Photo by Timo Andres
Last week, Kanye West performed "POWER" at a Democratic National Committee Fundraiser. Before he emerged, the curtain opened on a woman alone singing wordlessly, stacking her voice into a harmonized chorale and building to an arresting peak. This was Caroline Shaw, a 32-year-old contemporary classical composer who lives in Manhattan.
Shaw is a member of the vocal octet Roomful of Teeth, which has collaborated with tUnE-yArDs. She performed on Music for Heart and Breath, a modern classical work by the Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry. In 2013, Shaw won the Pulitzer for her piece Partitas for 8 Voices. The year before that, she was virtually unknown outside New York City classical circles.
West’s fascination with Shaw doesn’t seem to be passing: Yesterday, he posted a reworked version of 808s & Heartbreak’s "Say You Will" that featured her anxious, ear-catching murmurs and wails. Given his track record of finding and spotlighting unexpected voices on his projects, she seems one step away from appearing on his next album.
So now that she is about to be made famous, who is Caroline Shaw? In her music, she treats the human voice like something to be trapped, pulled at its edges, broken apart, and set free—it’s a pliable instrument that she seems determined to ply as far as possible. You can hear some of Meredith Monk, Björk, and Robert Ashley, but those are surface comparisons, and you’ll likely forget them once you push deeper into her music. Here are some pieces you can listen to now to get to know her better.
Six straight minutes of dazed, becalmed awe, like standing in a supermarket aisle at 5:45 a.m. and gazing dumbly at the endless row of cereal boxes. The singers chant "oooh" while medicated voices chant jargon-y things at you like "The 86th, 87th, and 88th points are located symmetrically across the central vertical axis of the wall." A spiritual cousin to Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach.
A piece for string quartet, and a rapt one, where the bows hover just above the strings. There are moments where everything veers into dissonance, but otherwise, you could slot this next to Ravel’s sinuous String Quartet in F, written in 1903. A hint that this piece wasn’t written a century ago can be found in the first YouTube comment on this performance in eight months: "Yeezy about to make it blow like a nuclear bomb."
Along with "Passacaglia", one of the pieces that make up her "Partita for 8 Voice". Like Laurie Anderson, Alvin Lucier, or Robert Ashley, Shaw is fascinated with the way that conversational speech can become music on its own.
4.) "Its Motion Keeps"
A choir tangling with a single, scratchy-throated viola. Even Shaw’s most beautiful works have a sour note embedded in them on purpose, something to strain your hearing muscles and introduce a note of discord. You can hear it in the full-throated "ooohs" that the choir sings near the end of the piece, a thorn in the side of the harmonies
5.) "in manus tuas"
Shaw composed this piece to ask the cellist to dig into the strings, producing a haunted sound somewhere between a moan and tendons snapping, while occasionally singing a single pure note. If you want a spotlit closeup of Caroline Shaw’s musical mind, this intimate piece feels like a good place to start: Over nine-plus minutes, the cello roams a stark, empty landscape, playing what sounds like a scrambled version of a Bach Partita.