Attend the Ojai Music Festival, Southern California’s loveable cabal of contemporary classical music, and you expect works by living composers, particularly brand new pieces that get their debut at the festival. This year, the first world premiere shows up on Saturday afternoon: This might also be a form of dreaming by Caroline Shaw (with text by Claudia Rankine).
That the festival tapped Ms. Shaw for the commission seems like a no-brainer: in 2013, she became the youngest-ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Then you learn that she’ll also appear at the festival singing alto as a member of Roomful of Teeth, the a capella ensemble with a Grammy to their credit, and you’re more impressed. Oh, she’s a talented violinist too, with degrees from Rice and Yale. And BTW, when she’s not writing, singing, or playing classical music, she manages to squeeze in time to collaborate with the iconoclastic Kanye West.
Sounds like a musical equivalent to Schrödinger’s Cat, having multiple simultaneous realities unless/until someone forces you into a single defined existence. Could someone really have that kind of resume at that young an age, spanning musical genres from high art to gritty pop? Sure — composers like, you know, Gershwin or Mozart fit that bill.
Okay, that may not be an entirely fair comparison, but really, who is this woman?!!
“I call myself a ‘musician,’ and I still think that’s the best word because it’s what I do,” the multi-tasking Ms. Shaw explains. “But I don’t really consider myself primarily one thing over another except maybe a violinist because I feel like I did that before I did anything — which is probably not true because you sing before you learn how, but violin was my entry into music from a young age.”
“When I feel like one thing is taking over and maybe cutting off something else, I try with the best of my ability to adjust my time and step away from certain things to allow time for another.”
Yeah, okay. In contrast, though, this is how she introduces herself on her own webpage:
Hi. I’m Caroline. Thanks for stopping by. Do you like music? Oh good. Do you like avocados? Even better. Oh, and janky mandolin is your jam? Super. This will be just fine then. Welcome to my little corner of the internet.
Take the resume — Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, Grammy-winning ensemble singer, professional violinist, hip-hop remixer — and make sure you read it through the filter of that introduction, with its polyglot influences and casual yet energetic implications. When you then listen to her music, eclectic and complex in construction but pure and direct in its ability to communicate, it all makes perfect sense.
Judging by the inquiry about avocados and analogies she made in a prior interview, food seems to be a common thread that pops up with her. I point it out and ask about her relationship with food.
“It’s a loving relationship with food,” Ms. Shaw says with a laugh. She doesn’t have the chance to cook much given her travel schedule, but she confesses to an obsession with soft-boiled eggs, and can describe her own recipe for achieving soft-boiled egg bliss with equal parts affection and precision. She has a fire-escape garden that she describes as “my two square feet of illegal space in New York where I put plants out, I grow my herbs, and I try to grow things that I can’t.” Chief among that last category was a pumpkin. Seriously. A pumpkin in a fire-escape garden in the middle of Manhattan.
“I tried to grow that last year,” she explains. “The vines grew great, but there was a fungus so it didn’t happen, but it was a joy to watch.”
So does food influence her music-making? Yes, though not in the way you might expect.
“It would definitely be subconsciously. I could also probably articulate some murky relationships based on analogies, but . . . I honestly think about Traci Des Jardins (the Bay Area chef).”
“I was so profoundly affected by this one segment of the TV show “Top Chef Masters” when she was a contestant. The challenge was to cook a meal for a returning veteran based on his favorite food. All the other chefs would hear their veteran say, ‘Oh, I like fried chicken,’ and then they’d create this deconstructed or extra-fancy version of the idea. Her veteran said he liked meatloaf, and she created the perfect idea of what meatloaf should be: just a simple thing, not trying to make it a five-star restaurant creative meatloaf, but what is the essence of that food and the meal and that familiarity and the relationships of that family to that meal and the history they have with it, and how to recreate that in a way that’s respectful of their experience. I think about it quite a lot.”
That mimics her own approach to creating music, or as she puts it, “The idea of presenting a chord or an idea that is presented on its own, unadulterated, simply but truly elegantly and beautifully without trying to doctor it up with other effects.” She emphasizes that there was no cause and effect, that the TV show didn’t lead to her compositional style, but that meatloaf definitely resonated with her.
In a similar yet more concrete way, she finds inspiration from early music and she likes to revisit and study the essential elements that make the music of Bach, Handel, Purcell, or Monteverdi so great.
“A lot of it is a certain sense of harmony or harmonic progression, of voicing or resonance in the chord, and I try to distill what is it about that that we love so much. Like what is it about the flavor of that kind of pie that you love so much and how do you bring that out? It’s not recreating something over and over again, but is still fresh and new and you taste the essence of rosemary or some other ingredient the way you never have before. That’s all I really need.”
Conscious or subconscious thoughts of food aren’t her only source of inspiration. Unlike others for whom inspiration is turned into composition as part of a structured and regular routine (see my recent interview with Kaija Saariaho for a perfect example), Ms. Shaw gets inspired in fits and spurts, often at times and places unexpected. She compensates by using that essential tool of the 21st century, the mobile phone.
“For me, I think about a piece for a really long time,” she says. “I have a folder in my computer and on my phone full of notes or links of things I’ve been thinking about. I’ll just take a picture of something or take notes and put it in the folder, and then the actual birth of the piece often is pretty quick. I don’t think I have any patterns for how I write.”
That may have to change now that her notoriety and life as a musical multi-tasker has made her schedule more chaotic. “I don’t have a rhythm or set working time. I’m thinking that I might need to strive for that and sequester off. I’m not able to do that at this point, I’m doing too many performing things. . . . A few years ago, no one knew who I was and I only wrote for fun.”
Yeah, that’s not happening again anytime soon. She says she has nearly 20 commissions outstanding. And that doesn’t count the times that Kim Kardashian’s husband wants to work with her.
