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Caroline Shaw Is Not Here To Save Classical Music

On <em>Let The Soil Play Its Simple Part</em>, Caroline Shaw's new album with Sō Percussion, the hyper-flexible composer reinvents as a singer-songwriter.
Illustration by Renee Klahr/NPR
Photo by Dayna Szyndrowski
On Let The Soil Play Its Simple Part, Caroline Shaw's new album with Sō Percussion, the hyper-flexible composer reinvents as a singer-songwriter.

When the Pulitzer-winning composer Caroline Shaw wants a snack, she soft-boils an egg. She knows that six minutes and 15 seconds leads to the ideal texture — a jammy yolk, with a chalky outer edge and a flowing center. But her ritual for the past few years has been to surrender the process to music, letting whatever she's listening to that day dictate the precise cook time. She documents her research on Instagram, archiving each test in a collection titled "eggtime": A screenshot of a piece of music around six minutes long, like a movement from an Alban Berg string quartet or a song by the band Japanese Breakfast, will precede a picture of the finished egg, annotated with her notes on texture. (After testing a Beethoven piano sonata movement played by Mitsuko Uchida: "Mitsuko's cadences are on the safe side for salmonella.")

"The process is never going to be perfect," Shaw said recently. "It's always going to depend on the size of the egg, the pot, the temperature. I don't really want to perfect it. I want there to be variation." Her friends consider her practice more than a quirk, but a gastronomic microcosm of her creative impulses. "It would be so much easier to set a timer," says Andrew Yee, cellist of the Attacca Quartet, "but she chooses to listen. Not every musician you hang out with loves music as much as Caroline loves music."

When Shaw's composition Partita for 8 Voices won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013, making her the youngest person to ever win the award at age 30, it led her to places many of her peers never reach: recognition beyond the classical scene, and the freedom to work on any kind of creative project that interests her. In the years since, she has collaborated with Kanye West, written for film, guest acted in Mozart in the Jungle and been anointed one of the modern figures making classical music "cool." Through her rise, though, Shaw has maintained a flexibility that makes her career difficult to define and predict. She has neither settled into a traditional composer's path of hunting for prestigious commissions, nor swerved strongly toward pop. She continues, instead, to seek intimate, amorphous musical experiences where composing and performing overlap, and where the boundaries of classical blur beyond recognition.

Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part, released June 25 on Nonesuch Records, is the composer's latest attempt to stay true to that compass. In the fall of 2018, Shaw scaled up her egg operation for a few days, cooking in the mornings for a small crew at Guilford Sound, a recording studio on a lush 400-acre property in southern Vermont. She was there with Sō Percussion, a four-person ensemble that, since the 2000s, has pushed contemporary classical music to experimental, playful heights. (Found objects, such as cacti and tin cans, are as common in Sō's performances as glockenspiels and drums.) After each day's breakfast caucus, Shaw, the producer Jonathan Low and the percussionists — Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski and Jason Treuting — set to work on their latest collaboration, an album of songs with Shaw as the singer and lyricist. Let the Soil, the result of that freewheeling session, is a collection of clandestine earworms — nonchalant but generous music whose swarms of percussion and electronics swirl around the spine of her bright voice.

Becoming a songwriter gave Shaw yet a new way to define what moves her. "I really love songs about wondering about the other side, the essential questions of life," she says. "What happens when you die? How do you get there, how do you understand it?" More than that, though, she says the themes of this latest project reflect the kind of liminal space she likes to create in all her music, where a listener surrenders to a song's evolution. "I love the harmonies that you can't really assign an affect or emotion, the way that they have pivoted from the thing before. There's a sweet sadness there. That is what music sometimes is for me."

On a recent afternoon, Shaw was at her father's one-room cottage in North Carolina, on a brief respite from her 325-square-foot apartment in Hell's Kitchen. Over a fragile Zoom connection, she could be seen in front of a wall of maroon-painted shingles, short brown hair easily swept back, a pair of round glasses making her face appear even more open and curious than usual. She composed parts of the Partita's final movement there nearly a decade ago, looking out from the porch at a swamp rimmed with basking turtles. "It's not particularly beautiful, but it's magical to me," she said over the phone, after the clouds shifted overhead and the internet signal finally evaporated. "I go to this weird, deep childhood place that can't be replicated anywhere else."

