From the magazine: ISSUE 89, December 2013/January 2014
In a recent New Yorker story about EDM, there is an aside about the mega-rich Dutch DJ Afrojack in which his cowriter, producing a song while flying on a private jet, requests that Afrojack think about composition not in terms of minutes and seconds, but bars. Afrojack asks him, “What’s bars?” It’s surprising that one of the biggest songwriters of our time lacks such basic knowledge of how music works, but I was more shocked by this than composer Caroline Shaw, who definitely knows what’s bars. Shaw, soft-spoken and sweet, with a smart, short haircut and freckles fanning out across her face, seems sympathetic toward Afrojack’s plight, or at least nonplussed by his ignorance. Though she’s not being rewarded for her deep understanding of music and its history with EDM stars’ paychecks, she is clearly proud to have been able to stay in Manhattan, living in a Hell’s Kitchen walkup with room for a studio. Walking along the West Side Highway towards the water, she deflects my suggested ragging on Afrojack in favor of praising the Hudson’s beauty.
A little less than a year ago, Shaw became, at 30, the youngest person to win a Pulitzer Prize for music. Asked about it, even after many months to absorb the shock, she says she’ll cry if she thinks about it too hard, so she pauses to make sure that doesn’t happen. Partita, the composition for which she won the Pulitzer, is a four-part a cappella piece written for the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, of which she is a member. Inspired by (and partially including the words of) conceptual artist Sol LeWitt’s line-drawing instructions, the four parts of Partita branch out and link up like a maze, its lush, sung harmonies regularly rising together from spoken chaos. “I wanted to create a sense of very technical jargon and patterns and designs, like a blueprint that suddenly morphs into…just music,” she says, and laughs at her own lack of desire to describe the piece more specifically. Then, to explain it, she gives a brief history of suites in classical music and French jigs going back to the 1600s.
Perhaps it is Shaw’s breadth of knowledge that makes her music so wild: after learning everything, she’s looking for something new. But while many young musicians seek a similar expansion of boundaries, it’s rare that they so adeptly color within the lines. Though Partita is kooky, Shaw has also composed traditional, gorgeous string quartets influenced by Hayden, piano pieces indebted to Brahms. Her music is always complex. “Let’s say you have a nested quintuplet within a septuplet,” she says. “This is a mathematically interesting thing that ultimately takes quite a lot of time for the performer to figure out and learn.” One of Shaw’s charms is that she has taken measures to synthesize her more intricate inclinations into generalities even Afrojack could understand. “[That tricky section] could be written in a different way that is more friendly to the person who is executing it,” she continues. “So I do this little thing where I make up my own notation and do a little verbal direction, like ‘think about this idea and that’s what you’re doing.’”
That considerate approach is clearly working for her. In the weeks after Shaw and I speak, she has the live debut of Partita in New York, as well as the premiere of a commission for soprano and guitar and a vocal piece for a children’s choir. She seems ready to encompass the emotional breadth of the universe through this diversity of forms. “I joke with a friend because we’re both really emo, we’re like ‘the deep joy and the deep sadness of the world’ all the time,” she says. “That’s pretty much how I feel: deeply joyful, deeply sad.”