Caroline Shaw: Yes, a Composer, but Perhaps not a Baker!

Caroline Shaw: Yes, a Composer, but Perhaps not a Baker!

A conversation in Shaw’s studio apartment in New York City
February 9, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

When Caroline Shaw’s Partita for Eight Voices won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013, a great deal was made of the fact that she was—at age 30—the award’s youngest-ever recipient (beating out the previously held record of Charles Wuorinen, who was 31 at the time he received the award in 1970) and was just at the start of her musical career. (Never previously studying composition formally, she had only enrolled in Princeton’s doctoral program in composition in 2010.) The fact of Shaw’s newcomer status to the scene seemed to be even more pronounced by her reluctance to embrace the word composer, identifying instead as a musician.

For many younger musicians the word composer has connotations that are antithetical to the collaborative nature of a lot of today’s music making. But Shaw’s reticence to embrace the word has a different motivation. Equally active as a singer (in Roomful of Teeth) and a violinist (in ACME), Shaw was more concerned about accurately describing her musical life, which has many parts and is a delicate balance. Now two years later, when we met up with her in her tiny studio apartment a few blocks away from Times Square, she is more comfortable with the word composer though she still believes that musician is a more appropriately inclusive moniker.

Yeah, I am a composer. I’m also a lot of other things, a lot of other nouns. So I feel like if there was going to be one noun that was used, it doesn’t seem like the right one. It’s just a matter of taxonomy, the way things are categorized. It wasn’t necessarily a reaction to not wanting to relinquish the control, because—come on—we’re all a little bit obsessive. Musician just encapsulates what I am a little better, I think.

Nevertheless, Shaw’s compositions are central to her musical identity and, in recent years, she has been venturing far beyond works that she has created for her own performance. Her vocal and string playing background has undoubtedly resulted in her ability to create highly idiomatic and particularly effective music for voices (such as her Its Motion Keeps created for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus) and string quartets (including Entr’acte, which the Calidore Quartet has been touring this season). But equally fascinating are her solo piano piece Gustave Le Gray, which takes as its departure point one of the Chopin mazurkas, and a percussion quartet scored for flower pots called Taxidermy (written for So Percussion) which evokes the sound world of Javanese gamelan. Later this month, the Cincinnati Symphony will premiere Shaw’s Lo, her first composition for orchestra.

Still, the level of specificity and fixedness that are de rigeur when working with orchestral musicians is somewhat antithetical to Shaw’s personal compositional aesthetic.

It was the most foreign thing I’d ever done. Everything has to be in the score. … There’s something about this concept of baking versus cooking on the stove. If you write a piece where you have to notate everything and you give it away and you can’t touch it anymore, it’s like baking. You hope you followed the recipe exactly, and the chemistry’s exactly right. Then you can’t touch it anymore. But I do like the idea of following a recipe from some great chef that you like, David Chang or Julia Child, but you also can make it a little bit more like what you want. You change the sauce a little bit; you sort of trust the ingredients. … It’s why I guess I gravitate to smaller groups and people who don’t want you to have everything on every note. … When I have the choice to put information in a score or not, there’s always a careful thought about whether it’s necessary. If I didn’t put this here, would it give a sense of freedom to the performer to do something informed by the rest of the music? And is there enough other information there to give them a context to make a decision that they feel excited about?

Shaw found a way around the requisite notational strictness of writing for the orchestra by writing herself into the piece and creating a part for herself that is more open-ended, more like stove-top cooking than baking.

The solo part is just vaguely written out, only the parts that they really need. A lot of it is left open. And some parts I’m actually going to play with the first violins the way you would with a Mozart concerto where you have the option of playing the tutti parts. You know, I didn’t think that I would ever write for orchestra. But I’m glad to have had the opportunity. … I do think that there’s a changing relationship between composers and performers now. People are really giving a little bit more trust to each other than in the past. And I like that.

It was great to have an opportunity to talk about a broad range of topics with Caroline Shaw—performance practice, sashimi, painting. Shaw is remarkably unselfconscious, extremely enthusiastic, and bursting with ideas. It is indeed a great thing for the contemporary music scene that she has become a significant part of it.

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Shaw and FJO in conversation

Frank J. Oteri: There are already several really good interviews with you out there which invariably start by asking you about Partita and the Pulitzer. So I don’t want to do that. But you’ve done lots of other fabulous stuff, too. Partita’s wonderful and we’re eventually going to go there, we have to, but I thought it might be more interesting to begin by talking about your solo piano piece Gustave Le Gray. I’m curious about how and why you decided to construct a piece around music by Chopin and how much of his music is actually in your piece.

