Since winning the Pulitzer Prize for “Partita for 8 Voices” in 2013, Caroline Shaw has gone on to collaborate with musicians as wide-ranging as the Attacca Quartet and Kanye West. Her recent projects include “We Need to Talk” with Anne Carson and Opera Philadelphia and “Narrow Sea” with Dawn Upshaw, Gil Kalish, and Sō Percussion. I recently spoke with Shaw via Zoom, during which the perpetually curious composer expressed as much interest in hearing my thoughts and experiences as conveying her own.

VAN: So where are you located right now?

Caroline Shaw: I just got home to New York. I was in Oregon for five days doing research for a piece this summer. It’s only the second trip I’ve done all year, so it feels very disorienting.

What were you working on that required doing research in Oregon?

It’s for the Britt Festival. We’re gonna have musicians outside on these woodland trails. I’ve basically spent the last three days trying to develop a deep relationship with the land. This idea of having musicians outside… What’s their relationship to the land? What’s the music’s relationship to the land? Why are we doing this? What’s the experience as a listener, if you’re walking a path that maybe you’ve walked on before, and then you come upon this surreal experience of someone playing in the woods? That’s what the research was.

Will they know, when they’re wandering around the trails, that they might run into people playing music, or could there be people who just stumble across it and are like, “Wait, what is this?”

I wish it was the latter, because I think that would be… really great. [Laughs.] But because of the pandemic, and various logistical issues, there will be timed entry, so basically everyone there will know what they’re getting into. And there will be a map: If you want to know what to catch, you can have that, because people get frustrated when they don’t have information. But I love entering something and not knowing anything about it. Like going to a concert without a program: You find what you find, and you might miss something. Anyway, I’m trying to think about why music in the woods is meaningful; how can it be a good experience for people?

I was rereading some of the controversy that took place on Twitter regarding “Partita” [in which Shaw faced accusations of cultural appropriation due to her use of Inuit throat singing], which we can talk about later. 
In your thread replying to these criticisms, you discuss how “Partita” is particularly focused on the idea of female breath. I also read that your father is a pulmonologist. In this past year, there’s been such a shift in how we hear and think about breath. Has that affected your music-making or composing or listening?

There are some things that I feel like I’m not ready to talk about. The concept of talking about breath in music… I have a few things my brain goes to, but it’s a very deep topic. And also with COVID this past year.

I can say that in the last few years, I have become much more attuned to my love of hearing breath. Recently I was recording a project and the audio engineer had taken out a lot of the breath sounds of the voice of the singer, and that’s actually what I love. Don’t take any of that out! If anything, let’s make sure we hear that, because that’s the difference between a real human person with all of their imperfections and their body, and a sound sample on pop radio… and that’s where a lot of the emotion is. And if you hear a singer, no matter what style, I feel like you hear so much of their—I don’t know if expression is the right word—their language and who they are and the quality of what they want to say in the breath. Sometimes breath is vulnerability, sometimes it’s exasperation, sometimes it’s sex. It’s a lot of things. It’s one of the most expressive qualities in singing and in music for me.

"Sometimes breath is vulnerability, sometimes it’s exasperation, sometimes it’s sex." @caroshawmusic via @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

Yeah, my dad is a pulmonologist. He would often take my brothers and me, when we were really little, to some of his sickest patients’ homes when he did home visits. We would go and play violin for them, often at Christmastime, when he knew that was their last Christmas. There’s a certain sound, particularly with emphysema, which is a very slow disease—much different than lung cancer—and that sound of breath is something I’ve been thinking about a lot.

Classical music  is often described as “otherworldly”—as opposed to world music, folk musics, vernacular musics being “of the world.” So it’s striking to hear you talk about breath and the body as something not to be erased from the recording, from the space of hearing.
Because you write both for voice and for instrumental ensembles, I’m curious: How does the body fit into that?

My first thought is something I find myself telling younger musicians. I always say, “People are more important than music.” I stand by that to the end of the day. I love music deeply, but I think the person playing it—and their life and their body, whether they’re a singer or an instrumentalist—is more important than some vision that I might have. I always want to make sure that what I write is a) at the least, healthy and not harmful, and b) maybe even enjoyable to do. I know as a violinist or violist or singer or pianist what feels good and what feels interesting, what feels challenging, but also just what feels good to do. I try to write in a way that invites someone to be their best self.

I’m curious what work has been like for you personally this past year. You’ve clearly been productive, having all this new music coming out…

I was actually deliberately unproductive for three months. I didn’t do anything. I looked at turtles, I didn’t write any music, I deleted all my social media. It was the best. It cleared the foundation out in a way that needed to happen. And now strangely I’m doing a lot right now, but in the very beginning I wasn’t productive. I really missed the shake-up of routine, going to work, going to concerts, and not knowing who you’d see that day. I miss that because it shakes things up in your brain in a way that I think is really important.

