From Flower Pots to the Pulitzer Prize

By: Edna Landau

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Caroline Shaw is a typical 21st century musician, except that she just won the Pulitzer Prize in Music  – at 30 years of age, the youngest recipient ever of this prestigious award.  Her remarkable prizewinning a cappella piece, Partita for Eight Voices, was written for Roomful of Teeth, a vocal group with whom she has sung since its founding in 2009. Ms. Shaw is a multi-talented individual who seems to excel in everything she does. Despite her new accolade, she will undoubtedly continue to refer to herself as a musician, rather than a composer. She surrounds herself with friends and musicians who, like her, enjoy multiple musical pursuits. Over the past week, I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking with not only Ms. Shaw, but with Brad Wells, Director of Vocal Activities and Artist in Residence at Williams College in Massachusetts, and also the founder and conductor of Roomful of Teeth, as well as Judd Greenstein, co-director of New Amsterdam Records/New Amsterdam Presents, and a prolific composer. He has written three of the works on Roomful of Teeth’s debut album, which was released by New Amsterdam Records in October 2012. Greenstein and Wells have been friends for over a decade. They are thrilled about Ms. Shaw’s well-deserved recognition and feel that it is a cause for communal celebration for all who were involved.

Caroline Shaw has both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in violin from Rice University and Yale University, respectively. She supported herself for a number of years by accompanying dance classes and was inspired to write some of her earliest pieces for the dancers. She couldn’t project at that time how her professional life might progress and decided that it would be good to have a doctoral degree under her belt. Once she realized that she didn’t want yet another degree in violin, she decided to apply to, and eventually enter, the doctoral program in composition at Princeton University, where she is still a graduate student. Several years earlier, she learned of the formation of a new vocal group of classically trained singers which was dedicated to exploring and mastering techniques of singing from around the world and commissioning and performing works to showcase those newly acquired techniques. Brad Wells called it Roomful of Teeth because he liked the rhythm of it (identical to BANG on a CAN), the allusion to chamber music in the word “room”, and the fact that teeth are the hardest and longest lasting bones in our bodies, symbolizing permanence. He remembers Caroline Shaw’s audition for the group, as he was taken with the fact that she was not a “single-minded singer”, and that she was a most interesting and versatile musician. Due to a close association between Williams College and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), he was able to arrange for a three-week summer residency for Roomful of Teeth, during which its singers, hailing from different geographical locations, could live on campus and delve into the exploration of the new vocal techniques, taught by international experts from around the world. Three composers were invited in the first year (2009) to share the experience and write for the group in “real time”, literally submitting parts of new works within a day of absorbing what they had heard. It was during that first summer residency that Ms. Shaw wrote “Passacaglia”, one of four movements of her Pulitzer prizewinning piece, inspired by Baroque dance. The other three movements were written over two subsequent summers. When she decided to submit the piece to the Pulitzer Prize committee herself (unlike most submissions which are made by a publisher or commissioner of a new work), it was partly because she didn’t want anyone to know. She told me that her main motivation was for the esteemed jury to become familiar with Roomful of Teeth, but she also felt very strongly about the piece and felt that a $50 application fee was reasonable enough. The outcome brings wonderful validation to the efforts of New Amsterdam Records, a label dedicated to promoting a wider awareness of adventurous new compositions, written and performed by highly-trained musicians of diverse musical backgrounds and genres. It must also be a great source of pride to the 238 donors who supported the Kickstarter campaign that helped fund the recording, contributing a total of $14,405, which exceeded the group’s goal. In addition to writing for the group and helping to produce the recording, Judd Greenstein has also invited Roomful of Teeth to perform twice at the Ecstatic Music Festival, of which he is curator and Artistic Director. He commented to me that the world of new music feeds on itself in a most complementary and mutually supportive way, since composers become very involved with the musicians they write for, and the social and musical interaction is their reward for the many hours of solitude that characterize their day to day life.  Caroline Shaw told me that she would never have reached this point in her young career had she not been active in a variety of disciplines. In a time when today’s young musicians are being widely encouraged to think about their particular passion and identify their own unique “brand”, perhaps we should also leave room for those who feel compelled to pursue multiple passions, because the rewards would seem to be great.

How does Ms. Shaw expect her life to change as a result of this prize? Not all that much. She will probably write more music (a work for Roomful of Teeth and A Far Cry is already in the pipeline), but she will also be happy to focus more on her work with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), where she does most of her violin playing. She may not have much time to dedicate to her beloved, imperfectly pitched 50 cent flower pots, for which she has written some irresistible music (listen to “Boris Kerner” for cello and flower pots, performed by New Morse Code, and the more whimsical covers she wrote during the electrical failure brought about by Hurricane Sandy); however, she will have more time to discover new masterworks of art, literature and dance, which inform so much of her work. I personally would hope that she might set aside a little time to speak to today’s young generation of musicians (maybe only a few years younger than she) and personally share the advice she imparted to me for them: follow all of your interests, work hard, and be very kind to everyone. She might also suggest that they get out into the world as much as possible and share their joy of music making. Only two hours after speaking with me, Caroline Shaw was at the Strand Book Store, singing “I Want to Live Where You Live” from the new oratorio “Shelter” by David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, along with fellow vocalists Martha Cluver and Mellissa Hughes, who together with her comprise Va Vocals. The group, which performs “in styles ranging from baroque to modern to pop”, has been described by radio station WQXR as “utterly unaffected and drop-dead stylish”. Perhaps she left there to play a late-night violin performance. I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

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© Edna Landau 2013

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