Last week, Caroline Shaw found herself playing a benefit concert at the Hudson Opera House, a performing arts space a few hours north of New York, where she lives. She was playing second violin in a string quartet that was performing music by David Longstreth, of the band Dirty Projectors. It was sort of a quirky gig, one that took a lot of time to prepare and didn’t pay much.
It was not, perhaps, the first place you’d expect to find a much-feted musician who last year, at 30, became the youngest composer ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, for her eight-voice composition “Partita.” But Shaw, who describes herself as a low-key, private person, has been determined not to let the music world’s highest-profile award change her life. Playing the Hudson show was a part of that plan.
“I did it because I wanted to play quartets with friends, meet a new person, see a new place, just figure out another corner of the music world,” said Shaw in a recent phone interview. “No one knew that I’d won a Pulitzer Prize; I was just the second violinist in this quartet at this gala benefit.”
A Far Cry
Not long before the Pulitzer thrust Shaw into the spotlight, she was asked by the Boston chamber orchestra A Far Cry to write a new piece, a collaboration with Roomful of Teeth, the inventive vocal ensemble of which Shaw is a founding member. The new work, “Music in Common Time,” will be premiered at two concerts this weekend. The program will also include Shaw’s arrangement of a brief piece by Josquin des Prez and a string orchestra version of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet.
Amazingly, the new piece is the first formal commission Shaw has received; equally surprising, perhaps, is the fact that she never had any formal training in composition until 2010, when she enrolled in a doctoral program in composition at Princeton University. Her career — it almost seems odd to call it that — is one in which the roles of violinist, singer, and composer are melded seamlessly, and steps forward seem matters of serendipity rather than part of an overarching plan.
‘The real luxury of being part of the group is that I can just turn to them and explain something, or try something. . . . It’s a really wonderful way of making music.’
Playing the violin dominated Shaw’s musical life through her undergraduate years at Rice University and a master’s degree at Yale. It was at Yale that she got to know Miki-Sophia Cloud, now a violinist in A Far Cry. “I remember being struck by Caroline’s rare and genuine artistic soul,” Cloud wrote in an e-mail. “She was always drawing, improvising, playing, or designing something. Everything about her was unique, radiant, and full of curiosity in a completely natural and unpretentious way.”
Cloud wasn’t even aware that her fellow violinist wrote music until Shaw’s master’s recital, which included one of her own works. “I remember sitting in the balcony of the recital hall, a pile of waterworks, because the piece was such a direct translation of that artistic soul I so admired. I was floored.”
It was at Yale that Shaw began singing, even though she never thought of herself as having a great voice. But “I could read music and sing all the right notes at the right time,” she said. “And over time I literally found my voice, found a way to make sound.”
In 2008 she heard about a small group that conductor and singer Brad Wells was putting together dedicated to expanding vocal repertoire. That became Roomful of Teeth, a gloriously unclassifiable a cappella ensemble that uses all sorts of unusual singing techniques. Shaw remembered harboring doubts before their first rehearsal, in 2009. “And that first day there was something about the energy with the eight of us, we decided collectively we’re going to be very open. And we were working with a throat singer who had just flown in from Tuva [the Russian state] and this master yodeler. And that was a great place to start, just start making strange noises in front of each other.”
Shaw was so inspired after that first rehearsal that she immediately began writing “Passacaglia,” which would become the last of the four movements that make up “Partita.” “I just had a certain idea of something that I wanted to hear and constructed the musical house around it.”
“Partita” conveys a joyous and infectious sense of freedom. Anything — expansive chords, odd sounds, spoken text, bent notes — can emerge from around the next corner, it seems. The unique sound palette emerged directly from Shaw’s experience with Roomful of Teeth, and among the challenges was notating things that emerged spontaneously in rehearsal. “The real luxury of being part of the group is that I can just turn to them and explain something, or try something. ‘I don’t want to be specific about how to make this sound, but what if we all try this together right now?’ It’s a really wonderful way of making music.”
This organic method will be impossible to re-create for other groups that take up “Partita,” which is why Shaw, in a note in the score, refers to the Roomful of Teeth recording on the New Amsterdam label as a guide to realizing the piece in performance.
But ultimately, “I don’t want anyone to try to always mimic that one thing,” she said in the interview. She wanted other groups to feel free in their own realizations of the piece. She concludes her note in the score with the words “Be free, and live life fully.” That is as good a motto as any for Shaw’s entire artistic approach.
“I’ve done a lot of performance practice, Baroque playing, and some of the joy and the challenge of it is figuring out what the composer intended. . . . You have music of the 17th century — it’s all whole notes and half notes. But inside of that there are so many things that one can do, at least according to what we know about performance practice.
“That’s sort of the spirit of it,” she continued, coming back to her own piece. “Please make it your own. Please just be free! Because life is short and that’s what being a human being is, making it something very personal.”
Back in September, the eminent pianist Russell Sherman had to cancel a recital at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall at the last minute when he fell at home and broke his hip. Happily, the recital has been rescheduled for this Saturday, and NEC has confirmed that Sherman will perform. Much of his program centers on the first decade of the 20th century — Schoenberg’s “Drei Klavierstücke,” Debussy’s “Estampes,” Scriabin’s Fourth Piano Sonata — and concludes with Chopin’s Preludes (Op. 28).