Working With a Grammy and Pulitzer Prize Winner

Caroline Shaw—a vocalist for the Grammy award-winning ensemble Roomful of Teeth—is in residence at Smith this spring.

Students and faculty in the Department of Music have had a rare opportunity this semester to work with the youngest-ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Caroline Shaw—a violinist, composer and vocalist for Grammy Award-winning ensemble Roomful of Teeth—is in residence at Smith this spring. In addition to meeting and working informally with students and faculty, she will appear in a series of performances on campus.

On Sunday March 5, at 3 p.m. in Sweeney Concert Hall, Sage Hall, Smith students and faculty will perform some of Shaw’s work, alongside music that inspired those pieces. The concert is open to all at no charge.

Shaw is excited about sharing her compositions with local audiences.

“It is a program of my own works mixed with works of others that I love or am inspired by,” she says. For example, the program features Shaw’s solo piano piece, “Gustave Le Grey,” which includes fragments of a Chopin mazurka. Shaw’s string quartet, “Punctum,” is paired with two iterations of the Bach chorale framed within the piece—“the Bach chorale itself and Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune,’ which uses the same melody,” Shaw says.

A New York City-based musician, Shaw became the youngest-ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013 for her enigmatic composition “Partita for 8 Voices.” She holds a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from Rice University and a master’s degree in violin from Yale University. Shaw is currently a doctoral candidate in composition at Princeton University.

During her visits to Smith this semester, Shaw has worked with the Smith College choirs, demonstrating vocal techniques and rehearsing her original pieces, “Sarabande” and “Its Motion Keeps.” 

Shaw has also collaborated with the Smith College Orchestra, which will perform her violin concerto, “Lo,” on Friday, April 21, at 8 p.m. in Sweeney Concert Hall.

In addition to rehearsing with students, Shaw says she has enjoyed chatting informally with Smithies over lunch. “I love getting to ask them questions about their dreams, plans, concerns and goals,” she says.

Students have likewise appreciated the opportunity to learn from Shaw.

“Rehearsing a piece with the composer in the room with you is a really unique experience,” says Cas Martin ’19, a member of the Smith College Orchestra who has been rehearsing Shaw’s piece “Lo” for the upcoming concert. “With Caroline right in front of us to offer feedback and answer any questions we may have about the piece, we’re able to create a really well-informed, engaging performance.”

Martin adds that Shaw has inspired students to expand their musical horizons.

“As a music major, I often find myself trapped in the same routine of playing from the Western classical canon,” Martin says. “Caroline encouraged me to actively engage in a wider variety of musical genres and performances. I’m really grateful to have her as a resource at Smith this semester.”

Shaw—whose current projects include commissions for the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process Series, as well as collaborations with Kanye West—emphasizes the importance of remaining open and curious because career interests can spring up in the most unexpected places.

“Be patient with yourselves and with others,” she advises. “Remember that there is always, always something to learn.”