Caroline Shaw: It actually started out as my Princeton Generals project. At Princeton, there’s this assignment to write a piece responding to another composer, another piece, something that’s really different from what you do. It often ends up being very similar to what you do. We sort of find simpatico elements. There’s something about the way that Chopin changed harmony chromatically, something that Dmitri Tymoczko has talked about. In my work, I found that I’m using a lot of standard I-IV-V, really Baroque, chord progressions, just blocks chords. So I wanted to create a piece that nested around this little Chopin mazurka. It’s the A-minor Mazurka. It starts out almost like “Chopsticks,” and then this perfect, beautiful melody spins out on top of it. I wrote something that starts that way and just creates a little encasing for the piece. You can actually perform the whole Chopin inside of it, or you can perform the piece separately if you want. There are two options. There’s a little seam where you can either seamlessly go back into my piece, or you can open it into the Chopin and close it off from the rest of the piece.

FJO: You’ve predicted my next question. The performance of it by Amy Yang that’s streaming on your website and the performance of it by the Italian pianist Enrico Maria Polimanti that he posted to YouTube are totally different from each other. Polimanti’s version had the whole Chopin.

CS: Yeah, I created a couple little hinges so you can do either one. I would like to do that with other pieces, too, where you write something that just kind of sets you up in this way—21st-century ears, or something like that. You hear it in this different context, then you come out of the piece rather than with applause, with something else. Maybe it’s irreverent to the older piece, but I find it’s actually kind of like having a really nice conversation with a friend.

FJO: In a way, it’s like having a single abstract painting in a room with a bunch of old portraits or vice versa, having one painting that totally doesn’t belong with the others. It results in a really weird space that makes you look at the old work differently and the new work differently, because they’re in a dialogue with each other that they never otherwise would have been. I guess most classical music concerts are like that. If you hear a new piece, it’s surrounded by all these much older and more familiar standard repertoire pieces, and then people are scratching their heads with the new piece thinking, “Why doesn’t it sound like the other ones?“

CS: Often I think it’s hard to find things that speak to each other properly if they weren’t intended to be that way. But sometimes programming can be very thoughtful. There are some projects recently—Michael Mizrahi, David Kaplan, and Timo Andres either commission or write works that are responding to others. David Kaplan has a project where he commissioned, like, ten new pieces responding to Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze. Everyone’s responding to a different movement of it. It’s cool, because then you can program something with new things and old things. They’re intentionally relating to each other, rather than just this sense of “oh, that was odd.” But I also like the juxtaposition of totally random things right next to each other. It’s the whole shuffle idea on your iPod where you have Mozart, the Cranberries, and Pavement right next to each other.

FJO: Is that what’s on your iPod?

CS: No, those are just things that I happened to have read about in the last 24 hours. Pavement, Cranberries, and Mozart. I don’t listen to Pavement, but I have a friend who does.

FJO: Slanted and Enchanted is a wonderful record.

CS: Oh yeah?

FJO: Anyway, you also mentioned Timo Andres, who did this re-composition of Mozart’s incomplete Coronation Concerto in which the stuff he used to fill in for the missing left hand of the solo piano part doesn’t really sound like Mozart. There’s also Night Scenes from the Ospidale, the project that Robert Honstein did with the Sebastians using Vivaldi.

CS: I played in the premiere of that. Yeah, it’s really beautiful.

FJO: This all feels very much part of our zeitgeist, a real manifestation of postmodernism, like those mashups of Jane Austen novels that have additional characters added in.

CS: It’s like classical music fan fiction, revisiting this older music that a lot of us really love, I think, very sincerely. It’s not in a kitschy or ironic way, like “I’m going to deconstruct this little thing, because isn’t that silly and old so let’s undermine these systems,” at least not in my case or in some of my friends’ cases. These are things that I grew up with and really love, they’re part of—people say my musical DNA. I think that’s a kind of bullshit concept—something that I came from.

FJO: You were talking about the difference between your harmonic palette and Chopin’s harmonic palette just now, the I-IV-V versus leaning into passing chords, almost like jazz substitutions. In your program note for Gustave Le Gray, you described your own music as being like sashimi, whereas Chopin was more like prosciutto and mint.

CS: Oh, my god, that’s a great combination!

FJO: Sashimi is all about the taste of a piece of fish; it’s total immersion in one flavor. Prosciutto and mint are each immersive, but combining them creates yet another experience.

CS: Yeah.

An excerpt from the solo piano score for Caroline Shaw's  Gustave Le Gray

An excerpt from the solo piano score for Caroline Shaw’s Gustave Le Gray. © 2012 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: You wrote this piece to get outside of yourself and what you normally do. As a result of doing this piece, have there been more ingredients than just the piece of sashimi in the other pieces you’ve written since then?

CS: I think so. I don’t know if it’s because of this piece, but I did want to try different combinations of harmonies that I’m not naturally attracted to. I like jazz chords with substitutions and slightly meandering things with irregular chord permutations, but there is something beautiful about sashimi. That’s how I often describe the beginning of Passacaglia. I just want to hear one chord, but not in a driving, ‘70s or ‘80s traditionally minimalist way. So not experiencing this one thing in time repeated and repeated, but just singularly. Like one instance. Like a painting, but music is a time-based art, so you kind of have to negotiate this with minimalist tendencies. I don’t know. Are there things that I now do after that that I didn’t before? Definitely. I’ve been trying to push myself a little bit more.

