Caroline Shaw isn’t your typical Pulitzer Prize for music winner.
The violinist and vocalist is just 30, a freelance musician in New York, a grad student at Princeton University and an all-around music lover who is combining new ideas with old to make something the Pulitzer foundation found enchanting.
“I think up to now people have known me as a violinist and then more so as a singer,” Shaw said in a phone interview from New York where she lives. “I guess now people are going to know me as a composer – I guess more than I’m used to.”
She won a Pulitzer often given to older composers and musicians for her composition “Partita for 8 Voices,” an a cappella piece written for her vocal octet Roomful of Teeth that’s both modern and steeped in the Baroque tradition. It was released in four parts on Roomful of Teeth’s self-titled debut album last October on New Amsterdam Records.
The Pulitzer committee wrote of Shaw’s work: “a highly polished and inventive a cappella work uniquely embracing speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects.”
Shaw writes of the four-part suite on her website: “Partita is a simple piece. Born of a love of surface and structure, of the human voice, of dancing and tired ligaments, of music, and of our basic desire to draw a line from one point to another.” She says the piece was inspired by Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing 305,” an installation piece she saw at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, where Roomful of Teeth sets up shop for a few weeks every summer.
Shaw will receive $10,000 for the prize, and plenty of attention. The category’s other finalists included previous winner Aaron Jay Kernis for classical composition “Pieces of Winter Sky” and jazz musician Wadada Leo Smith for “Ten Freedom Summers,” a 10-part examination of the civil rights movement.
The North Carolina-born Shaw was on the way Monday evening for rehearsal with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, another group that inspires the composer in her.
“There’s a bit of a new guard of contemporary classical musicians in New York and we play a lot of different kinds of music together,” Shaw said. “We do pop studio sessions and we’ll also play John Cage and more avant-garde work. We’re developing a language of music that comes with a lot of different styles, different kinds of work.”