Deceptive Cadence
3:22 am
Sat April 20, 2013

A Moment With Pulitzer-Winning Composer Caroline Shaw

Originally published on Sat April 20, 2013 11:57 am

How do you write something like Partita for 8 Voices, the a cappella vocal piece that is this year's winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music?

"Very late at night," says the composer, Caroline Shaw, speaking with NPR's Scott Simon. "Sometimes it comes from having a sound in your head that you really want to hear, that you've never heard before, and struggling to make that sound happen in any way you can."

At 30, Shaw is the youngest-ever recipient of the music Pulitzer. Shaw says she considers herself a musician first — and, in fact, Partita for 8 Voices was written for the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, of which she is a member.

There's one moment in the piece that delivers on that name, where the sung music morphs into a mounting swell of cacophonous, indecipherable chatter.

"It's funny, my first thought was, 'Wow, that's what the Internet sounds like!' When you open your computer and everyone's talking at you suddenly," Shaw says. "But I was really wanting to hear the sound of jumbled talking, where you can't understand what's going on — and then, suddenly, one beautiful, simple chord."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is the fourth movement from "Partita for 8 Voices," this year's Pulitzer Prize winner for music. And not only is this most likely the first time an a cappella piece has been awarded a Pulitzer, but the composer, Caroline Shaw, is the youngest ever recipient of the music Pulitzer. Miss Shaw, who is, by the way, 30 years old, according to reports, joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

CAROLINE SHAW: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And I've read you don't really consider yourself a composer.

SHAW: Words are funny. I consider myself a musician.

SIMON: Well, you also play the violin and sing I gather.

SHAW: That's right. I actually have a concert next week in St. Louis.

SIMON: Now, tell us about this piece that received the Pulitzer. I gather you wrote this for an a cappella group, Roomful of Teeth.

SHAW: That's right. I've been singing with, Roomful of Teeth, since the beginning in 2009 and it's a really mind-blowingly wonderful vocal ensemble. Very brave and very creative and they're some of my closest friends.

SIMON: Well, what inspires the piece?

SHAW: It was actually largely inspired by some of these really bright, vibrant, intense paintings by Sol LeWitt, which are bright florescent and they take up the entire wall.

SIMON: So how do you write a piece like this?

SHAW: Very late at night. Sometimes it comes from just having a sound in your head that you really want to hear, that you've never heard before and struggling to make that sound happen in any way you can.

SIMON: Well, speaking of hearing things in your head, every since hearing this section, I've been hearing it in my head, and I've got to tell you I'm a little troubled.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "PARTITA FOR 8 VOICES")

SIMON: Make it stop. What's going on here, may I ask the composer?

SHAW: It's funny. My first thought was ah that's what the Internet sounds like when you open your computer and everyone's talking at you suddenly. And the texts that people are saying are actually wall drawing directions from Sol LeWitt, but I was really wanting to hear the sound of jumbled talking where you can't understand what's going on and then suddenly one beautiful simple chord.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "PARTITA FOR 8 VOICES")

SIMON: So it is jumbled talking, but orchestrated jumbled talking.

SHAW: Orchestrated jumbled talking, yeah.

SIMON: What do you want your music to do for people?

SHAW: I guess I'd like people to be able to forget a lot of things and just enjoy the beauty of harmony and melody for a moment.

SIMON: So, we look forward to doing that with your music. Caroline Shaw, this year's winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music. Congratulations and thanks for making the time for us in what must be a very busy week for you.

SHAW: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.