Music began shaping that childhood as early as speech. In Greenville, N.C., a suburban college town not far from the cottage, Shaw started the Suzuki violin method at age 2. Her first violin teacher was her mother — also a singer, "a soprano with a soprano personality." But more communal music-making always surrounded her. She joined the choir at their small Episcopal church, where she watched the organist commit all of Bach's organ pieces to memory for fun, and first played around with composition over summers at music camp. Her personal place of worship was in front of her Sony boombox radio. She would call into the classical station and request a piece — a duet from The Magic Flute, say — and get ready to record it on cassette when it came on. If they aired the wrong duet, she would call back and correct them.

Shaw attended Rice University, and then the Yale School of Music, for degrees in violin performance, a choice that generally leads musicians down a narrow path: a customary repertoire, rigid focus on technique, rarely touching other instruments. She took notice of the students around her who seemed less constrained — like the percussionists, who had a shorter, more experimental history of music to work with. "The percussion guys are always way cooler than the string kids," Shaw says. "You just sort of admire them from a distance. They're playing all this new music and making new things, and I was in the Paganini and Brahms and Beethoven world."

In school and after, Shaw found ways to stretch beyond her education. Without any formal composition training, she won a fellowship that let her practice writing string quartets in England, on her own. In New Haven, she joined the choir at a dark, vaulted Episcopal cathedral, and regularly drove 20 minutes north to Wesleyan to pick up gigs playing violin for dance classes. There, instead of following a score, she had to learn to respond to the needs of artists right in front of her, which she loved. "That act of making music for people immediately, in the room, isn't just theoretical," she says. "I'm not by myself, trying to top-down design something that's important. What do they need right now?"

When Shaw moved to New York in the late aughts, contemporary classical music was also squirming within its boundaries. Composers like Judd Greenstein, Nico Muhly and Missy Mazzoli were toying with the tenets of pop, and the oft-debated term "indie classical" arose to signal music that was harmonic and effervescent — and, market-wise, interested in wider audiences than New York Philharmonic season ticket holders. The moment had any number of precedents: the wide footprint of mid-century minimalists like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, or Bang on a Can, the groundbreaking collective started in the late '80s by Julia Wolfe, David Lang and Michael Gordon, which redefined how to present more tonal, playful music by putting on casual and provocative concerts, acting more like a band than a chamber group.

The music bubbling up in the late 2000s wasn't the first to pivot from the dissonant serialism of Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt, still powerful influences in composition schools. But the artists who shone were newly adept at twisting how listeners heard their work, and how marketing companies categorized it. New collectives like yMusic and the NOW Ensemble collaborated with The National and Sufjan Stevens. Composers were publicized as exciting, singular figures rather than the fruits of academic institutions, and new labels, like New Amsterdam Records, gave them homes. In 2007, the New Yorker classical critic Alex Ross wrote that New Amsterdam's "scene," as many saw it, had "an appealing openness about it, an optimistic spirit." He called it "music beyond ideology."

The scene's attitude aligned with Shaw's. "I always thought of it as the edges getting wider and the middles getting smaller," she says. "I was just trying to say yes and play all sorts of stuff." Her compositional instincts, still nascent, gained muscle by playing almost exclusively new music, like learning how to paint by living in a painter's studio. Still, growth brings growing pains, and the scene could be "a mixture of supportive and snarky," leaving room for familiar social hierarchies to take root. "I hate the snark," Shaw says. "Life is too short for that."

On an afternoon in 2009, Shaw made her way to an apartment on the Upper West Side to audition for a new vocal group. Brad Wells, a singer and composer who had peeled off from an operatic trajectory, wanted to create a group that could disrupt the centuries-old traditions that determined the forceful tone of classical singing. Wells didn't have members yet, but he had a name: Roomful of Teeth.

"I had been auditioning people for a couple of months and hadn't found any singers that did what I was looking for," Wells says. "Caroline was the first." After Shaw finished her audition and left — she sang a plainchant and "I've Been Loving You Too Long," by Otis Redding — Wells turned to his friend, whose apartment they were using, and said, "She's it." The friend was surprised. "Caroline doesn't have that larger, developed classical solo voice," Wells says. (Hers, in the alto range, is round and unforced, like the tone of a boys' choir.) "But what I heard was boatloads of musicality."