FJO: The title Gustave Le Gray is a bit of a curve ball. “Prosciutto and Mint” would have perhaps been a less cryptic title or maybe “Prosciutto Mint Sashimi.”

CS: That would be delicious! Gustave Le Gray was a pioneer photographer in France in the mid-19th century, around the same time that Chopin was the thing in Paris. He was famous for developing a technique to represent clouds in a photograph. It’s kind of a simple idea. But there was something about thinking about creating an image that’s a still image and watching it slowly develop that seemed appropriate for a title.

shaw bookcase vertical

FJO: Well it’s funny, when I started thinking about the title I started wondering if perhaps they knew each other, but I couldn’t find any evidence that they did.

CS: I don’t think they knew each other. Maybe they did. I don’t think that their arts work in the same way—music is so different from photography—but what if you thought about some element of them as overlapping?

FJO: Well, what I thought was that the title was a really subtle way of telling people that what you did compositionally was somehow a sonic photograph of that Chopin mazurka. It’s not the actual Chopin piece but rather a new piece created based on it, just like a photograph of an object is a new object based on that original object.

CS: Yeah! I should probably mention there’s another piece that I wrote, a string quartet called Punctum, which is maybe the origin of my starting to think about the photographic moment and its relationship to music. There’s a Roland Barthes book called Camera Lucida which is a meditation on photography, memory, and nostalgia. He describes these two concepts—the punctum and the studium. The studium is sort of like what the photograph’s about, like a photograph of three people sitting around the table, playing cards, and looking at each other. And you can see a mom, a husband, and a child. So that’s what the photograph is about. But the punctum in that photograph is maybe the man’s tie which is a particular color that’s just really striking, or the way that the little boy is looking off to the side. That’s the moment that actually grabs you and that you remember. I don’t know if that’s related to Gustave Le Gray, but it’s really related to this idea of capturing a moment and trying to identify a slice in time either of music or of a scene.

FJO: Ha, that’s another curveball title, when I heard that title I thought—

CS: Punctum, contrapunctum?

FJO: No, I thought Punkdom, as in The Kingdom of Punk, Sid Vicious in one corner and Joey Ramone somewhere else.

CS: You’re so punk! You’re way more punk than I am.

FJO: Well, I think your piece Taxidermy has a somewhat punk title.

CS: Oh yeah?

FJO: It’s a macabre word. You’ve written that you like the word because it’s somewhat creepy. I think it’s a fabulous and somewhat punkish word to use as a title. But at the same time it seems a bit weird to me that you chose the word for—of all things—a piece for So Percussion.

CS: Well, it’s going back to the idea of the sashimi. You present; you put this here. It’s going to fall down. Presenting one thing—here, this is all we have. It’s not decorated. And I’m going to present it to you again. Like, here’s another piece of perfect salmon. It begins with them playing just these little flower pots. There are no pitch indications, so it’s not about the chord or the harmony. It’s just about one sound versus another sound, a very simple binary. Then other things happen in the piece, and eventually it becomes these two chords that happen. It’s almost like you just have this deer in the headlights look. Like this is all I’m giving you. There’s something awkward about it, something a little bit naked, something macabre, as you said—creepy, funny, quirky, but kind of also grand. You think taxidermy and you think about a giant moose or tiger looking at you that was once this grand creature but now it’s just frozen in time. You’re experiencing it a hundred years later.

Also it came from this idea of the awkward moment. Let’s say you’re on a date with someone and you say, “I’m really into taxidermy.” There’s a pause. It’s awkward.

FJO: That didn’t happen to you, did it?

CS: No, it didn’t.

FJO: And had it happened to you, you wouldn’t have been the one who was into taxidermy?

CS: No, no, no. But one day I’m going to write a great little short story about some meeting of two people. But how do you create that awkward pause in music?

FJO: When I heard that title, I immediately thought the word taxidermy seemed like a really potent critique of classical music. Because in a way, that’s what classical music is: all this focus on things from over a hundred years ago that were once such a big deal in the culture they were created in—grand, like that moose. But now in the 21st century—

CS: —it’s here placed beautifully in the dining room, and we’re eating a lovely meal next to this ancient grand moose. I think you make an excellent point about what older classical music is. Classical music is a broad term that means many things, but to many who are not in that classical music world, it means a particular thing which is a particularly 17th, 18th, and 19th century version of music. And there’s a comfort level in experiencing that music in museum-like situations which I’m actually not critiquing. I love museums. I love concerts where I sit and listen very carefully to something that was beautifully constructed a long time ago. I love that experience. But I think that sometimes there’s not a real awareness and consciousness of what that is and what it means for new music now and what the possibilities are for thinking about older music and thinking about newer music.

