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In The Garden: Caroline Shaw

Make Small Good Things


NOV 14, 2022 | ISSUE 9

Caroline Shaw by Dayna Szyndrowski
Caroline Shaw by Ella Mazur
Orange - Nonesuch, 2019

The most remarkable thing about Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize for Music isn’t the fact that she was the youngest to ever receive the honour; it’s that, since then, her artistic voice has only increased in creativity, innovation, and relevance. Whether working with Sō Percussion, the Brentano Quartet, the Yale Baroque Ensemble – and, at one time, Kanye ‘Ye’ West – her presence continues to radiate further and deeper into contemporary music circles. Likewise, her inspiration for compositions flows from unpredictable and organic sources; her works have employed oranges, clay pots, and Boris Kerner (German physicist) as subject matter. Joining smART Magazine from her plant-filled apartment in New York, Shaw outlines her big ambitions to celebrate the small, the everyday, and the overlooked.

sM | Your music is often inspired by nature, but not the sprawling pastoral settings we often hear in classical music. How did you arrive at this concept?

CS ── I used to have a small garden in Amherst, Massachusetts. It came with a really old compost pile. Of course, compost is just accumulated from things over years and years, so when you use it to plant something, sometimes you also get little volunteer plants that have been lying dormant there for a long time. Often that’s what composing music feels like. You’re trying to grow one thing, but all these other things come up. 

One of the things in my “compost pile” is my fondness for the intimacy of small objects. I like their everyday-ness, and I like the kind of humble quality of something like an orange. You see it every day in the grocery store, and it’s not a super expensive item. But it’s so beautiful and exquisite, and every single time I eat an orange I want to appreciate how complex it is — how all of its little components work together, and how delicate the membranes are. It’s fascinating, and it’s right there.

I always say, “I want people to make small, good things.” That’s where I start. Sometimes I have the occasion to make something larger, but what I’m ultimately interested in is making something that’s very doable and manageable and lets people connect very closely. I’m interested in the kinds of nature that many people can relate to.

Orange (Nonesuch, 2019) features luminous performances of Shaw’s work by the Grammy-award winning Attacca Quartet. Shaw’s evocative and buzzworthy “Entr’acte” opens the proceedings with a clever nod to Haydn.

sM | How can this vision of nature connect with those living in urban environments?

CS ── My apartment is in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC — right in the middle of everything. One wall here is totally dedicated to house plants, and in my old apartment down the street I kept a little fire escape garden. Generally, I find a deep joy in growing things in my apartment. This morning I sat for 20 minutes and just watched the sun come in and catch the plants.

Access to nature, space, or even quiet, is a privilege, and some people have economic and geographic barriers, so I hope that we can learn to connect with and appreciate nature on any scale. The things happening on the scale of an orange or a house plant are also happening on a much broader scale in the wild. There are so many incredible, far-off places that I’ll never get to visit in my life, yet I think that I can experience vastness, grandeur, and majesty in small things. 

My writing process also pays attention to smaller parts of the whole: I like to think about how individual players in an ensemble feel when they play or sing something I’m writing. It’s been easier for me to establish trust and good relationships with smaller groups, like in chamber music. It’s amazing what you can do with just four people in a string quartet.

Composed collaboratively with Sō Percussion, Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part (Nonesuch, 2021) foregrounds Shaw’s considerable talent as a vocalist, layered over fresh and surprising percussion landscapes.

Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part - Nonesuch, 2021

sM | How did you come to write a piece about Boris Kerner’s theories on traffic flow? 

CS ── Firstly, I’ll just say that I am certainly not an expert on Boris Kerner or his three-phase traffic flow theories! I like going down deep internet rabbit holes with things as a way to write music. I’m incredibly inspired by non-musical things, because they introduce different shapes of ideas. At the time, I was reading about Boris Kerner, and drawing connections with things like the tension and release in Bach’s chromatic basslines. Sometimes, in Bach’s writing, the notes are all within the chord, but the bassline introduces maybe a raised third, which then might pivot to another surprising chord. So sometimes the harmony feels locked in place, but then suddenly it releases and goes somewhere else. I like the way those moments feel when I’m playing violin, where I notice how certain harmonies rub and blend in with others.

Another internet rabbit hole led to another piece of mine, Jacques Duran on the Beach. Duran is a French scientist who’s interested in the flow properties of sand. He looks at how it can squeak and rub with friction, but sometimes also flow. So there, too, I came back to the idea of tension and release, or friction and flow. That’s how music feels to me in my body, and it’s a fun thing to think of.