Pulitzer Winner Shaw Talks Career, Kanye


Had the entry fee for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize competition in music had been more than $50, Caroline Shaw might not have become the youngest person ever to win the prestigious award. Thanks to the Rothrock Family Fund for Experiential Learning the the Performing Arts, Annie Beliveau ’18 and Tevan Goldberg ’18, Middlebury College students had the opportunity to perform, discuss and get inspired by Shaw during her two-day residency in April 10-11, 2018.

During her time at the College, Shaw gave a talk about contemporary classical music, her journey through music and her group of talented classical musicians, Roomful of Teeth, a Grammy-award winning vocal ensemble. Shaw began her talk by playing her score, “Partitia for 8 Voices”, her composition for the Pulitzer Prize and “Passacaglia”, which included spoken word from Sol LeWitt and his points on the wall as well as vocal cords combined together in symphony. She proceeded to explain how her group always performs amplified as it allows them to create combinations of sound that would otherwise not be possible, along with the fact that it “made them feel like rock stars.”

On discussing her work with Kanye West, she describes how he asked her to map out a piece on his grandmother’s death, which later became “Say You Will,” a minimalistic piece that fuses classical orchestra, the work of Shaw, combined with West’s electric sound. The piece was written by Shaw while she “was sitting down in her grandparent’s place and tried to replicate the peacefulness of the river she was watching.” As Shaw delved into her origins of music, she expressed her love for the violin, an instrument that audiences could see she had a deep connection to and mastery of.

Being a classically-trained violinist since her childhood, her musical inspiration came from hymns, church choirs and her family. Currently, she plays the violin with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. Nonetheless, her music still reflects an attachment towards classical sounds of the opera and low bass voices in a choir.

The question: “What are the things people around the word are doing with their voice?”, is one Shaw is continuously exploring through her art and her vocal group, Roomful of Teeth, was mainly founded to study the different vocal techniques from around the world.

Shaw’s characteristic ability was to empathize and connect with her audience through her music and her presence. Through her charismatic dialogues with the crowd, she performed a vocal fry experiment that involved pulse register, creak, croak and pulse phonation with the audience in Axinn 229 in The Donald E. Axinn ’51, Litt. D. ’89 Center for Literary and Cultural Studies at Starr Library.

This ability was further displayed during her concert, where Shaw showed immense mastery of classical composition and musical ability through her interactions, violin performances, and her ability to play electronic music through a mixer and a keyboard. “Electronic music is something I am still exploring and learning,” Shaw said, “It is a lot easier to execute as opposed to writing score.”

Shaw, dressed in a modest stripped shirt and jeans, captivated the full-house in Robinson Concert Hall on Wednesday Apr. 12. As the lights dimmed and the audience resonated, she opened the concert with different vocal tones and symphonic voices on an electronic keyboard. The performance was accompanied by student voices while Shaw mixed electronic music on her sound mixer board. Following the act, she explained how the songs she was going to perform was a compilation of new and old.

She performed her song, “Stars in my Crown,” a buy-buy song, where she mixed different hymns, melodies and lyrics from pre-existing musical pieces. The song was a highly personalized piece that she wrote for her friend in Vancouver about wide horizons and clear skies. The melody of the piece was accompanied with the violin, which she played sans bow, in a delicate manner while singing to the lyrics. The piece was deeply moving and spoke of her journey with the Lord.

Shaw was a joy, finding every opportunity to connect with her audience, through her magnetic delivery of her pieces as well as by making them sing alongside the music through a ‘repeat-after-me’ technique. The beauty of her improvisation showed her musical prodigy and as a choir leader would, she directed the audience, with the help of two Middlebury students, to a musical symphony of togetherness and synergy.

Synergy was correspondingly displayed in her piece with Matthew Taylor, Visiting Assistant Professor of Music in Middlebury College. Shaw was the voice to Taylor’s trumpet, her notes included gasps, popcorning and laryngealization, a technique used when pronouncing sounds with a constricted larynx. The performance seemed like a conversation, a dialogue between two individuals trying to get to know each other through music.

Without a doubt, Shaw’s pieces were highly connected to her life and choral experiences. Although she played across instruments, she was most comfortable with her violin, her first instrument, which she played with or without a bow.

A native of North Carolina, Shaw began playing the violin at the age of two. Her passion followed her to receive a Bachelor of Music in violin performance from Rice University where she graduated with a Watson Fellowship before going on to receive a master’s degree in violin from Yale School of Music in 2007. She then entered the PhD in composition from Princeton University.

In the end, Goldberg ’18 was right when he described her as “very forward-looking, very actively playing and composing and works in different genres.” 

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