FJO: But of all the pieces you could have called Taxidermy, you gave the name to something you wrote for the one kind of ensemble that could never be accused of being musical taxidermists. Percussionists pretty much exclusively perform new music, especially the So guys who either write or commission almost everything they play.

Excerpt from Caroline Shaw's score for Taxidermy

An excerpt from the solo piano score for Caroline Shaw’s Taxidermy. © 2012 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

CS: I was wondering why you thought percussion was an odd choice. Okay, yeah.

FJO: I could see a string quartet being called Taxidermy, maybe something for violin and piano, or, probably most appropriate, an orchestra piece.

CS: I understand your point. I think there might be something more antagonistic than I intend if I called a string quartet Taxidermy. I’m very conscious of the string quartet as this incredibly old form, but I also really, really love it. So I don’t want to poke anyone’s rib. I’m going to stop now.

FJO: Well, before we do, the reason I wanted to bring up those two pieces of yours that we’ve been talking about before anything else is in some way to address what a lot of other people have been saying and writing about you: You’re a new kind of person in our world. You don’t think of yourself as composer. You prefer to be called a musician. Since you’re a singer and play stringed instruments, you write very idiomatically for voices and strings. While your vocal pieces are really well suited to voices and your string works take full advantage of your insider performer knowledge of what these instruments are capable of, Gustave Le Gray is very pianistic even though you’re not out there publicly as a pianist. And Taxidermy is also totally idiomatic even though you are not a percussionist. While it’s true that much of your music has grown out of your relationship to music as a performer, those two pieces clearly didn’t. They came out of something else.

CS: Right. I can relate to the string and the vocal sound very naturally. But I don’t play the piano. I used to play piano, and I can play some percussion, but I wanted to create something that is outside of my natural, physical, musical world. In both cases, they were written for particular people that I knew and so it comes out of their sensibilities. There’s something about So Percussion, their attitude and their quirky, careful relationship to what they do, and their willingness to just play flower pots very gently. The piano piece Gustave Le Gray is written for Amy Yang—who is a pianist far better than I could ever dream to be—and for her particular relationship with the repertoire that she loves, the instrument, and with her older teachers which include Claude Frank. Whether or not it comes from a different place, I don’t know. I’m still kind of figuring out what the music is that I like to write. I guess we all are all the time. Every chance you get is a chance to discover something new about yourself, and writing for something that is less familiar to you is a great way to—as Steve Mackey has said—put your brain into a different shape for the day. So I guess that’s what those pieces did.

FJO: Well, to be a bit of a provocateur here and to get back to this whole notion of taxidermy, in a way, when you’re writing a piece down you’re sort of taxidermizing it to some extent. If you create music that’s for your own performance, you can still play around with it since—after all—it’s yours. Sure, when you write a piece for another ensemble, you have to let it go, but the whole relationship between composers and performers of score-based music is predicated on respecting what is put down on the page since the way the composer is present in the music—even if he or she is not actually participating in the performance of it—is through those written instructions. So in a sense, you have to somehow taxidermize yourself when you write a piece for others.

CS: Oh, that’s an interesting point. I would like to think that one doesn’t preserve themselves strictly in this text form when writing a score. So far I’ve always been able to work pretty closely with the people who perform it. There are many important things when writing music. You know, create a score that represents accurately what you would like, whether it’s different parameters that are easy to represent like pitch, duration, some things about timbre—but timbre is a really impossible one to actually represent. Phrasing sensibility is also impossible to represent. Humor is really hard. You can give little hints of it, but to give someone a sense of your own relationship to this music and your own humor and attitude and how they should approach it is so difficult. And I don’t want that to ever be frozen in time. When I was playing early music, whether it was Corelli, Mozart, or Beethoven, biographies of these composers were important. Did they exactly want this, or is it open? Was it a culture of “you can improvise on this note” or “this is exactly what you should do”?

Caroline Shaw at home.

Caroline Shaw at home.

FJO: I see you’ve got a Baroque violin behind you on the wall.

CS: With a broken string. I perform mostly with Roomful of Teeth now and a little bit with ACME. I haven’t done a gig on Baroque now in a year and a half. I miss it a lot. I love that exploration of a time when there was less information on the page. We actually just did a concert a couple nights ago with Roomful of Teeth and ACME, and I did some arrangements of Purcell. There were no dynamics or tempo indication in the score, so I left it like that. And it was a really great experience of working closely with these two groups. We all know each other’s sensibilities and trust each other to see what comes out of that organic performance practice. What do you do with four whole notes? How can you shape that when the information isn’t strictly given? When I have the choice to put information in a score or not, there’s always a careful thought about whether it’s necessary. If I didn’t put this here, would it give a sense of freedom to the performer to do something informed by the rest of the music? And is there enough other information there to give them a context to make a decision that they feel excited about?