Roomful of Teeth started rehearsing at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art over the summer, bringing experts in yodeling, throat singing, belting and other techniques for lessons. These excursions into unfamiliar singing practices, from a swath of cultures, were the group's foundational objective — Wells once described Roomful's project as a chance to "liberate the voice." For material, Shaw started cobbling together her own ideas to test out on the ensemble. The piece that came out of that writing would become the fourth movement of the Partita for 8 Voices, "Passacaglia" — a flurry of vocal techniques and spoken words, taken from a set of drawing instructions by the conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, that fuses into rapturous harmony. Over three summers, often late at night, Shaw wrote the three other movements, connecting percussive breaths, hums, grumbles and polished tones with boggling flow. It's the kind of piece that people, especially in the classical world, remember hearing for the first time: Live performances tend to elicit sobs, recordings instant replays. Wells, who knew little about Shaw's composition abilities beforehand, recalls watching audiences leap to their feet in the middle of movements. "It's kind of as if you have royalty in your family," he says, "and you didn't know it."

"A lot of it feels psychological," Shaw says about composing the Partita. "If I feel really comfortable with people, or they really love music and they show it, I make the best stuff. It just comes out of you differently." Submitting the piece to the Pulitzers was mainly a roundabout PR strategy, a way to introduce the prize committee members to Roomful of Teeth. Then, on the day winners were announced, Shaw was walking in downtown Manhattan's Hudson River Park when her phone started buzzing.

"It felt like this coming of age of my generation, in a pretty swift and sudden way," says contemporary classical torchbearer Nadia Sirota, a violist and former host of the NPR member station podcast Meet the Composer. While some scoffed at classical's drift into mainstream harmony (with one of the most lauded living composers taking a veiled swipe at Shaw's "user-friendly, lightweight" music), Sirota didn't see things as black and white. "There was still a sense of what kind of complexity new classical music had to contain from the academic world," she says. "What I love about Caroline's music is you can make something unabashedly beautiful, and something that's also smart. Beauty doesn't exist in opposition to rigor or structure or architecture. That was a big sea change."

After writing bits of the Partita for Roomful of Teeth, Shaw applied to Princeton's competitive PhD program in composition. She knew she wasn't a contender for violin programs, and she wanted to avoid the looming law school application she had as a backup plan. Still with no formal training, she got in. Shaw worried at first that serious composition instruction would calcify her self-spun instincts into rigid patterns, but at Princeton she found teachers, like the composer and fiddler Dan Trueman, who shared her interest in folk music and encouraged her exploratory, collaborative methods. It's also where she first met Sō, in a workshop class they taught as artists in residence. "We'd give these assignments — write a 30-second piece for tin cans, or something — and a lot of people would try to write the coolest thing they could," Eric Cha-Beach says. "Caroline would just come into class and be like, 'OK, I don't have any notes on the page, but I have six ideas.' "

Making Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part was a bit like that. After teaming up with the soprano Dawn Upshaw and the pianist Gil Kalish on the album Narrow Sea (released this January), Shaw and the percussionists felt like they had enough momentum to do more: write lyrics, improvise and shape as they went along. "What if we dove into that space together?" Shaw says, recounting the moment of inspiration. "No one is in charge, and everyone can come to the table. No one is the composer or the performer."

"Other Song," the second track on the album, served as a proof of concept, recorded on a whim during the Narrow Sea sessions. Quietly dramatic, with tentative chugging percussion, it's the kind of song that might soundtrack a hopeful overnight escape scene. Shaw's voice tumbles down melodic lines, each one inching higher: "The song is in the fold / The harmony is cold / What's old is new is old is ever, ever told." Some songs on Let the Soil make lyrics out of existing verse, like Anne Carson poems or the Sacred Harp hymnal; one is a riff on ABBA's "Lay All Your Love on Me," spun into echoing, Gregorian-like choral chants over marimba. But many lyrics are Shaw's own. On the title track, a lullabyish duet with music box-like steel pans, her attraction to abstract, geometrical themes is in overdrive: "Every angle has its fabled / tangent tied behind the backs of / folded hours." Then, as the drum surfaces from minor to major, Shaw gets out of her head: "Do you ever think of me? / I hope that / you are well."

"Some of my favorite songs, pop songs, are about love and having lost someone," she says. "Those have always really moved me, and I'd never written one. How do you write a sort of sad, really sincere, honest love song? That's what came out." It's one of many times she has found motivation by tricking herself into the mindset of a beginner, or placing herself in situations where she literally is one.

Before the Partita, Shaw's body of work was small, and rarely left her home turf of strings and voice."In manus tuas," a solo cello piece written for her friend Hannah Collins in 2009, exemplifies her sonic hallmark, combining the satisfying resolution of sacred music with a buoyant, curious sense of direction. She likes making instrumentalists use their voices, as in the surreal 2012 piece "Taxidermy," her first for Sō Percussion. Between waves of struck flower pots that together sound like a gamelan ensemble, the percussionists speak the T.S. Eliot line that shows up in the Partita, which has become a kind of Shaw mantra: "The detail of the pattern is movement." Since her breakthrough, her compositions have expanded in scope — pieces for full choruses and orchestras, two concertos — but also settled into smaller chamber groups that have released her pieces on albums. In 2016, the group yMusic commissioned "Draft of a High-Rise," a sparkling, anxious piece with a determined melody, released on the 2020 album Ecstatic Science. In 2019, the acclaimed Attacca Quartet released Orange, an album of string quartet works by Shaw, which won a Grammy.

This trusting, shapeless approach is perhaps what links Shaw's creativity to that of her most famous collaborator. In 2015, Kanye West went to a performance of the Partita by Roomful of Teeth at Walt Disney Hall. (It was their first time doing it memorized, and Shaw, nervous, mixed up two of the movements.) After the show, he asked to meet her backstage and told her that he wanted her music to score a video game he was developing that depicted his mother, Donda, ascending to heaven. "The heart of our relationship is that he connected to my music through the memory of his mother, and that feels like a sacred, beautiful thing," she says.

Multiple West projects have since been shaped by Shaw's ear for spectral melodies. The first was a remix of his song "Say You Will" that layers her voice into a wall of triumphant, open vowels. One of the most iconic riffs on 2016's The Life of Pablo is Shaw's voice, rounded into an echoey "ooo" that sounds sampled from a monastery, acrobatically hopping and bending over fuzzy bass hits in "Wolves." She worked on Pablo at Rick Rubin's Malibu home, West's own house, and studios in LA, while Ye took her out to West's ranch in Wyoming. Compared to working with ensembles of classically trained musicians, Shaw felt shyer in those environments — "smaller," as she put it — but she recognized in West the same desire she has for conversational creation. (Their relationship is off-and-on: Shaw left the Pablo tour when West began voicing ambiguous support for Donald Trump in 2016, but she is open to working with him again.)

That wide-eyed, absorbent attitude has limits, however. In October 2019, Tanya Tagaq, a Canadian Inuk throat singer, composer and Polaris Music Prize winner,tweeted about the Partita's use of katajjaq, a traditional form of Inuit throat singing. "This is appropriation," she wrote, condemning the work as part of a pattern of musicians, often white, employing techniques from colonized groups without meaningful compensation or attribution: "Do you think any of the appropriated cultures benefited in any monetary way?"

What Roomful of Teeth had historically been praised for — reaching outside of the members' own traditions — had become its most contested quality. Shaw and Wells responded on Twitter and with astatement, detailing how their katajjaq teachers were paid. They said they would more clearly credit them and Inuit culture, look into changing the composition, and find ways to financially support Indigenous artists. "Vulnerability, risk-taking, and a willingness to change have been central to our work from the start," they wrote. "We are grateful for these opportunities to learn and grow in ways we might not have anticipated but which we welcome."

"Digesting criticism like that is gut-wrenchingly difficult and deeply necessary. I'm grateful to those who have talked about it," Shaw says. "I think our early experiments with Roomful of Teeth hadn't fully evolved to deal with some of the questions of identity and who should be allowed to engage with certain traditions." (She is currently rewriting the sections that included katajjaq and says she has, privately, redistributed money made through the Partita to Inuit arts organizations.)

Shaw's renown places her at an odd focal point in growing discussions about her field's diversity, or lack of it. Even as her presence diversifies a world dominated by the work of dead men, many major institutions are still only inching toward recognizing the industry's deep-rooted structural inequities, racism in particular. In April, the New York Philharmonic staged its first live, indoor concert since the start of the pandemic and the protests following George Floyd's death. In the initial announcement, the program included only white male composers; by the time of the event, perhaps recognizing the homogeneity, the organization had swapped an orchestral piece by Shaw in for a canon by Arvo Pärt. In his review, New York Times classical editor Zachary Woolfe noted that "even after adding Shaw's piece, the Philharmonic would be coming back to a city that is only a third white without any Black or Latino players onstage and any music by composers of color."

