Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw recently collaborated with San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra which led to a new album. She sat down with CapRadio Classical Host Kevin Doherty to talk about the award, being inspired by Carl Sagan, and what it was like working with Kanye West.
Click play above to hear the whole interview
What was it like winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for your experimental choral work, “Partita for 8 Voices”?
It was kind of a big surprise to myself and to a lot of people that I know and certainly to my parents.
At that time it was the beginning of Roomful of Teeth, this vocal project of eight singers, that I’m one of the vocalists in there. And we weren’t very known and we were having trouble getting concerts and I thought, “I would really love for somebody else to listen to this music, and I’m really proud of this piece that I wrote and this group; so I just sent it in.
Well, and then of course that led to what has to be your most famous collaboration with Kanye …
It is probably now what I’m most known for, which is strange.
Right! So I feel like it has to be addressed. I personally know more about your music than I do about Kanye’s. We all know that Kanye can be a divisive figure and certainly, people have their opinions, but I’m curious as to what that was like as an artistic collaboration
Sure, yeah, he’s been a really interesting person to work with. I kind of stepped away in 2016 when we had very different political views, but I can say that working with him as an artist he thinks and works very deeply on every aspect of what he’s making.
And I appreciated that he sort of gave me a voice in the room with other creators that other people weren’t allowing for. I’m grateful to him for that. He’s just a very open artist.
What is going through your head when you’re writing music to make sure that there is an emotional connection for the listener because I do find your music to be so emotionally captivating.
Thanks for saying that. I think I always start a piece with harmony, that’s the most important thing; and I think about texture and allowing space to be able to hear things. I also think about music a lot like painting where you wanna create a certain amount of space around something that is the focus or the foreground, or you think about foreground and background in different ways. So I think when I write songs, things rarely begin with the melody, but the melody begins to interact with the harmony as I’m writing, and then it changes from there.
Shaw’s recent collaboration with Philharmonia Baroque includes her new oratorio called The Listeners which was initially inspired by the Golden Record launched into space in 1977.
I was thinking about why we make music and why we create things and why record ourselves. What do we think of sending them out into the beyond? Which was kind of Carl Sagan’s crazy, beautiful, kooky project with the 1977 Voyager Golden Record.
And then at its heart, the piece is about — it’s ambitious — it’s about the human condition and really looking at the ways that humans for centuries and millennia have looked out at the stars and wondered about the beyond.
It sort of pivots about 20 minutes in to looking back towards earth from the perspective of outer space and looking inward at ourselves and how we behave.
Fantastic. And that must be the Carl Sagan movement then, the lost speech of Carl Sagan.
Yeah, the beautiful bits of a lecture that he gave in the '90s at Cornell when he talks about Earth as a pale blue dot.
And right after that in the seventh movement, there is a beautiful, heartbreaking, powerful poem called “Maps” by a wonderful poet Yesenia Montilla. She wrote this in 2017 and it looks at the borders, specifically at the time I think she is looking at the southern border of the United States and how we draw lines and lines in the sand. That pivot in the piece is really important to me.
Shaw’s recent album with PBO also contains the song cycle “Is A Rose” which features mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter. When I asked Shaw how she’s coping in this time of COVID, she said at the beginning she slowed down and didn’t feel the need to be too productive, and now she says she is reemerging, writing more, and embracing the new world.