In 2010, musician Caroline Shaw tossed off a tease of a new idea she was exploring.
"As for Bach solo violin partitas in particular," she wrote on her blog, "I'm working on a couple of ideas with these myself, over the summer. They're pretty dorky, but fun little side projects. To be continued."
Continued, indeed: Three weeks ago, some of those dorky little side projects netted the Greenville, N.C., native the Pulitzer Prize in Music. Over several summers, four short works Shaw composed for the New York vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth coalesced into the prize-winning Partita, an astonishing deconstruction of a Baroque dance suite that incorporates Tuvan throat singing, square dances, abstract minimalism and red-blooded American hymnody.
It is unorthodox music, and Shaw, though an accomplished violinist and singer, is an unorthodox choice for the Pulitzer. After all, she shapes her pieces in large group settings, a context that's contrary to the Pulitzer's aim of honoring a single individual's masterpiece. And she prefers not to call herself a composer, either. During our interview, she refers to herself once by the dreaded term, then immediately backtracks: "Ah, I didn't just use that word."
At 30, Shaw is the youngest composer ever to receive the prize, and she was as surprised as anyone. Based in New York, Shaw was walking in a park when a friend from Roomful of Teeth called with the news.
"As he was telling me, suddenly I started getting these other calls beeping in—I didn't know what was going on," she remembers. "That's how I found out. I guess they don't tell you."
Two days later, a letter arrived officially informing her of the award.
Shaw actually prefers to be called a musician instead of a composer. Though she has been writing music since age 11, violin had usually come first. She began playing violin at age 2, studying initially with her mother, a violinist and singer whose tone Shaw tried to emulate on her instrument.
"I was starting to play Baroque music, and I remember playing this Handel sonata when I was 11 or 12 and thinking, 'Oh, I'm going to try and sound just like Mom with this,'" she says.
In her teens, Shaw formed a string quartet with friends. Her early violin instructor, Joanne Bath, says that Shaw played so well she could have served in the first violin role the entire time. Instead, she taught herself to play cello so that "her friends would have the opportunity to play first violin," Bath explains. "She was so modest and just so supportive of all the people around her."
Shaw also sang at a local Episcopal church, an experience that has woven its way into her current compositions. Halfway through Partita's third movement, George F. Root's 1856 hymn "Shining Shore" emerges radiantly, a wordless hum of praise rising from a web of uncanny gasping effects.
"I didn't realize until like last year—someone said, 'I think you really like hymns!' Oh, I think I do," Shaw says, laughing.
She didn't begin formal composition lessons until entering a Ph.D. program at Princeton three years ago. Shaw's compositional experiments began with early imitations of the music she played on violin, including a quartet aping Mozart and a sonata mimicking Brahms. She studied violin as an undergraduate at Rice and in the Master's program at Yale, but she kept her composing life mostly a secret—"very on the DL," she admits. Still, Shaw continued to explore different styles.
For instance, after completing her studies at Yale, Shaw remained in New Haven for a year and picked up gigs accompanying dance classes. The experience made her rethink her approach to what she was playing and the effect it could have on the listener. She improvised on violin, piano and occasionally percussion, learning how to engage with a physically active audience.
"I loved it," she says. "I remember waking up every day and saying, 'I am so lucky that I found what I love. I hope I never stop loving this.' Just because I have to work hard, every single day, every minute of this."
A move to New York connected Shaw with the city's myriad early and new music ensembles. She sang Renaissance polyphony in the famed Choir of Trinity Wall Street ("Byrd, Tallis—that's my jam") and played violin alongside other young composers in groups such as Red Light New Music.
Shaw visits her family in Greenville several times a year—B's Barbecue is one favorite—and is enthusiastic about the Triangle as well. "If I could get all of my friends in Brooklyn to move down to Durham, that's my goal for 2020," she claims. "2018," she adds with a laugh. During one such return to North Carolina, she connected with the state's bluegrass and old-time gospel heritage, something she hadn't noticed much as a child. A trio of Greenville friends, the Burke sisters, reintroduced her to that local vernacular.
