When Caroline Shaw — then a 30-year-old virtual unknown — became the youngest winner ever of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013, she was as surprised, even shocked, as anyone. But seven years later, the New York-based composer has come to terms with her new stature without losing her down-to-earth appeal — while also enjoying the increased quantity and scale of commissions coming her way.
“I certainly write a lot more music now than I did then,” she said. “I have a little more confidence and understanding in myself and how I write than I did at that point when I hadn’t really written a ton of music yet. And I’m always looking for the next twist and turn of what I’m going to do, and I’m thinking more theatrically now than I was then.”
Chicago audiences heard one of her recent pieces at the 2018 Ravinia Festival, when her Narrow Sea received its fifth performance in a concert featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw, pianist Gilbert Kalish and Sō Percussion. Next, two members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform Shaw’s Boris Kerner in the Oct. 22 installment of CSO Sessions, a series of small-ensemble virtual concerts on the CSOtv video portal.
In October 2019, conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale debuted the largest work Shaw has created to date: The Listeners. The 40-minute work, a hybrid combination of cantata and oratorio, is scored for orchestra, chorus, two soloists and turntable. “In a lot of my music,” Shaw said, “I like to dive into the genre, the form of the thing as it used to be, and then stretch it from the inside.”
Her relationship with the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque began in 2016, when it launched its New Music for Old Instruments initiative. The project explores the relationship between the musical past and present by commissioning top contemporary composers to write for the period-instrument ensemble. The opportunity ideally suited Shaw, because Baroque music has exerted a big influence on her. She has performed it as a both a violinist and singer (she still has a Baroque violin “languishing” on the wall of her apartment) and loves the era’s harmonies and textures and its close relationship to dance.
The composer found it “oddly freeing” to write for a period ensemble, because it didn’t bring the same kind of expectations that she sometimes encounters with new music groups. These can include the need of having all information on the page, a complexity of meter or a certain of-the-moment approach to harmony or shapes of lines. A historically informed approach to Baroque music calls for ornamentations and interpretative freedom, and Shaw likes the creativity and stylings of Philharmonic Baroque’s players, especially their sense of phrasing and their liberties with crescendos and articulations. “They just shape everything so beautifully,” he said. As she was writing, she found herself eager to hear how the musicians would negotiate a chord progression or melodic line.
But the hardest part of creating the work was not writing the music but finding texts that “felt right” and weaving a narrative journey from beginning to end. The work was inspired in part by the Golden Record, a 12-inch, gold-plated copper disc that NASA placed in the 1977 space probes Voyager 1 and 2, to communicate humankind’s story to any potential extraterrestrials. She chose excerpts from works by writers ranging from Walt Whitman and Alfred Tennyson to Yesenia Montilla and Carl Sagan. “I wanted to construct a journey, looking at the ways we see the sky and wonder about the universe and the ways that we also understand the Earth and our planet,” she said.
As The Listeners exemplifies, literary influences have been important to Shaw’s compositions. “I’m embarrassed to go too into it, because I think my literary interests are odd and random,” she said. “I go into deep, dark holes of certain particular things, rather than having a really full, rich knowledge, of say, all of Marilynne Robinson’s output. I like the intersection of music and non-music things, especially language and how it’s organized.”
That close connection to language also can be seen in Three Essays, a set of three pieces for string quartet written in 2016 and 2018. (The world premiere recording of the work will be featured alongside quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich and Robert Schumann on a Signum Classics album to be released Oct. 23 by the Calidore String Quartet.) First Essay: Nimrod alludes to how the biblical story of the construction of the Tower of Babel meant to explain the multiplicity of languages in the world. “It’s a little more about fast twists and turns in its language,” Shaw said of Three Essays, “which feels a little bit different from what I’m writing right now, but I’m still really excited that it’s coming out.”
One area Shaw hopes to delve into more is theater. She has an idea for a new kind of work that she can’t yet quite describe: “something that is not quite opera or musical theater but something related.” For now, she is one four composers commissioned to create works for the new Opera Philadelphia Channel, described as a “global streaming platform where artists can perform and explore.” Shaw does not yet know what she will create, but she is eager to do “something that is really designed for that format, for film and video, and to be experienced that way, rather than writing a few arias or a short scene and just filming it.”
Boris Kerner will be the third small-ensemble work by Shaw that CSO musicians have presented in various settings since 2012. Principal Percussion Cynthia Yeh and Assistant Principal Cello Kenneth Olsen will perform the “very odd little piece,” as Shaw affectionately describes it. The eight-minute composition was written for the New Morse Code, a cello and percussion duo, a combination that Shaw readily acknowledges she would never have come to naturally. For the percussion portion of the piece, she chose flower pots — the ordinary ceramic kind that can be purchased at any local hardware store or garden shop. “What I love about them is that they have a beautiful, bell-like sound,” she said. Shaw also pointed out that flower pots have a considerable history in the works of John Cage, David Lang and Frederic Rzewski. She likes the idea of setting the humble garden vessels, which have a “delightful imperfection about them” against the “very cultivated” sound of the cello.
Boris Kerner takes a “fun, instinctive, intuitive little dive into this idea of a musical line as kind of a traffic pattern, something that gets stuck and then releases,” she said. It is part of her continuing reflection on the stanza from T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets: “the detail of the pattern is movement.” As for the title, somewhere in her research, she came across a reference to Boris Kerner, a German engineer, physicist and author of Introduction to Modern Traffic Flow Theory and Control: The Long Road to Three-Phase Traffic Theory.
Like everyone else, Shaw’s life and work have been affected the COVID-19 pandemic, but she feels fortunate. “I’m one of the luckiest people in the world, and I don’t take it for granted,” she said. “I feel incredibly privileged and fortunate to have had the opportunities I’ve had in the last few years. The thing I keep working on is making sure that I feel close to the purpose of what I’m doing.”
Part of that purpose is writing music that excites and energizes its players and singers. Creating music that people could enjoy playing together was the norm in the 17th and 18th centuries. But in the 20th century, the priorities of many composers went in other directions. “That’s just a different philosophy, a different way of making music,” she said. “It’s totally fine, but for me, I like making something that players can do together and enjoy together and look at each other and feel free. I’m sure it certainly doesn’t only apply to my music, but it’s just an idea I come back to a lot.”