Spotlight on Caroline Shaw.

Ludovic Morlot, Caroline Shaw, Jonathan Biss. Photo by Seattle Symphony, James Holt
Caramoor features six of the composer/performer’s works this summer, including the NY premiere of Watermark, a piano concerto written for Jonathan Biss.

by Matthew Guerrieri
Originally appeared in the Summer 2019 Program Book

In 1961, the American musicologist Jan La Rue offered an overview of what, in the years following World War II, became an important tool for music-historical research: watermarks. Such patterns and emblems, embedded in the very weave of paper during its manufacture, could, through cataloging and cross-referencing, give provenance to a sheet or a sheaf, indicating where and when it was made and, in all likelihood, purchased. Watermarks let scholars date musical manuscripts, collate scattered leaves of sketches and scores, even attribute unsigned works based on composers’ paper-purchasing habits. La Rue called watermark evidence “a musicological Geiger counter” that could “quickly establish general directions, correspondences, and areas of conflict.”

It is accordingly appropriate that Caroline Shaw would create a Watermark of her own. General directions, correspondences, and areas of conflict between the musical past and its perpetually-renewed present are her métier. Her music springs from a performer’s impression of the repertoire: icons and traditions reinterpreted as invitations, malleable rituals, ongoing conversations. “The act of playing, I think, is really a big inspiration,” she says, “feeling a part of a certain chord and also interacting with the other players, musically and personally.” The result is what Shaw likes to call “classical-music fan fiction” — music that neither mimics nor ignores music’s long backstory, but reinvents it on contemporary terms. “You know that it goes over here; but what if it went over there?”

Posed photo of vocal group Roomful of Teeth in front of barn doors. Photo by Bonica Ayala.
Roomful of Teeth. Photo by Bonica Ayala.

Caroline Shaw was born in North Carolina in 1982, and began violin lessons when she was two. It was as a singer that she first gained mainstream attention, as a member of the adventurous, experimental vocal group Roomful of Teeth; her Partita, a suite she composed for the group was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2013, making her the youngest composer to receive the award. The honor — and the attention — were a launchpad, but for a thoroughly individual trajectory.  Shaw has moved between the traditional classical world of orchestral commissions and artist residencies and more changeable media: popular music, television, film. Rather than a deliberate strategy, the path seems instead to chart a natural and personal curiosity. It is music that encounters the canon as an opportunity for new experiences.  

Watermark, for example, uses Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 as a prompt, a cabinet of curiosities to be reconsidered and rearranged: arpeggiated accompaniment patterns overlapped into a chatter of information, chromatic piano flourishes smeared into swoops and swirls, thrice-familiar themes recast as unexpected visitors. For her string quartet Blueprint (written for the Aizuri Quartet), Beethoven is again a guest of honor, his String Quartet No. 6 providing the occasion and favors for an “opus 18 partay,” as the score cheekily instructs. The pattern is a familiar one in Shaw’s music — objects from the musical museum turned inside-out, revealing the fluid personalities between the notes.

Her musical language has grown out of her performing, both as a string player and a singer. Playing string quartets was what first inspired Shaw to compose: noticing the way each piece created its own rules, channeling the feeling that “you’re inside the game,” as she describes the experience, and putting that experience in the foreground: “Creating a sound for the audience to understand what it feels like to play, to be inside the quartet and reach this kind of deep saturation of sound.” Entr’acte, expanding on a particular moment in a Haydn string quartet, epitomizes such saturation, both sonic and conceptual.

Bass-bariton, Davóne Tines. Photo by Nikolai Schukoff
Bass-baritone Davóne Tines. Photo by Nikolai Schukoff

The piece also offers a small datum of Shaw’s pragmatic streak, having been expanded from its original string-quartet dimensions to string-orchestra size, and for a specific string orchestra (A Far Cry, who are performing the work at Caramoor). It is both a very old and a very new way of thinking about making music — not just hearkening back to a time when composers were also, by inclination and necessity, performers, but evoking the idea of a musical community, an ecosystem in which musicians easily move between and combine roles based on a collective ideal of communication and expression. Many of Shaw’s works can be read as small celebrations of the role of individual musical agency. Watermark is not just dedicated to pianist Jonathan Biss; the draft of the score refers to him by name throughout, a specific, personal presence where common practice would assume a generic performer. Bass-Baritone Davóne Tines, performing By & By, is the only singer to yet take on the work besides Shaw herself. The sense is of a custom, of lore, passed on from person to person.

Partita swims in those currents. The work grew symbiotically with Roomful of Teeth, one of Shaw’s self-made musical communities; its movements were assembled gradually, a kind of hidden chronicle of intersections between inspiration and opportunity. But the title and form also claim lineage with the musical Baroque, a style and period Shaw treasures for its own communal values. “What I love about Baroque performance practice is there’s so much that’s not written down,” she says, “there’s so much left up to the musician and there’s so much trust for the musical community.” 

It’s in those fluid interstices between notation and performance, between tradition and transformation, between the formal and the vernacular that one might hear the echoes of Shaw’s sounds.

The result is music with a wide interpretive latitude for the performer, scores that are designed to create space for something to happen as much as directing what that something is. Gustave Le Gray, playing off a Chopin mazurka, sets up a back-and-forth between that composer’s chromatic subtleties and Shaw’s own more robust, diatonic harmonic language, but the unadorned sparseness of expressive notations — a pronounced contrast to Romantic-era practice — leaves the pianist to moderate the proceedings in personal ways. (Even the length of the source material’s quotation is an open question, with the score allowing the performer to interpolate either a phrase of Chopin’s mazurka or the entire piece.) It is, perhaps, Shaw’s way of honoring both classical music’s notated legacy and the fact that notation is, by and large, the exception to the rule. “I mean, it’s how 90 percent, 99 percent of music in the world is made,” she notes, “not written down and you just trust the style.”

It’s in those fluid interstices — between notation and performance, between tradition and transformation, between the formal and the vernacular — that one might hear the echoes of Shaw’s sounds. The cross-currents enrich and distill. In By & By, the inspiration comes not from the classical world, but from the praxis of American religious song, gospel hymns, and shape-note strains. But, as the familiar words are sung, a string quartet rummages through centuries of technique, conventional and avant-garde, to evoke the songs’ elemental foundations: the breath of prayer, the wind of the spirit, the serenity of salvation. The eclectic toolbox fashions an unexpected essentiality. “I want the form to be still really strong,” Shaw insists, “but a side effect of what’s actually happening in every single moment.” The watermark of Caroline Shaw’s music, in all its variety, is a deep and luminous immediacy.

Matthew Guerrieri writes frequently about music for the Boston Globe and NewMusicBox. He is the author of The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination. 


Caramoor is delighted to highlight Caroline Shaw’s work this season.

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Main Image: Ludovic Morlot, Caroline Shaw, and Jonathan Biss. Photo by Seattle Symphony/James Holt


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