Caroline Shaw is a New York-based musician—vocalist, violinist, composer, and producer—who performs in solo and collaborative projects. She was the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013 for Partita for 8 Voices, written for the Grammy-winning Roomful of Teeth, of which she is a member. Recent commissions include new works for Renée Fleming with Inon Barnatan, Dawn Upshaw with Sō Percussion and Gil Kalish, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with John Lithgow, the Dover Quartet, TENET, The Crossing, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, the Calidore Quartet, Brooklyn Rider, the Baltimore Symphony, and Roomful of Teeth with A Far Cry. The 2018-19 season will see premieres by pianist Jonathan Biss with the Seattle Symphony, Anne Sofie von Otter with Philharmonia Baroque, the LA Philharmonic, and Juilliard 415. Caroline’s film scores include Erica Fae’s To Keep the Light and Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline as well as the upcoming short 8th Year of the Emergency by Maureen Towey. She has produced for Kanye West (The Life of Pablo; Ye) and Nas (NASIR), and has contributed to records by The National, and by Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry. Once she got to sing in three part harmony with Sara Bareilles and Ben Folds at the Kennedy Center, and that was pretty much the bees’ knees and elbows. Caroline has studied at Rice, Yale, and Princeton, currently teaches at NYU, and is a Creative Associate at the Juilliard School. She has held residencies at Dumbarton Oaks, the Banff Centre, Music on Main, and the Vail Dance Festival. Caroline loves the color yellow, otters, Beethoven opus 74, Mozart opera, Kinhaven, the smell of rosemary, and the sound of a janky mandolin.
Needless to say, she is pretty bad-ass. I performed her duo for viola and cello Limestone and Felt last month and just fell in love with her music. Not only is Caroline Shaw a freaking genius, she’s also REALLY nice, and super funny. In this Spotlight, she talks about life as a multi-hyphonated artist, her biggest disappointment, her love of Shake Shack, and the dangerous consequences playing piano trios can have on a teenage soul.
TFTL: What is the best part about your career?
CAS: Getting to make something new that never existed in that particular form before, often alongside friends and colleagues whose curiosity inspires me every day.
TFTL: Are you more comfortable with a daily routine, or the freedom of an open schedule? Are you disciplined in how you work, or do you prefer to follow your mood and creative flow?
CAS: I crave a daily routine sometimes, but it’s rare. And I think that I really love the freedom of an open schedule. It’s a thrilling challenge, and I’ve always enjoyed a blank piece of paper much more than one with lines. Deadlines often generate the discipline needed to finish a project, and I’m grateful for them. Creative flow is hugely important as well, and I think that that kind of mood and flow can only come out of intense work and discipline. Freedom in rules, in various permutations.
TFTL: As a violinist, a vocalist, and a composer, how do you balance your different “lives”?
CAS: The different roles definitely feed each other, and I like the different kinds of work that they require.
TFTL: When you finished Yale and went on to get your PhD in composition, did you feel like you were moving away from being “a violinist”? Was that a choice between the two, or an expansion of your existing life?
CAS: It definitely felt like an expansion of things that I was already doing. I’ll always be a violinist; it’s just one part of being a musician, for me.
CAS: My mother, a violin teacher and singer and music organizer. My violin teacher, Joanne Bath. The organist at my church, who was also a composer (Janette Fishell). My youth orchestra directors, Glenna Theurer and John O’Brien. Anyone who I ever saw perform, or who coached any group that I played with. Too many to name.
TFTL: Who were some of your role models as a young musician?
TFTL: How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a professional musician?
CAS: I never quite knew what being a “professional musician” was (and maybe I still don’t), but I definitely felt something kick in when I was about 15 and played a piano trio by Clara Schumann. It felt like a kind of fire was lit underneath me, and I got really serious!.
TFTL: What do you think has been the most exciting moment in your career so far?
CAS: Ha. That’s a tough question. But the first thing that popped into my head was the feeling of singing “Passacaglia” with Roomful of Teeth, at our very first concert ever, in 2009 at Mass MoCA. There was a wonderful energy in the room then that feeds me still.
TFTL: What has been the most disappointing? How did you recover from it?
CAS: I worked for a long time on a piece called Ritornello, for which I wrote the music and made a film. I could tell in the performance that it wasn’t going well, and that I should have spent more time editing the music and definitely editing the video. I got some bad reviews (both in person and in print), but I am thankful for that honesty. It made me realize that it takes a long time to make something as deep and important as I wanted that piece to be, and as I still want that piece to be. I still think about it and work on it from time to time, and it’s an important lesson that I keep with me.
TFTL: What is your favorite thing about going to a classical music concert these days?
CAS: When something honest and beautiful happens. Could be in the performance. Could be in the music itself. I love being moved by a particular harmonic shift, maybe one that was written hundreds of years ago. Harmony is so effing great.
TFTL: If you could have dinner with any classical musician, dead or alive, who would you choose, and what would you ask them about?
CAS: I would really like to go to Shake Shack with Gesualdo.
TFTL: Quickies: Tea or Coffee? NYC or Maine? Summer or Winter? Morning bird or Night owl?
CAS: Coffee. Maine. SUMMER, R U KIDDING. Night owl.
TFTL: where can people find you?
CAS: ig: carolineadelaideshaw
TFTL: What can we look forward to seeing next from you?
CAS: A new album of my string quartets with the Attacca Quartet is coming out in February, on Nonesuch/New Amsterdam.
Thank you SO much, Caroline!
Wanna hear how great her music is?
Here’s a video of Roomful of Teeth performing her Partita.
You can get the whole sha-bang here.