FJO: You’ve hit on something that I think is really a key issue in contemporary music. In the 20th century, a lot of composers felt the need to put articulations on every note in a score, to offer precise instructions about every dynamic level, an exact metronomically determined tempo indication, and so on. But what would have happen if those scores had fewer details? Is Purcell’s music any less worthwhile because those details are missing? On some levels, the malleability of performance and the possibility of variable interpretations are what make a piece of music feel alive and not like a piece of taxidermy.

CS: I agree with all of those things. At the same time, I think it’s a very beautiful artistic gesture to indicate all of those things, like the quality of the accent or a mezzo-forte dynamic. Everything on every note is an incredible human creation. That’s an awesome thing. It’s not the way that I work or that some of the music that I’ve previously played works, so I’m happy to maybe live in that world a little bit more. But I do think that there’s a changing relationship between composers and performers now. People are really giving a little bit more trust to each other than in the past. And I like that.

Shaw's pet fish

Shaw’s pet fish

FJO: I don’t want to sound like I’m only ragging on composers here for over-notating. I think the other part of this phenomenon is that performers came to expect it. I once “under-notated” something and it drove the person playing it crazy. I kept getting phone calls: “What do you want here? How do you want this phrased?” My answer was, “How do you want to do it?” and the player was flummoxed by this.

CS: We haven’t talked about that. Yeah, that’s a terrible bristling reaction.

FJO: This sort of thing is particularly an issue in the orchestral realm where there is usually only time for two rehearsals and the clock is always ticking so anything that’s not precise on the page is perceived as an irresponsible waste of their time. I don’t know what your experience has been working with orchestras or if you’ve had an orchestra piece performed yet.

CS: I just did one! I’ve only done one, and it’s being done in March. And I wrote myself into the piece so I could be there on stage, because I didn’t want to be far away. I just felt weird about it. It was the most foreign thing I’d ever done. Everything has to be in the score. But, at the same time, I know a little bit about what the players’ repertoire is. It’s an orchestra that plays a lot of grand, old repertoire. And they have a beautiful conductor who is French and who specializes in Mozart, so I wrote with that kind of thinking.

There’s something about this concept of baking versus cooking on the stove. If you write a piece where you have to notate everything and you give it away and you can’t touch it anymore, it’s like baking. You hope you followed the recipe exactly, and the chemistry’s exactly right. Then you can’t touch it anymore. But I do like the idea of following a recipe from some great chef that you like, David Chang or Julia Child, but you also can make it a little bit more like what you want. You change the sauce a little bit; you sort of trust the ingredients.

There are so many things to talk about with this. The different kinds of reactions that players give to a composer depending on how much information they’re given goes so deep into what musical community is, who we’re writing for, who’s playing it, who’s listening to it, what the size and the history of the institution is behind the music, how it’s funded, and what the venue is. All these things have such an effect on the way the music is written, even though we like to think that that’s not the case. The idea of writing for a standard ensemble that executes it in this robotic way—I hate it; it’s not the kind of world that I want to live in. It’s why I guess I gravitate to smaller groups and people who don’t want you to have everything on every note. You know, they won’t bristle at that. I have had that one time. It was my first year as a student at Princeton. Well, it wasn’t a bristle-y reaction. It was like, “Well, I could really use more dynamics here.” But I could sense that I lost all trust; the player just didn’t trust me to have done my job and thought I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was hard. So I gave a few more dynamics, but then I said, “You should think of the way that you approach Mozart versus Haydn versus Beethoven. It’s not all the same. It’s slightly different, but there is a general sensibility that you come to that with. It’s how you play four eighth notes in a row; you wouldn’t play them robotically. You would create some kind of shape.” But a quartet has that time, an orchestra does not.

FJO: So where and when is this orchestra piece happening?

CS: March, in Cincinnati.

FJO: Fantastic. How long is the piece?

CS: It’s 17 minutes or so.

FJO: You said you wrote yourself into it, so is it a concerto?

CS: I don’t call it a concerto. It’s a piece for a lot of players, and I’m going to play the violin.

FJO: But are you in the violin section or are you actually a soloist?

CS: Soloist. But actually the solo part is just vaguely written out, only the parts that they really need. A lot of it is left open. And some parts I’m actually going to play with the first violins the way you would with a Mozart concerto where you have the option of playing the tutti parts. You know, I didn’t think that I would ever write for orchestra. But I’m glad to have had the opportunity.

A passage from Caroline Shaw's orchestral score for Lo

A sneak peak at Caroline Shaw’s first orchestral score, Lo. © 2015 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Well, this gets into this whole musician versus composer thing. I wonder if not wanting to have obsessive control over the music you write is part of what made you reticent to use the word composer to describe yourself, even though you are in fact a composer.

