Music for Music: Caroline Shaw

Music for Music: Caroline Shaw & Voice: To the Limit

by Dan Ursini ©2017

At the age of 35, Caroline Shaw has already had a career in music unlike anybody else’s. In 2013 she became the youngest person to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Music. She has since collaborated as a musician with Kanye West, served as an ensemble member of the Grammy-winning experimental vocal group Roomful of Teeth, and engaged in other projects of significant variety. For some years, she has performed in classical circles as both a singer and a violinist, even while composing fascinating works—many of them instrumentals.

I want to explore her vocal work. Shaw is a pioneer in exploring the possibilities of timbre in music—the identity of the sound. She expands its range by combining ideas from traditional choir, hip hop, jazz: idle verbal chatter. She reaches into World Music to produce vocal overtones—including Tuvan throat singing. It can sound like a droning metallic agitation, adding a layer of strange power to a song. 

Shaw’s collaborations with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus are a good introduction.  Her music is immediate, delightful; but surprising, even jolting. The melodies are often created from layered chants filled with tension and energy.

Some passages in her work are remindful of Brian Wilson and his recent music. But beyond a certain point, Caroline Shaw picks up where Brian Wilson leaves off, and he obviously has a masterful reach.

Extended wordless melodic passages fill Shaw’s work; words are usually used for their sound value. Nonsense phrases float by over and over. This approach reaches back to the 1934 opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, by Gertrude Stein, perhaps the first language poet, and composer Virgil Thompson.

Shaw’s music provides a conceptual link between the composer of “Good Vibrations” and the poet who wrote, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” 

The composition for which Caroline Shaw was awarded the Pulitzer Prize is the “Partita for 8 Voices.” It makes clear that an underlying aim of her music is to push the human voice to the limits. As you might expect, there is development, but not in the usual directions. Several times over, huge clusters of droning sound build and swell in amazing layers—then suddenly dissolve to a whisper. Listening to the 24-minute Partita cheerfully but decisively extends our grasp of the voice in music.


Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine ; he wrote performance art pieces presented at  Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication . In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, recently had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at:

Caroline Shaw’s Website

Caroline Shaw at Sound Cloud 

Caroline Shaw at Roomful of Teeth 

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