"They love this music so much, and they sing this great three-part harmony that's like to die for," Shaw explains. "Whenever we would come back Greenville we'd go to the Burkes' house, and Lauren and Katie would just sing songs together in this beautiful way."
Such wide-ranging experiences eventually culminated in the passion project Roomful of Teeth, founded in 2009. An a cappella outfit trained in a range of techniques, from yodeling to Korean p'ansori singing, Roomful of Teeth offered a perfect fit not only for Shaw's alto voice but for her compositional voice, too.
Partita, the Pulitzer-winning piece, requires its performers to speak in precise rhythm, produce keening glissandi in the style of Georgian folk traditions and sing stately Baroque harmonies. "By and By," Shaw's set of traditional gospel songs for soprano and string quartet, hauntingly recasts the Burke sisters' beauty. The soprano belts out the tunes in an atavistic inflection, then intones them in ethereal plainchant. The strings, meanwhile, unfurl an array of percussive effects—tapping their instruments, playing shrieking slides, creating surreal ricochets.
Today, as a singer in Roomful of Teeth and a violinist in the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, Shaw participates in an active community of musicians in New York. Colleagues admire not only Shaw's omnivorous musicality but also her warm personality. When the news broke that Shaw had won the big prize, fellow composer and frequent collaborator Caleb Burhans tweeted, "and the pulitzer for nicest person ever goes to..."
Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider, who has worked extensively with Shaw, says Shaw manages challenging rhythms and melodic lines as a musician, but that's only half of the delight.
"She's also exceedingly lovely to be around," Snider adds, "kind, easygoing, unassuming, a total non-diva, and very open-minded musically."
In conversation, Shaw is frank, unpretentious and attuned to cliché. She lightheartedly brushes off a generic question about her compositional influences and responds to a query about how her gender affects her music by saying, "I just barfed in my mouth."
A healthy irreverence guides much of Shaw's compositional spirit. "Gustave le Gray," a recent piano piece, wraps original music around that of Chopin, cloaking an 1833 mazurka with ruminative post-minimalism. For the ensemble So Percussion, Shaw wrote a shimmering, mysterious work played with flowerpots turned on their sides. During the Hurricane Sandy blackout last November, she posted power outage-themed cover songs on YouTube—"I Want to Hold Your Hand" became "I Want to Charge My Phone." She is likely the only Pulitzer winner to have competed in the theme song contest of a food blog.
There's a touch of irreverence in awarding the Pulitzer to Shaw, too: The move gestures toward a young generation of composers who work in multiple genres, perform each other's music and are associated with independent labels such as New Amsterdam. The freshness of this generation's approach comes less from their willingness to play shows in bars and mingle with indie rockers (a minor phenomenon blown out of proportion by a classical music press overzealous to hype its hipness) than from their eagerness to collaborate closely with each other.
To wit, Shaw calls her relationship to performers "very close, and very necessarily tied to the people. ... I try to make music with my friends—that's deeply important to me—or the people that I know." She is hesitant about the commissions from unfamiliar orchestras that will inevitably flow in after the Pulitzer.
As Shaw and peers such as Snider, Nico Muhly and Judd Greenstein focus more on building collaborative relationships with other musicians, they loosen their compositions and the very idea of composition. Beginning in the early 19th century, classical musicians increasingly fetishized the notated score as an ideal form. Performers were taught to serve the composer, bowing before the score's rigid instructions and treating even works by living musicians as permanent documents. In recent years and in certain circles, the score has become more fluid: It's less an authoritative, prescriptive text than an agreement to be worked out among equal partners.
The radical sonic gestures of the Partita grew out of Shaw's close work with the individual singers of Roomful of Teeth. Her knowledge of the personalities and creative faculties of her friends and colleagues made an indelible mark on that finished product. The artistic success of Shaw's Partita is as much about the closely knit relationships among its collaborators as it is about the singular genius of its composer.
Recognizing Shaw's Partita with the Pulitzer may already be an outdated concept. Perhaps it is time to honor performing ensembles like Roomful of Teeth as essential creators of contemporary American music.
"No single document should ever be treated as ultimately prescriptive," Shaw writes in an introductory note to her Partita score. "Be free, and live life fully."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Found sounds."