CS: Yeah, I am a composer. I’m also a lot of other things, a lot of other nouns. So I feel like if there was going to be one noun that was used, it doesn’t seem like the right one. It’s just a matter of taxonomy, the way things are categorized. It wasn’t necessarily a reaction to not wanting to relinquish the control, because—come on—we’re all a little bit obsessive. Musician just encapsulates what I am a little better I think.

FJO: I find it weird that people don’t realize that composer is a subset of musician.

CS: Just like there’s a terrible thing that reviews sometimes do: “the musicians and the singers did a great job.” I’m like, oh my god, guys! Basic concepts of classification here.

FJO: But the thing about the word composer that I love is that, unlike artist or writer, it means someone who puts things together. So it really isn’t some super powerful creator who is making something from nothing. The only other field where this word gets used is in perfumery; the people who put different chemicals or essences together to create scents are also called composers.

CS: Oh really? That’s very cool.

FJO: Yeah, so I love the word composer.

CS: Me too.

A passage from Caroline Shaw's score for "Sarabande," the third movement of her Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for Eight Voices

A passage from Caroline Shaw’s score for “Sarabande,” the third movement of her Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for Eight Voices. © 2009-2014 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: The music you’ve created for groups that you’re also involved with as a performer—like Partita for Roomful of Teeth—really has been composed in the “put together” sense. The different movements were actually first performed at different times and in different places over the course of a few years and you kept revising it. Many pieces evolve this way, but until the Pulitzer changed their rules a few years back to allow a first recording of a piece from a calendar year to qualify and not just a first live performance, pieces made this way got overlooked. Of course, if you’re gigging and workshopping a piece, there is no one set premiere. Although it blows my mind that even after you won the Pulitzer for it, you’ve still been tinkering with it. So you don’t think of it as a fixed document even now.

CS: I don’t. Most things haven’t been tinkered with, but I did add a whole section to Courante and kind of remixed it. We took that out it recently. It’s just too long. And we change the vowels on things a lot. We felt like that “aaah” last time was feeling a little bit abrasive. It didn’t have the right effect with the audience because they heard it as something aggressive, so let’s make that “aaah” something a little bit brighter and happier and you change the mouth shape just a little bit, and it changes the effect. And we changed the quality of the breaths in Courante. All of the time we’re changing it. And once in a while, we’ll have a sub who comes in and brings in a new idea. So I don’t like to think of it as a fixed document, but there’s definitely a lot of information there that is set. That is a recipe that one can follow, but still cook on a stove. You can still add some pepper, you know.

FJO: So it’s not baked.

CS: Not baked. I can’t say I’m baking it so hard.

FJO: It’s interesting that you said we and not I.

CS: Yes, Roomful of Teeth.

FJO: So even though it’s your music, you feel like the piece belongs to the whole group on some level, the whole group molds it to some extent so in some ways it’s less authorial, less a strict baking recipe where you absolutely must put in those two cups of sugar or it isn’t your cake.

CS: Well, you know, if it needs two cups of sugar, and you’ve put in like one cup of flour, I’ll correct it. I think people definitely look to me to give some suggestion. But as much as I possibly can—and this is true with other stuff I’ve done with the group—I really want to empower people. I would love for them to have suggestions. Unless it’s a terrible idea, I’d love to try it in a performance. If you can create some kind of sensibility among each other that encourages people to come up with ideas and feel empowered to articulate them, that’s what I would like to create.

FJO: Now this can happen very organically and very fluidly if you’re part of a group, or if they’re friends, or if you’ve worked with them. But if you write a piece of music on a page, and it’s out there in the world and somebody obtains a copy of the score in, say, Zagreb or Shanghai, they’re not necessarily going to be able to say, “Hey Caroline, what do you think of blah-blah-blah?” So it’s going to become more like baking than like cooking on the stove.

CS: Yes, that’s true. Then the relationship to the performer is very different.

FJO: And that’s starting to happen with your music now more and more, I would imagine.

CS: Yeah. Then you realize you’ve created something that is just out in the world without you, without the little quirks of your sense of humor and your attitude. Maybe somebody’s watched an interview to get a sense of who you are as a composer and as a person, but if they haven’t and they just ordered the score, they just have this thing. They want to play it. Hopefully you’ve given them something to dig into and to be engaged with and that they will want to shape in their own way. There’s nothing more you can do. You put it in the oven.

But at the same, I think about what you guys do at NewMusicBox. It is this really incredible archive of getting to know a composer. So if you are in Zagreb, and you order a piano piece from someone, you can Google them. It’s not like 20 years ago when you just couldn’t; you just didn’t know anything about anyone. Now you can watch a video. You can get a sense of who they are. You can have a little sense of the biography of someone developing over time. I like to think that that’s what the world is going to look like in 20 years. Getting music, but also being informed by the way that that person’s other music was performed and the way they think about music.

FJO: With the orchestra piece, which affords the least amount of personal interaction with the musicians since there’s so little time to prepare for it, you still wrote yourself into the piece. You didn’t want to let go that much; you wanted to have that interrelationship with these players. I’m thinking also of Its Motion Keeps, your piece for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. You wrote yourself into that as well. I’m curious about how that all evolved and played out. It wasn’t a group that you had regularly been a part of, but I think they really served what you did extremely well.

A passage from the score of Caroline Shaw's choral composition Its Motion Keeps

An excerpt from the solo piano score for Caroline Shaw’s Its Motion Keeps. © 2013 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

CS: Yeah, they were amazing. I still did get to work with them, so it changed certain things that were a little ambiguous in the score. There’s a little thing that goes nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah, which I can’t really say in the score, but it takes two seconds to describe it. And then you have it. They did an amazing job. I did write myself into that piece, too, because I’m still at the beginning of this writing music for other people. I don’t know what the future will look like. For now I like being there with them. But it’s been done without me playing viola since then.

FJO: So is the viola part optional, or did they bring in someone else to play it?

CS: They just brought in another violist.

FJO: With the Cincinnati Symphony piece, you said a lot of the solo part isn’t written out. What happens if someone else wanted to do it, say, two years from now with the LA Philharmonic?

CS: I just assume that no one’s going to want to do it.

FJO: You don’t want to think that.

CS: I could feasibly write out a part for someone to play. But actually, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus is a great example of that. There’s something written out. Originally it was pretty loose, and I made it up, and still whenever I play it, there’s a whole section that I basically improvise within a certain structure. Some nights I like to build it up here. And then the next night, I just actually take myself out mostly for five bars. But there is a part that’s written out, and if they hire a violist to play it, they can play that. It’s fine.

FJO: So is whomever they hire to play the viola part expected to improvise as well?

CS: [The score] says, “Play this as if improvised.” They could either play exactly what’s on the page or—depending on the person’s background and personality and the way they like to engage with music—they can loosen it up rhythmically. Let’s say they were preparing to play the piece and they saw a YouTube video and said, “Whoa, none of that is the same. There’s a little more freedom here.” So maybe they take a little bit. If they called me and said, “Hey, I’m playing that piece.” I’d say, “Yeah, that whole section in the middle, you can kind of do what you want. This is the basic idea. Don’t play too much. Let them play here; do something that’s tasteful.” And then you don’t know what they’re going to do.

FJO: So how connected are you with performers when they play your music? I know that the Calidor String Quartet just played your Entr’acte at Juilliard. Did you work with them at all?

CS: Well, the cellist in the quartet was a cellist that I played a Mozart quartet with my first year in grad school. We’re good friends, so they sent me a recording before they performed it at the Phillips Collection in D.C. For the most part it was the ideal match, and I was sort of involved. But the quartet has actually been performed by other people and I haven’t been involved and I have no idea how it went. It was written to be a quartet played not necessarily by a new music specialist group, but a group that is used to playing Mozart and Beethoven. I like the piece a lot and I feel good about that quartet being a kind of calling card as a way into my music.

A passage from the string quartet score of Caroline Shaw's Entr'acte

An excerpt from the solo piano score for Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte. © 2011 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: I imagine that’s starting to happen more and more now, the music is slipping away from your ability to shepherd it, which is a good thing but also requires letting go.

CS: Ultimately, it’s a great thing. We have a very short time on this earth. Music is music. It should be out there in the world. People should be excited about playing it. And there shouldn’t be a sense of weird control freakiness that I probably could have. So I’m very happy that it’s going out in the world. Whether or not it’s a problem that I’m not involved, it’s probably better. At a certain point, you can tinker with your recipe to death. I used to paint. You can paint something and just keep on doing it. Then ultimately, if it’s a little bit brown and kind of smudgy, you can’t really work with that anymore. So it’s better to let it be what it is, let it go off, and trust people.

FJO: Well, part of why letting go is hard is the difficulty involved with transmitting new techniques. You were talking about the breathing in Partita and then the Brooklyn Youth Chorus making certain sounds. It reminds me of all the extensive prep work that goes into a performance of a Meredith Monk piece. There’s no adequate notation for a lot of that stuff. So what do you do to get it done by other groups? Several published Meredith Monk scores are accompanied by audio recordings to give interpreters a clearer sense of how to make certain sounds. But even with recording, you don’t necessarily get some of the nuances of how those sounds are made. Her own ensemble workshops her music rigorously. In some ways, your music has gone down that same path—certainly it has with Partita.

CS: Yeah, a little bit. I’ve never actually met Meredith Monk. I saw her one time and I got so nervous, I had to turn around. She’s just an amazing musician. But the thing about her work is that it’s not just about the sound. You could get a recording and imitate the sound. There’s something theatrical about it. It’s like a playwright writing more than words. You give a stage direction and there’s a sensibility to it that is connected to the narrative and the character and what they’re trying to say. I think that is really hard to notate in music. Again, it’s this concept of attitude and humor and the subtleties of that. I think my music is probably much more notated than Meredith Monk’s is. I’m still kind of an obsessive engineer about it. This is where everything goes. But then there are these little, almost theatrical subtleties that have to be passed down orally.

FJO: As you said earlier, notation does some things very well but others not as well. No matter how obsessively you write something down, there’s only so much you can do. We have all these added advantages over, say, Purcell. We’ve increased the kinds of details we can notate. There were no metronome markings back then, for example. And nowadays, as you said, someone can watch a YouTube video of a performance and maybe get something really precise if there’s good camera work to get the shape of someone’s mouth. When Molly talked to Joan La Barbara for NewMusicBox, she also recorded a whole lesson with Joan La Barbara which captured very detailed things about how she produces some of her sounds. So you don’t have to meet Joan La Barbara to learn how to do her stuff anymore.

CS: That’s amazing.

FJO: So when somebody gets, say, a score of Partita, do they get other things with it? What materials do you give somebody to ensure that it’s going to be as close to the recipe as is appropriate without being too controlling, but also have it be what you want it to be?

CS: There’s something that I wrote at the bottom of the first page of the score. I don’t remember the words exactly, but basically it was that no one document should be prescriptive. Be free and live life fully. That’s what I wanted that piece to go out with. The recording is very helpful and the score is very helpful, but ultimately do it the way you would like to do it. The piece was just done last week by Camerata Nova in Winnipeg. It was the first time [another group performed it]. I went out there to work with them, but ultimately they still did things their own way. Tempos were a little bit different. Pauses were a little bit different. The sound of the breath was different. Because every person—every instrument—is different. It’s not like a standardized clarinet, which everyone plays a little differently but the instrument itself is more or less the same. All eight instruments of the eight singers are different.

FJO: This is why I think most listeners really identify with singers more than they do with instrumentalists and why, certainly in pop music, a singer’s performance of a particular song has such a stamp of auteurship on it to the point that we call someone’s version of a song a cover. But we don’t call it a cover when a group performs a Mozart string quartet that tons of other folks have played.

CS: It’s fascinating to hear other versions of a similar thing. I love covers. I mean, that’s another thing. I love YouTube covers of people just doing pop songs. I love this song so much; I just want to sing it myself with my guitar for you. And then it’s a slightly different version.

violin cases

FJO: You’ve done what are essentially covers of some really classic American folk tunes, like “I’ll Fly Away.”

CS: Sort of. That is part of a set of four songs. It was a slight subversive dig at the commercial country music industry. It’s like: please, everyone stop making this glitzy. Just strip everything away. So I wanted to do my cover of it.

Going back to Mozart string quartets, you’re just doing this cover of this thing that somebody else’s band did a long time ago. But I love that there are slight differences. That works if it’s a musical community that enjoys hearing a mix of new things and old things. At a certain point, there’s not enough time in the day to hear all the older things and older new things and newish old things again and again and then also hear more new things. So how do we find a balance between enjoying different versions of stuff, but also embracing things that are entirely new? It’s hard. I think about this a lot, because I would love for there to be more repeat performances of new music. It’s such a shame, whether it’s orchestral or chamber music or electronic pieces, there’s one instance where it’s premiered and then there are very few instances that are shared communal experiences of that piece being done again, either by the same person slightly differently or by another group.

FJO: One way we can hear pieces again and again is through recordings, either hearing a physical CD or LP, hearing it on the radio, or now—more and more—hearing it online. And of course, it was through a commercially released recording of your piece that you won the Pulitzer.

CS: Yeah.

FJO: Thankfully you have SoundCloud embeds of several of your other pieces on your website, since nothing else is out on CD yet. Is there anything else in the works?

CS: There’s a cello and percussion duo, New Morse Code, that has a Kickstarter campaign. [Ed. note: They plan to record Shaw’s piece for them, Boris Kerner.] They’re really great advocates for new music. But that’s the only one I know of that’s going to be officially recorded.

FJO: Having multiple opportunities to hear a piece of music live is probably something that you’ll be addressing in your role as composer-in-residence for Music on Main, since I know that the artistic director, David Pay, is very interested in experimenting with performance modalities and how people hear stuff.

CS: David is definitely interested in how people hear new music and how they have conversations about it, whether it’s before the performance or after. I think the idea of the composer salon, having people just be able to talk about their work and ask questions, is great. There’s a chamber series in Manchester, Massachusetts, run by a couple of friends of mine from school. Every summer they’ve done a new work. They play it at the beginning of the concert, and they play it again at the end. So you hear it twice at the same concert, which I wish was done more often, especially if it’s not a very long piece. That’s something I’ll talk about with David.

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4 thoughts on “Caroline Shaw: Yes, a Composer, but Perhaps not a Baker!

  1. Pingback: Caroline Shaw: Compositional Chemistry | New Music USA

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