Caroline Shaw doesn’t always fit the profile of a concert musician when she’s seen on stage. Her dress and demeanor are often quite casual and her face is generally sporting a smile. Whether she’s singing with the eclectic a cappella ensemble Roomful of Teeth or presenting a set of pop-leaning songs with the quartet Sō Percussion, or playing violin with the highbrow folk group The Hands Free, Shaw seems generally to be genuinely enjoying herself.

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Caroline Shaw
© Kait Moreno

There’s a joy that comes through in her compositions as well, even when she’s not onstage – or if not always joy, then an embrace of life, a thrill of discovery that’s palpable. It’s a feeling that, perhaps, has been with her since she first tried her hand at composing at the age of 10, and that has follows her since her childhood in North Carolina.

She smiles, again, from within her window during a Zoom call when asked about her “happy place”, as her mind drifted back home to Greenville and to “the Albemarle sound looking out at that water that I’ve seen for my whole life, that has been unchanged, that will be there forever, exactly like that”, she says. “I’ve written some music there and it’s different from the other music. I go deep, thinking about how I grew up and what I knew and what I didn’t and the deep mystery of life and existence. That’s where I go. I like to think that the music is different because of that.”

At age 41, Shaw has written a lot of music, in North Carolina and in her adopted homes of New York City and, more recently, Portland, Oregon. She’s written for the New York City Ballet and the Merce Cunningham Trust. Her work has been performed by the Calidore String Quartet, Renée Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma, Davóne Tines, Dawn Upshaw and both the New York and LA Philharmonics. She wrote scores for the television series Fleishman is in Trouble and Josephine Decker’s films Madeline’s Madeline and The Sky Is Everywhere. She played herself in the TV series Mozart in the Jungle and has worked with rapper Kanye West on more than one occasion.

At 30, she became the youngest person to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Partita for 8 Voices. With several Grammy awards and over 100 published compositions to her credit, she’s come a long way from that 10-year-old who was worried about what she’d do once she’d filled her first composition book.

“I think I got a spiral bound notebook of music paper”, she remembers. “I was obsessed with it. I was like, I’m going to run out of paper. I’m going to run out!

“I think all kids make up songs”, she continues. “I’m of the opinion that everyone is really creative when they’re kids, and then we get a little – we become self-conscious later on. But yeah, I think when I got that little notebook when I was 10, I started actually writing things down.”

Shaw’s composing continued, but by the time she enrolled at Rice University in Texas, her focus was on performance. She went on to earn her Masters in violin performance from Yale University and was then accepted as a doctoral student in composition at Princeton – with no previous training as a composer. In 2022, she received an honorary doctorate of music from Yale.

In conversation, she considers her words and then speaks in a flurry. “I had done some things in high school and then went to college and was really hardcore about violin, but still wanted to be writing music, but what I saw of what contemporary music was, wasn't what I was looking for”, she says. “I didn’t quite know what to do, but I liked thinking about it. I liked the way that writing music made me feel. I was working on this little string quartet, which sounded like Hindemith. It was very, very contrapuntal. After writing music, I’d go to orchestra rehearsal and listen to everything much more openly. There’s a motivation to write as a way of learning about music and listening to it and developing.”

Later, when she joined Roomful of Teeth as a singer, she started doing structured experiments with her bandmates. “Then I got really serious. I was like, okay, what if I really want to finish this? I want to really make a thing. I got Sibelius, the notation program. I liked trying to put something on page that's not really meant to be on the page.”

Some might disagree about the accuracy and efficacy of musical scores, but for Shaw, it seems, it’s like trying to capture wonder and put it in a jar.

“When I was a kid, I think music was a big retreat for me. It was just colors and sounds and it was such a magical place”, she says. “I’m not religious and I don’t believe in magic or mystical things, but what if music is this thing that you cannot see or touch or taste, but it does something, it moves you? That feels like magic to me in some way, and I want to let myself just continue to always think about that. There’s something very childlike about thinking of music like that, I think.”

Shaw hopes to impart to audiences that sense of discovery with her music. Her Microfictions, for string quartet and spoken word, contains an unexpected passage that is sure to bring a laugh when Miró Quartet gives the Asian premiere of the work to open Beare’s Premiere Music Festival at the Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall in January. “It’s one of my favorite moments of the piece, which is really very much about the audience experience”, Shaw says. “Everyone always laughs, which delights me to no end. It’s like, Thank you! This is funny. There’s something about this entire thing that is funny, but also really beautiful.” (A full performance video can also be found online, but those planning to attend the Miró concert would be well advised to wait.)

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Miró Quartet
© Michael Thad Carter

Microfictions was inspired by very short prose works, thus the title, that Shaw discovered online, primarily those posted under the name TR Darling.

“I was reading a lot of these,” she explains. “I really liked them. It’s a writer’s challenge to make an elegant, distinct story within a small amount of words and characters. I thought, ‘how do you make something really distinct in, like, two to three minutes’, which is also the standard song length. Then I decided to write. When I love something, I just try to do it myself.”

The process took several forms, both in organization and in execution, before the final elements that comprise Microfictions started to come together. Ultimately, the text became a way to share her working process with an audience.

“Sometimes the words would come a little bit before the music, sometimes after, sometimes while I was writing it”, she says. “When I’m writing music, I’m usually thinking of texture or image or something non-musical at the same time. Maybe not exactly cinematic, but there’s something that is non-musical that I’m thinking about. I’m thinking, ‘What if I just turn my own inner world outside and show people a little bit of it?’ Then I would imagine, ‘What would this be?’ and construct an odd little absurd, magical-realist story about it. I wasn’t sure it was going to work at first, but we did the piece at Orcas Island (the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival in Washington state, in August) and the audience really responded.”

The short segments of text and music correspond in mood and their part of the narrative arc, but she avoided forcing the fit. After the first 20 or 30 seconds of each musical block, she trusted her composer’s instincts.

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Caroline Shaw performing at 92NY
© Joseph Sinnott

“It’s like, ‘What do I want to hear right after hearing that?’” she says. “The first 20 seconds are absolutely that way. After then, I’m not rigorously thinking: now here’s the system, I’m going to absolutely do this for the next three minutes. It’s more like, if a scene were to unfold, a musical scene, where would that go?”

Shaw has delivered the text herself in concert, but the piece was written with other readers in mind, including, at times, the musicians.

“I think for this festival, the quartet might read it themselves’, she says. “I think that’s what they often do in performance. But it was a fun treat for me to get to go and read it. If it was Cate Blanchett, that would be great too. Meryl Streep? That would be amazing.”

The Miró Quartet performs Caroline Shaw’s
Microfictions at Beare’s Premiere Music Festival, Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall on 15th January 2024.

Microfictions is co-commissioned by Premiere Performances of Hong Kong for the Beare’s Premiere Music Festival (with the support of, together with the La Jolla Music Society, Carnegie Hall, Chamber Music Houston and the Shriver Hall Concert Series, and was dedicated to the Miró Quartet themselves.

This article was sponsored by Beare’s Premiere Music Festival.