still there but it has a different quality. She tries to imagine that if this had been the conversation in the room in 2010, how might she have written it? She claims it is a piece that was always meant to evolve depending on who is singing it. “So I asked for everyone’s patience to let me try something else,” she says. “I respected what they were saying; I was deeply sorry.”
These days she divides her time between her apartment in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, where she has maintained a fire-escape garden for many years, and Portland, Oregon, where she met her partner, folk-rock musician Danni Lee. Shaw loves hearing Lee’s perspective on how the classical world works. Why do they not clap between movements at concerts? And her garden has grown from planter boxes on the fire escape to a whole yard. “We’re growing artichoke and brussels sprouts, and all the big things that take up more space.”
Her music talk is layered with metaphors from cooking, eating and gardening. It’s sensual. She still ritually eats a soft-boiled egg once a week. “The cool thing is it’s never perfect, even as many times as I’ve done it, it’s never a perfect egg,” she says. “But I like that. I want to write a bunch of piano solo pieces that are around 6.15 minutes, each for the different egg styles of soft-boiled and all the way to the hard-boiled, depending on how long you boil them.”
Her thinking about the world and her ear for sound meet in the middle and she composes. She tries to let the music tell her what it wants to do. She strives for something that chimes with music from hundreds of years ago, which sounds like you may have heard it before but which is new. “It’s taking a new form almost like the idea of the multiverse,” she says. “If there are many universes existing in parallel, what if you just pay attention? If you listen closely. That other one is right there.”
I wonder if she is still rooted in the religion of her childhood, after noting the inspiration for Three Essays was the work of the novelist and theological thinker Marilynne Robinson. But it was driving and listening to the lilt in Robinson’s voice in an audio book of her essays that led her to the composition. “My religion now is that I can’t believe we’re all alive on this earth,” she tells me. “Like what a joy and tragedy it is. And understanding that none of us will exist, that music is deeply spiritual, magical, a thing that you cannot see, you cannot touch. It moves you and I don’t know why, and I don’t ever need to analyse why.”
To hear Shaw’s beautiful voice and her own lyrics adapted from the work of Robert Burns, Gertrude Stein and Billy Joel, listen to her piece “And So”. A love song turns into a lament, a keening for the fate of humans on earth. She has set poems to music but found they live on the page and don’t need her music; it’s already there. She wanted to make something with words that have a sound that sits elusively in the voice.
Is she hard on herself? Recently she wrote a 45-minute opera and felt parts of it were some of the best things she’s made. But in another section, she could “hear the engineering, I knew the plan”.
“It was fine, but I felt a shame about it,” she says. “I’ve weirdly carried this shame for the last couple of months and had to talk to my therapist about it.”
Does the therapist understand the kind of work Shaw does, the deep soul-work she draws upon? She likes the idea that her therapist knows nothing about her music and talks about her own life a bit too much, but Shaw goes to her because she’s cheap. We laugh again.
What does it mean that Shaw, modest, gifted and possibly avoidant in intrusive interviews, tells me that Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes” is one of her “favourite songs in the world”?
I listen to it and it sounds like one of the hymns she says brings her to tears every time. It’s a lament, a careful exploration of the wounded lover who approaches a new love cautiously and claims silence as his self-defence.
Is she shy? As a child she was on stage a lot with her little violin, but her favourite place was in her room drawing on sheets of paper. In the American South where she grew up, women were expected to talk a lot, filling in the spaces in conversation, making others feel comfortable. She laughs, remembering being in Finland recently where silence is more prized, more to her taste. You can be quiet there and not socially performative.
She is coming to the end of a string of commissions and has said “no” to making more for now. She wants to rest and see what emerges.
“There’s something that I want to make that is for theatre,” she says. “It’s not an opera, it’s not a musical. It’s not exactly a play, it’s not a series of songs, but music and words. It’s a beautiful story, and I don’t know what the story is and that’s really exciting to me. If I knew what it was, I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore.”
A version of this piece will also run in the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s concert program.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 5, 2023 as "Magnificent obsession".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription