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Friday, January 3, 2014

Composer Caroline Shaw Nominated For Grammy

Caroline Shaw is a violinist, singer, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. (Pulitzer Prize Board)

Caroline Shaw is a violinist, singer, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. (Pulitzer Prize Board)

Violinist, singer and composer Caroline Shaw is the youngest person ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for music.

Her voice bending piece “Partita For 8 Voices” captured the attention of the Pulitzer judges this spring.

And she has been nominated for a Grammy award in the Best Contemporary Classical Composition category, also for “Partita For 8 Voices.”


  • Caroline Shaw, violinist, singer and composer, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her composition “Partita for 8 Voices.”





YOUNG: This past year was a good one for North Carolina's Caroline Shaw. She began the year a violinist, an alto in Trinity Choir, and the a capella group Roomful of Teeth.


YOUNG: But Caroline Shaw was just nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. And last spring she became the youngest person ever to win a Pulitzer for Music for the same piece, "Partita for 8 Voices."


CAROLINE SHAW: The detail of the pattern is movement.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The detail of the pattern is movement.

SHAW: The detail of the pattern is movement.

YOUNG: "Partita for 8 Voices," performed by Roomful of Teeth. It is transporting. And we spoke with Caroline just after she received the Pulitzer. I asked her what was the main muscle, the drive behind writing "Partita for 8 Voices."

SHAW: It was written when I was spending time with Roomful of Teeth up in Massachusetts at MASS MoCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art. And we have a residency every summer for a couple of weeks. And we spend all day rehearsing and learning new techniques. And then I would go home at night and just try and make the music that I've been hearing in my head all day.


YOUNG: We understand that part of the inspiration was Sol Le Witt's "Wall Drawing 305."

SHAW: That's right. There's a three or four-floor exhibition of his works at MASS MoCA. "Wall Drawing 305" is on the first floor and it has all the directions that Sol Le Witt uses to make his paintings, but they're all laid out on the wall.

YOUNG: Well, and I'm just looking at a photo of "Wall Drawing 305": Eight, the eighth point is located halfway between the two points where an arc with its center at the first point and with a radius equal to the distance between the first - in other words, it's directions, you know, draftsman's directions for how to lay out the paint.

SHAW: That's right. I like the idea of this - something that's kind of overpowering and not very understandable, like a wall dry painting or like the sound of a large chord of music coming from something very technical and logical and wordy.


SHAW: I love choreography and patterns of dance moving across the floor. And square dancing comes from all of these calls. Sort of very simple directions and - cut the diamond, all men left, or swing your partner round and round through. And just from these words, the square dance caller calls out to make these beautiful patterns with people on the floor. So that was what I was thinking of.


YOUNG: Well, there's Allemande, there's Sarabande, Courante and Passacaglia, the four passages, all built on these baroque dance forms. And the New York Times says at points in your music it's as if Gregorian monks and throat singing Inuits joined for baroque dances at a country jamboree. I'm sure...


YOUNG: I'm sure that was your goal.


SHAW: I would love to see that.

YOUNG: Well, but would you like to see this choreographed?

SHAW: It's actually choreographed in my mind. That's how I came up with the music in a way that's hard to really describe. I think of the music as movement. I can't imagine what it would look like choreographed.

YOUNG: Well, what I love about it is - I don't want to use the word accessible because that makes it feel or sound simple. But I noted that you said to one reviewer that before writing this you played a lot of really difficult contemporary music, and all the time you kept thinking, all I want to do is hear one chord.

SHAW: Yeah. Yeah. There are a lot of really lush moving chords that turn a lot of corners in Courant and Allemande, especially. But Passacaglia, the last one, is really generated all from this one D major chord, which is the thing that I most wanted to hear after playing a lot of very difficult and challenging music that I loved, but, you know, sometimes you're walking (unintelligible) New York City, you're walking around, there's so much going on, and you try to find some sense of peace amid the chaos.


YOUNG: Even within some of the more melodic, beautiful, gorgeous major chord sections, you have your singers bending their voices and adding this dissonance.


YOUNG: Talk about the degree of difficulty of the singing.

SHAW: Some of it is really difficult. And the bending of the notes comes from sort of our abstracted version of Republic of Georgia - Georgian singing, where they'll - the intonation is just a little bit different than what we're used to.

YOUNG: Well, and then how did throat singing Inuits make their way in this?


SHAW: Well, there are different kinds of throat singing. There is Inuit throat singing, which is really sort of a game of singing. It's a hocket between two women.

YOUNG: Is that the breath?

SHAW: That's right. That's the breath that happens in the beginning of Courant.


SHAW: It was inspired by this Inuit throat singing tradition where you - it's a lot of breathing and textured breathing. So you sort of create a sound with your throat, and then it's passed back and forth, sometimes very quickly between two people. Sometimes breath and sometimes tone, so you can make melodies.


YOUNG: It's amazing to listen to. What's it like to be in it?

SHAW: Oh. It's a wild ride to sing with Roomful of Teeth. And also to sing - I mean, to sing these pieces in particular, to sing your own music is - you have to kind of step - I step outside of myself when I write the music anyway. So I do that a little bit when I perform.

YOUNG: What now? Thirty years old, youngest Pulitzer Prize winner ever...


YOUNG: ...one of a handful of women. What do you want to do?

SHAW: I'm going to take a little time to - for one, keep doing a lot of what I'm doing. I really - I love a lot of the music that I get to make with friends, people I know, as a violinist and singer. And I'm still, you know, figuring out, as they say, my voice as a composer. I love music so much I can't even - I can't say how much I love music. So I'm going to just keep trying to love music in all the different ways that it's possible.

YOUNG: Yeah. That's worked so far, I would say.


YOUNG: Composer, singer, violinist Caroline Shaw. Caroline, thanks so much.

SHAW: Thank you, Robin.


YOUNG: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARTITA FOR 8 VOICES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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