Speak Easy: Caroline Shaw, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Violinist

Caroline Shaw is multitasking for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra this month, appearing as both a soloist and composer as part of the MusicNOW Festival. The wunderkind violinist, who spends most of her musical time singing with the eight-member vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, grabbed headlines in 2013 by winning the Pulitzer Prize for musical composition at age 30. Talk about a tough act to follow.

At 32, is this really your solo debut as a violinist?
It’s my adult solo violin debut. I’ve been mostly singing the past few years, doing chamber music, and composing. I actually haven’t performed as a solo violinist since my teens.

The CSO is premiering one of your own compositions for your performance. It’s your first orchestral work as a composer, right?
Yes, but I don’t know if I should broadcast that or not [laughs]. It’s titled Lo. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are always composers I think about when I’m writing, especially Brahms for this work.

The group you sing with goes by Roomful of Teeth—who came up with that?
Isn’t it a great name? The founder, Brad Wells, thought of it. It’s very evocative, both funny and terrifying at the same time. Some of our music is that way.

A piece you wrote for them, Partita for 8 Voices, won you the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. Is it true that your primary reason for submitting the piece was to get more attention for the group?
Yes. I did know that there were important people on the committee, and that they’d listen to the recording and think, Wow, those guys are really good. Then maybe they’d tell someone else about us over dinner. Honestly, it was sort of on a whim. I didn’t think it would change my life much, but I’m writing a lot more. There’s pressure to see if I can duplicate that success.

I love the short music videos on your website of your train rides. Is that something we’re likely to see more of?
Well, on Saturday, I’m going to upstate New York on the Megabus, and I’ve arranged to sit up front on the upper level so I can film out the front window. That will be a new experience.

MusicNOW Festival, March 13, Music Hall, musicnowfestival.org

Originally published in the March 2015 issue.

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