Sep 20, 2016
by RICKY O'BANNON

Caroline Shaw might have one of the busier and more unusual calendars of any composer working today.

On Saturday, she attended the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gala where her new piece The Baltimore Bomb (inspired by the pie of the same name) received its world premiere. On Tuesday, she is in Houston performing with rapper Kanye West as part of the tour supporting West’s latest album, Life of Pablo, on which Shaw contributes vocals. Friday she will be in New England performing violin in The Hands Free, an acoustic quartet of musically omnivorous multi-instrumentalists and composers.

And if that wasn’t quite enough, Shaw also has upcoming dates in October with Roomful of Teeth, a vocal nonet founded by Brad Wells that is well respected in contemporary classical circles for its merging of classical and global singing traditions. Shaw sings and composes for the ensemble, and Roomful of Teeth’s performance of Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013, making her at age 30, the youngest recipient of the prize.

The through line in all of these engagements in the orchestral, popular music and contemporary classical worlds is Shaw’s composer voice and an insatiable appetite to explore. Following a rehearsal before the BSO gala, Shaw stopped to talk about her new piece that would be premiered that evening and her diverse and fascinating musical world.

Q: You remind me of something like a player-coach in sports who is usually also part of the performance of the music you write. What is this process like for you with The Baltimore Bomb where you are going to be in the audience and not on stage when something you write is performed for the first time?

A: It's so terrifying, but it's fun. This is the first time I've written for orchestra where I've not also been up there [playing it.] It's an amazing symphony, and Marin Alsop is incredible, so I trust them. It's also sort of a small, efficient piece, so it can't go too terribly wrong.

I cherish those 10 seconds that I can have [speaking to the orchestra in rehearsal] to get a little bit of an idea across. I feel like my body language hopefully gives some information about how to play the piece. I just sort of ran up there and was speaking animatedly for like 10 seconds. As a player I know that when I play in an orchestra, I really enjoy getting to see a composer and see them interact. You get a sense of them. Sometimes people are very quiet and that might sort of signal something in the way that you play the piece. I don't know [how to describe it], but it adds a little personal information.

You were given a long list of Baltimore-related themes that were submitted by the community to choose from for this commission, and you chose one of the real fun ones. What drew you to the idea of writing about a pie, and how did you approach that musically?

For me, I immediately gravitate toward any mention of food and music. There were a lot of different ones [on the list.] Some were historical, and some were political, and some seemed to have nothing to do with Baltimore. But this one was about pie. Who doesn't love pie? I also love comparing music to cooking and baking. I feel like it's one metaphor for what we do as composers. And I like this particular kind of pie because it is made with Berger cookies, which is a cookie particular to Baltimore that was baked in the 19th century by a German immigrant. You take that and melt that into something else that is sort of a chess pie with a different kind of crust. And it was developed by the Dangerously Delicious Pie Company here. I love that, I just love that.

I was just trying to make something that is rich and lush and mixes a few different textures in there. So you have kind of a base, the chess pie base, which is this low, mid-range strings and brass kind of sound, and then you have these little bits of crunch like the shortbread, which is in the woodwinds. Eventually you have this sensation of you first having a bite of the pie, and then it becomes this other world. I don't know, this is how I hear music. 

At the beginning there is this solo percussion line, I don’t know what it was played on, but I sort of thought of that as the crust the rest of the pie sits on. Am I being too literal there?

I requested spoons on plates, so that percussion line should hopefully be a metal spoon on a ceramic plate. It could be the crust for you. If it's the crust, that's great. [Laughs]

I know you are really interested exploring colors when writing for voice, and a lot of your larger-scale works are for choral ensembles. When you write for orchestra, do you think about writing for an instrumental ensemble in much the same way?

I don't intentionally try to write in a vocal way, but I think it's always there. Especially I think [you might hear] choral textures, big blocks of choral sound. I especially love the Russian choir sound that really favors the low voices, and then there's this wide spacing throughout that creates the most resonance. I think it's always in there.

Tonight you’ll be at an orchestra gala. Tuesday you’ll be at a basketball arena with Kanye West as part of the Saint Pablo tour. Pretty soon after that you’ll be performing with contemporary classical ensembles in more intimate settings. Those are very different concert experiences.

Radically different.

We’re at a time I think where some of the walls that have divided these different worlds are coming down, and I know some people would say they don’t see any difference between these because “music is music.” How do you think about this? Do you feel like they feed different sides of you as a musician and composer?

I feel very fortunate and lucky to go between these different worlds. I'm not an evangelist who says, “Oh, they're all the same.” They're quite different. Today is very different from what Tuesday will be, which is when I walk into a room with 10,000 people who just want to hear this other thing [laughs]. But I learn a lot from each one. That's partly why I'm doing the Kanye tour because I learn about this other experience, this other kind of music and other kind of sharing with an audience. But there aren't walls between these things because there hopefully aren't walls between these people, people who like one kind of music versus another kind of music. Yes, the music is different, but hopefully we haven't put walls between each other.

You seem like someone who has a lot of different musical appetites. If I look just at the work you’ve done with Roomful of Teeth, you are exploring vocal styles from traditional classical bel canto to Tuvan throat singing and yodeling and finding a way to incorporate them all into what you do.

I think the curiosity and incorporation of the different vocal styles definitely came from being a part of Roomful of Teeth and that project. I am just fascinated endlessly by the way the human voice works. The way this simple weird cavity that we all have creates this entire different worlds of sound and communication, and just the complexities of that. Even in just the way that we speak together, there is a complexity of the overtones that we're creating that are just mind boggling. The way humans use their voice to sing and express things. There's no other technology there. No wood or strings or metal. It's just the human body. I'm very lucky to get to write for it.

You are a very humble person and are also very humble when talking in interviews about being the youngest ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Music. However, has getting that validation given you a certain amount of confidence to go try all these things in traditional or nontraditional areas for a composer and not worry what some people might think?

Yeah, I still worry about what they think. I think it's important what other people think, and I listen to criticism and take it very seriously and assess it. But I definitely have a lot more confidence in doing things that I wouldn't otherwise have, and I know that I'm very fortunate to come to different projects with a certain amount of credibility that I think the Pulitzer does give.