In terms of what I’ve been making lately, I think I’m too close to it now to have a good perspective, but I feel like something is quite different. Maybe I have a little bit of a wider view of life than I did a year ago. Right now, as things are coming back, we’re gonna have to start talking about this last year in the past tense, and what it’s meant.

For sure. I don’t have anything intelligent to say to that. Time feels weird, existing feels weird. 

Rebecca, if you wanted to talk about the controversial topic [mentioned earlier], the “Partita” and Twitter, I’m happy to clarify anything. I just want to be really clear that I absolutely regarded what happened as a horrible embarrassing mistake. We haven’t performed the piece since, we’ll never do the piece the same way again, we’re even re-recording it. I take it very seriously. 

This gets into another topic I wanted to bring up, the issue of authorship. There are certain pieces, like “The Cutting Garden” (from “Plan & Elevation”) with very deliberate quotations. And then there’s the sort of murkier issue of being trained in and/or inspired by musical cultures that are not of one’s own upbringing, particularly those of marginalized communities. I read that when you do eventually re-perform the piece, there will be an explanation given, of certain vocal practices. I think that could be really instructive and positive for the average classical music listener, who might recognize a quotation of the Ravel String Quartet, but might not be aware of this entire heritage of vocal practice that’s present in the “Partita.”

It’s hard to figure out how to do all of this in a way that is respectful and feels right but also knowing that audiences and situations change so much. Looking back at Roomful of Teeth’s practices and approach, we’ve had a lot of discussion about how we should do this, what’s an appropriate way to perform this music, what should be changed, how do we present it… We’ve talked to a lot of people from other cultures and backgrounds about this. Some people are supportive of the idea of talking about the history of the [musical] styles before a concert, but some people say no, that makes it feel Other, that just serves to Other everything rather than folding it in. There’s no consensus, as there shouldn’t be, because it’s an extremely complex conversation that should have many perspectives. There’s a way that we will do this for the time being, and maybe that will change. All of our repertoire, especially “Partita,” changes from performance to performance. It’s never quite the same.

You were talking about the language of musical sound, but I’m also wondering how language, as words and texts, informs your compositional process. Not to fangirl but I’m super excited about the new Anne Carson piece.

I’m like, super fangirl around her. I admire her so much: her curiosity about language and form and stories and myth and genre.

And then getting to make this piece, folding her voice in with Ariadne’s [soprano Ariadne Greif], and this conversation between the spoken word and the sung. I told [Carson], “I know I’m destroying this poem, I know nothing I do will ever be better. Every time a composer sets something they just destroy it. But I’m still gonna do this.” I feel like I’ll spend a lifetime never fully understanding what it is that she does, but wanting to. Sometimes letting yourself drift into the environment that some other artist has made, even if you don’t fully understand it, you make your own map within it, and over time you find a way to understand it for yourself.

Words and language are such a critical part of the “Partita.” In the case of the Anne Carson piece and the new work for Dawn Upshaw, is there a difference working with preexisting texts?

There’s something really scary about working with an existing text by an existing person, because they may or may not hear what you do. Making sure that the words they have constructed in that particular way are clear, but also knowing when they can be pulled apart or interpreted a little differently. With “Narrow Sea,” I let the language be as simple as it was. I wrote the melodies to be things that sort of sit in the voice and in the body pretty naturally. I’m not sure if I even asked for any elongation of a consonant, and I didn’t put any rhythm in. I said I just want this to be conversational, so that Dawn could be her wonderful self.

With the new Anne Carson piece it’s all sort of chant notation, no particular rhythm. I wanted the words to be absolutely clear. I set the poem from beginning to end unaltered except that there’s this back-and-forth between the singer and Anne herself, which felt important. It introduced this idea of multivocality, this feeling like there are several parts of you that are addressing yourself or someone else. Who is being addressed–is it first or second person?–you never quite know.

With “Partita,” the whole piece started because I wanted to hear everyone go [makes low vocal fry sound that then lifts upwards], into this gorgeous bright halo of a chord.

I hear people say that “Partita” has lots of extended techniques, when actually every part of it we do every day when we’re speaking. Speaking is so much more complicated than singing. The way that you combine a particular placement of the tongue and the teeth and the mouth just to make a particular sound that someone else will understand as an “R,” but then you shape that “R” in a particular way to get across a certain point–wildly complex!

I’m obsessed with American back-of-the-throat speaking. I grew up in the South and I speak in the back of my throat. So here’s this sound that is sort of maligned and not approved of, so just dial it into The Most and then spit it out as something else… I think it’s really fun to hear. All the meaning is in the parentheticals. All of the stuff that we say in between is usually where the authentic communication is, rather than the perfectly-constructed and -delivered sentence. That’s a great metaphor for music. ¶

Rebecca Lentjes

... is a writer, editor, and feminist activist based in New York City.