Caroline Shaw is Making Classical Cool
The Atlantic|March 2021
Her innovative work won her a Pulitzer Prize at age 30. She’s collaborated with Kanye and Nas. What does her success mean for the long-suffering genre?
By Jonathan Gharraie

A few months before the coronavirus pandemic made even the smallest gatherings seem quaint, the composer Caroline Shaw asked her audience at the Kings Place concert hall, in London, to hum in B-flat while she sang from the stage, accompanied by the strings of Attacca Quartet. This was not a typical classical concert. For much of it, Shaw sat atop a barstool, either singing or introducing her works to the audience. After the intermission, she joined the quartet as second viola for a more conventional performance of a well-loved classic, Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 2.

The audience skewed younger than one might expect. Shaw, who lives in New York City, is often cited as proof that classical music has an exciting future. In 2013, at the age of 30, she became the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, for Partita for 8 Voices. The citation for the winning composition described it as “a highly polished and inventive a cappella work” including “speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects.” Since then, Shaw’s music has been performed at the Hollywood Bowl and Lincoln Center, and used for a Beyoncé tour video. She has collaborated with hiphop giants such as Kanye West and Nas, and received a 2020 Grammy nomination for Orange, an album of her music recorded by Attacca Quartet. She released her latest album, Narrow Sea, in January.

Shaw is a little younger than the average classical listener (who is 45, according to a survey of listeners across eight countries). She was born in 1982, in Greenville, North Carolina. Her mother, a singer and violin teacher, was her first mentor, introducing Shaw to her instrument at the age of 2. “I started on a 64th-size violin,” she recalls. Shaw fell in love with classical music— singing in a church choir and watching Amadeus over and over. She had a Lisa Loeb tape and a passing acquaintance with 4 Non Blondes, but by middle school, classical music was key to her identity.

At 14, Shaw attended the music camp Kinhaven, in Vermont. The experience was a revelation. “That’s when I figured out there are other kids in the world doing this and they are better than I am, and they know more things,” she told me. “Someone would put on a recording of the Ravel String Quartet and talk about it like their mind was going crazy. I’d never heard this piece before, and I was just interested in why they were interested in it.”

Of course, Shaw and her Kinhaven peers were the exception. As recently as the mid- 20th century, classical music was a mainstream genre in the United States; today, it’s a niche preference. (By 2019, the genre accounted for only 1 percent of all music consumption in the country, according to Nielsen’s end-of-year report.)

Throughout the ’90s and into the 2000s, the major labels were casting about for ways to introduce classical music to new audiences. They had some reason for optimism: When the Three Tenors, a trio of well-known opera singers, performed the aria “Nessun Dorma,” from Puccini’s Turandot, at the 1990 soccer World Cup, an estimated 800 million viewers around the world tuned in. Whole pieces were filleted for their signature tunes and used for advertising or movie soundtracks, and photogenic musicians such as Nigel Kennedy, Joshua Bell, and Vanessa-Mae were marketed as unbuttoning the sometimes stuffy genre.

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