Any young composer's success tends to be framed, at one point or another, as a proxy narrative for the longevity of classical music. But what kind of future the field can have may be the more pressing question. Shaw's adventurous work, slant approach to the composer role and collaborative spirit have helped welcome more unorthodox paths — but as a white woman with degrees from top conservatories, she is still of the scene's dominant identities. The conflicts over the Partita offer the same reminder: Opening music to new influences can be democratizing, but it does not mean the underlying power structures change.

Shaw feels far from the Partita now, 10 years after writing its first notes, and attentive to its missteps. But there are kernels of its creation that she hopes to hold onto — the late-night inspiration, and the feeling of building something without knowing how it will turn out, or what narrative will be crafted to sell it. "At its best, music writing feels like that," she says. "It feels like a gift for those who are close to you, rather than reaching for something far away."

Shaw was recently asked by a musician friend (the French artist known mononymously as Chris, frontwoman of the band Christine and the Queens) how commissions work in the classical world. Does she have an endless list of pieces she is expected to write, based on which orchestras have called her name? To a degree, yes — the clients of her in-progress works include both the Lyric Opera of Chicago and a major pop star she's not yet allowed to name. But Let the Soil is a window into the kind of creative pace she'd like to experience again.

"I have this little slice of stuff that I want to do for myself," she says. "It's just this folder and a bunch of Trello notes of songs and album ideas." She says she wants to keep working with any musicians who inspire her, but she's interested in getting further away from the world of formal composing. The artists from whom she draws the most inspiration — FKA twigs, Moses Sumney, Anne Carson, the choreographer Crystal Pite — are like her: of specific creative backgrounds, but forging relatively isolated paths to privilege their work over its categorization.

In some ways, the music industry has finally caught up with Shaw. Listeners are freer than ever from genre, thanks to the hungry and indiscriminate pace of streaming services that have made irrelevant the categories that once organized record stores. But what this means for the musicians themselves, still frequently pigeonholed by race, nationality and style, is unresolved. And the genre trap has, for generations, puzzled the classical community, where its pressures take on curiously high stakes. For artists to reach beyond traditional audiences and influences is also to take a step back from the institutions that brought them up — music conservatories, orchestras and opera companies, the legacies of a handful of composers — and move toward a hyped, fast-moving mainstream.

But even while algorithms have shaped listeners in Shaw's maverick image, she remains firmly between musical communities, guided by her instincts alone. It's a creatively powerful position, and a potentially lonely one, too. "There's all this pressure to 'be relevant,' and I've seen it at the highest levels — the people at the top of pop mainstream music who are also worried," she says. "It doesn't ever go away, and it's really not what it's about. The sooner you recognize it and realize it, the deeper the roots can go, if you're not stuck at the surface trying to make sure that everyone can see you."

Instead, Shaw has modeled a way of trudging into the unknown by bringing others along, and trusting them to shape her creations with her. "She's so open to that last 11 percent of the music that comes in the performance," Sirota says. "As a performer, that's sometimes the most exciting stuff to work on, because you feel like you're vital as opposed to incidental." Yee, from Attacca Quartet, has been co-composing pieces with Shaw lately, which has offered a chance to see her conspiring creative instincts up close. "I would have an idea and would say, why don't we try this?" Yee says. "She would look really excited and smile and say, 'That's great, and then what happens?' There's this sense of a journey, and being excited about a musical story, that I'm very familiar with as a performer, but hadn't really thought of in terms of being a composer."

Even Shaw needs breaks, though. She was only at her dad's cottage for a few days when we spoke, but she lived there for the first three months of the pandemic. She deleted social media from her phone and "hibernated," working on music, watching the turtles — more numerous than she had ever seen them — and getting rare, extended time on her own. She can convene with her own musicality in moments like these. They help develop the centered confidence that allows her freer, flexible moments to happen. It's a necessary recharge, in other words, before her next collaboration.

"What I like the most," she says, "is always having the feeling of not quite knowing what I'm doing, but having the confidence that I'm standing on good, solid ground. A good foundation as a musician, and as a person."

Elena Saavedra Buckley is a writer based in Los Angeles. She works for Epic Magazine and edits at The Drift.

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Elena Saavedra Buckley