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Q&A: Pulitzer Prize for Music recipient Caroline Shaw

Er the Christopher U. Light Lectureship seeks to bring talented and exciting musical artists to Carleton with the objective of exposing the Carleton and Northfield communities to their distinctive work. This year’s guest artist, Caroline Shaw, is undoubtedly one of the most distinguished visitors in the 33 year history of the lectureship. 

Few artists can claim the distinction of performing in a Grammy- winning ensemble, collaborating with musicians like Kanye West and the National, or winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music. However, Shaw has managed to do all three, and much more, all before the age of 35. 

An avid vocalist, violinist, composer, and producer, there are exceedingly few elements of the music industry Shaw hasn’t explored or somehow incorporated into her work. She is perhaps best known for being the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Shaw also happens to be the fourth female- identifying winner of the prize since it was first awarded in 1943. She was awarded the prize in 2013 for Partita for 8 Voices, written for the Grammy-winning ensemble Roomful of Teeth, of which she is a member. 

Despite her already illustrious career, Shaw certainly does not rest on her laurels. Recent commissions include new works for Renée Fleming, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Dover Quartet, the Baltimore Symphony, Roomful of Teeth and numerous other groups.

Shaw spent April 11-13 at Carleton lecturing on her work, performing her music in concert and giving feedback to students as part of a master class for the composition courses of Assistant Professor of Music Andrea Mazzariello’s composition courses.

The master class setting proved to be a unique and rewarding opportunity for Carleton students like Jack Hardwick ’19 and Charles Lutvak ’19, both music majors, to receive individually tailored feedback on their compositions. Over the course of the two-hour class, Shaw skillfully incorporated insights from the perspective of composer and performer in critiquing student’s work. 

“Caroline’s feedback were largely related towards the actual performance of the piece as it relates to interaction with the technology,” said Hardwick of his piece, a work for violin and interactive electronics. 

Balancing the demands of composition and performance proved to be a topic of great importance, as Shaw incorporated it in her student feedback numerous times during the class. 

“I had spent so long working on programming and composing to make the piece work, that I think the nitty-gritty of the actual performance was an area that needs work, and Caroline gave me some really fantastic comments to this end,” noted Hardwick.

Similar to Hardwick, Lutvak commented on Shaw’s ability to improve student’s work by encouraging them to focus on the performative aspects of their compositions. “Caroline has remarkable musical intuition and instincts, and she pushed me to play more musically instead of getting caught up in the technical aspects of performing the piece,” said Lutvak of Shaw’s suggestions for a piece he performed on electric guitar and MIDI controller with a software called Ableton Live.

Shaw was not afraid to push students to think outside outside the box with the goal of bettering their work. “Caroline asked me to improvise for a minute outside what’s dictated in the piece, and that’s a challenging thing to do spontaneously in front of people,” noted Lutvak. 

The suggestions and challenges Shaw posed to students appeared to be of great benefit. “It was really valuable to have a discussion and then try to implement her feedback in the moment,” Lutvak added.  

Following the master class, the Carletonian spoke with Shaw about her experience in the music industry.

Greg Amusu: What would you say are some of the challenges faced by female identifying and persons of color in the music industry?

Caroline Shaw: I don’t often address the questions about what is it like to be a woman in music because I usually just try to talk about other things. But I think it’s important to talk about, and I respect those who have really addressed it. I also think that the challenges, especially in classical music, with representation of people of color really is a bigger issue. So I usually try to shift the focus toward that because I think that’s something that is really important. But it is also related to the fact that music tends to be separated in these different genres, which is a little bit of a problem. The areas where there is the least representation of women in music tend to be the pop and Hip-Hop production worlds, which I find really surprising. Actually, I think that some of those conversations are being had about why there’s something about the environment that doesn’t encourage that and there are some really great female producers out there. But if you look at the list of the credits on Kanye’s album, I’m the only one. And it’s and it’s a tough environment to be in, but I think and I’m hoping that will change eventually.

GA: Who would be your dream collaboration?

CS: I can answer that question because I always, always, always hope that it’ll get in an interview and she’ll hear it! There’s a—I think I’ve mentioned her before—rapper and singer named Jane Oranika who goes by the name of Chika who I really like and we’ve met before. I met her a year or two ago, and we’re in touch but she’s busy and I’m busy. I like what she’s doing and I like who she is, what I think she can bring to the world, and the messages that are important to her. She’s also someone who did this viral video takedown of Kanye when he was not being his best self and I really appreciated that. She’s also just a really beautiful musician with words.

GA: What’s a new skill you’d like to master (musical or otherwise)?

CS: Oh, I want to learn animation. I’m trying to teach myself. I’ve learned Adobe Illustrator, but I’m trying to do more things with After Effects and animation software as a way to create more three-dimensional scores or just to kind of play around with scores and notated music in a visual way. I think it’s really fun. So I’ve been trying to find an animation tutor. There’s a lot of stuff you can learn on YouTube, which I do, but sometimes I just want someone who I can ask very specific questions.

GA: If you had to spend a year completely away from music, how would you spend it?

CS: I would probably work on a farm and grow a lot of things that are delicious to eat. That sounds really nice. I feel like it’s an achievable goal, you know? That feels very achievable.  Yeah, you know, I travel so much that I had a little garden on my fire escape in my apartment in New York and I was not even able to keep that up. So yeah, I would love to spend a year not traveling and just like growing delicious things or experience a winter where I can only eat the things that I’ve pickled.

GA: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

CS: Well, it’s not the best piece, but it’s a piece of advice that I remember very clearly and it’s helped me through a lot. When I was playing violin, I was trying to play this Beethoven quartet that was really hard, and I was like, “I just can’t get it!” But my coach said, “Don’t worry, it’s just music.” That actually stuck with me in a really wonderful way. So when things feel like, “Oh my god, this is the most important thing,” I just think—don’t worry. It’s just music, and I always like that.

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