“It’s funny you mention Kanye. In that world, I think they thought of me originally as an, um, singer? I didn’t really do exactly what they wanted me to do, which is why I think we get along now. I said ‘That’s stupid if you just want me to sing this line. That’s not how it works — I write music, and I can do a lot more than just that.’ They didn’t quite understand that I really fit in more in a producer role, as a creator and manipulator of sounds.”
Fortunately for both of them, he listened and as she promised, she did a lot more. Ms. Shaw’s re-working of his song, “Say You Will” was a revelation, with new electronic sounds combined with her vocals and violin layered over and woven into his minimalist original version. She manages to create something that, just like Traci Des Jardins’ meatloaf, respects the original while simultaneously augmenting it.
Since then, they’ve appeared at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser together and she’s appeared on two tracks of his latest album, The Life of Pablo. More from CarYe (or is it KanOline?) is undoubtedly on the way.
The more I speak with Ms. Shaw, the more surprising it is to me that she and Mr. West have formed an ongoing partnership, though not because they originate from different musical realms; other well-known composers of her generation (Andrew Norman, Gabriel Kahane, and Mason Bates to name just a few) easily traverse genres and/or mix Gen Y pop culture elements into their concert hall works.
It’s just that their personalities are so very different: Kanye is pomposity personified, with genuine talent usually being overshadowed by a level of self-aggrandizement rivaling a Presidential candidate; in contrast, Ms. Shaw is unpretentious and self-deprecating, deeply insightful and analytical, fiercely intelligent without over-intellectualizing anything. Kanye can’t help telling you how great he and his music are; Ms. Shaw never brought up any of her awards, and is adamant about letting her music speak on its own terms, never wanting to be proscriptive with either her musicians or her audience.
“I try to create a piece that is healthy to play for the person who’s doing it, and also is meaningful, honest, and sincere and is trying to achieve what I’m setting out to achieve while still giving them their own space.” She adds later: “I don’t use long, sweeping, soaring melodies. It’s not really the way I write. I’ve heard too many American operas sound like . . . ”
“Yeah, like Puccini. It’s forcing an emotion upon you, and that’s not what I want to do.”
Don’t misunderstand. It’s not like she has anything against the classical music canon. On the contrary, her initial aspirations for a musical career were rather mainstream, particularly when she was still a teenage violinist. She had no delusions about being the next wunderkind soloist like Midori or Hillary Hahn. “I actually think Hillary Hahn is one of the reasons why I said, ‘It’s okay, I never have to be like that.’ She’s an insanely good violinist and I could never approach her quality of playing.”
Instead, she had aspirations of maybe being in an orchestra, or if things went really well, she’d be in a string quartet.
“Those guys were my idols,” she reveals. “People that traveled around, had residencies, talked to kids, and played the best possible late Beethoven that one can. That was my goal. That was what I envisioned with my life, and then I went to Yale and realized that I was running out of time to meet those people. It’s sort of like a marriage, finding someone to build a relationship with. It’s hard to find three other people with whom to have a quartet marriage.”
So to pay the bills, she started singing at Yale where they had a budget to pay singers. Later, she also got paid for accompanying dance classes. “I loved that, but there was no stable future in it and I didn’t want to do that forever. But here I was, splitting time between singing, playing violin with hopes of being in a quartet, and playing for dance classes. I still play in quartets, but I never get paid to play late Beethoven in a quartet.”
And what about composing?
“The idea that I could get paid to write music was so bizarre to me. ”
Fast forward a few years, with a Pulitzer for her Partita for 8 voices, a queue full of commissions, and a world premiere this Saturday at the Ojai Festival, and that idea is not as far-fetched as it had been.
This might also be a form of dreaming, Ms. Shaw’s composition debuting at Ojai’s Libby Bowl at 3pm tomorrow afternoon, is a festival commission that had its nascency before she got any calls from Tom Morris or Peter Sellars (the festival’s Artistic Director and 2016 Music Director, respectively).
“I certainly knew of Claudia Rankine’s work, especially because her book Citizen has taken over conversations,” says Ms. Shaw. “Peter was talking about people who were going to be involved at Ojai, and her name came up. He pointed me towards her book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, from which the text for my piece originates. It wasn’t any kind of assignment on the festival’s part, it just spoke to me and it seemed like the right thing to do.”
“I really don’t work with text a lot. There’s text in Partita, but it’s spoken and used as a texture It’s only sung for about twenty seconds throughout the whole piece, which really more about color and vowels, writing instrumentally. I’ve had a couple other things that use text, a set of songs that specifically use lyrics from old songs; so these words already have been used in a song, they came into existence as musical words, and they already have a musical sensibility about them.”
The seven movement work mostly uses the last few pages of the book, with each movement setting text a little differently. As Ms. Shaw explains, “She plays with poetic literary form in a way that I want to do with the music if I can. A lot of the inspiration of the piece is listening to her speak in any interview I can get my ears on; the way she delivers her own text is kind of perfect, so I’ve been working on what I can do musically after that.”
“In this case, I’m using text that’s NOT intended for music. It’s mostly prose poetry, without the typical verse forms that usually lend themselves to music. I like that, I was attracted to it more than other things because it has a tight forwardness about it that I could find really interesting. It’s sort of impossible to put it into music. I’m finding that even thinking about it — how do I approach this text? What can I do musically, against it, inside of it, around it, or with it — brings up questions I hadn’t really asked myself before.”
“I knew it was going to be hard, and it was hard. In fact, I knew going into it that it’d be the hardest thing I’ve tried to do, but I really wanted to do it.”
- Caroline Shaw: photo by Dashon Burton
- Traci Des Jardins: photo by Frankie Frankeny