The Arts

Awards, accolades continue for Greenville's Caroline Shaw

dmenconi@newsobserver.comJanuary 25, 2014 

Caroline Shaw, a Greenville native, won a Pulitzer last year for her composition “Partita for 8 Voices”; at 31, she was the Pulitzer’s youngest-ever music winner.


Thanks to the Internal Revenue Service, April 15 is a date with few positive associations for most Americans. But Caroline Shaw will always remember April 15, 2013, as the day her ship came in.

The Greenville native, one of the most acclaimed young musicians in all of classical music, was walking in a New York City park when her phone began ringing off the hook. The news was that she had just won the Pulitzer Prize for music.

“The Pulitzer people are almost sneaky about it,” Shaw said. “There’s no warning, and it would have been a little bit more sane that day if I’d known what was gonna happen. But it was one of the strangest days of my whole life. I called my dad when it was happening because I needed to talk to somebody I was related to, make sure it was real.”

Shaw won for her composition “Partita for 8 Voices,” and she was the Pulitzer’s youngest-ever music winner, at age 31. The award carried a $10,000 prize, a nice bonus for an artist whose last recording project was crowd-funded through a Kickstarter campaign.

But Shaw is actually more excited about the Grammy nomination that “Partita” picked up in December, because that’s one she’ll get to share. Shaw is a founding member of the eight-member a cappella ensemble Roomful of Teeth, which recorded “Partita” for the group’s self-titled 2012 album; they’ll perform during the pre-telecast part of Sunday’s Grammy Awards ceremonies in Los Angeles.

“Yeah, we’ll go and perform and wear fancy dresses,” Shaw said. “It’s a different kind of selection and nomination process than the Pulitizers, and I’m really glad. Even though I’m individually nominated as the composer, we all get to go together and celebrate. The Pulitzer was isolated to just me, and I didn’t want it to be. I’d prefer to share it with Roomful of Teeth.”

Win or lose, the Grammys will cap quite a stretch for Shaw, whose award odyssey began on a quixotic note. While institutions like orchestras or opera companies usually submit Pulitzer entries on behalf of composers, Shaw entered herself because she wanted to draw more attention to Roomful of Teeth.

The strategy certainly worked, for Shaw as well as the group. The Pulitzer citation called the piece “a highly polished and inventive a cappella work uniquely embracing speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects.” That sentiment was echoed in The New York Times, which praised “Partita” as a “dazzling, emotionally generous take on a Baroque dance suite.”

“By applying, I knew someone would at least have a look at the piece and hear about the group,” Shaw said. “It also wasn’t a big application fee. And then I won – well, that was the goal! And it’s gotten some nice attention. We only sing works written for the group, and we’ve been able to commission several more compositions because we have more resources to continue. Developing a repertoire for the ensemble is really important.”

Musical family

Before finding fame as an a cappella singer and composer in New York, Shaw grew up as a young violin prodigy in Greenville (where she visits family several times a year). Shaw’s older brothers both played violin, and her mother taught the instrument to kids, so it was probably inevitable that violin would be her instrument, too.

“As soon as I could hold something, I had one under my chin,” Shaw said.

Then and now, Shaw sang as well as played, and she continues to maintain a busy artistic double life. Along with her vocal work in Roomful of Teeth, Shaw plays violin in a number of groups, including the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. Plans are afoot to bring Shaw to the Triangle for a Duke Performances show that might involve her singing as well as playing.

In composing “Partita,” Shaw drew from her collegiate singing experience. She sang in an a cappella group for two years while studying at Rice University in Houston before giving it up to concentrate on her major, violin. But the effects of Shaw’s time singing collegiate a cappella lingered, as did her upbringing in North Carolina.

“Country and bluegrass were around a lot when I was growing up, even though it was nothing I played except for a few fiddle tunes with my violin group,” she said. “Folk hymns come into it a lot, from singing in churches. One of my compositions, ‘By and By,’ takes lyrics to old bluegrass tunes and re-imagines them musically. So we’re taking the pop-country out of bluegrass tradition and bringing it back to a quieter, more reflective place. My grandma is from Mount Airy, and I like to think of music that comes from the North Carolina mountains.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or

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