MUSIC: Caroline Shaw: a Pulitzer for whatever that was that she just sang

I wanted to get this New York Times profile of Caroline Adelaide Shaw, who just won the Pulitzer Prize for music, on the record because every year I check out the Pulitzer winner in that category with a little hope, and this year it was rewarded with something worth hearing. The Times profile gives the gist of the oddity of it all — Shaw is not just an unknown composer winning a composing prize, she does not even consider herself a composer. She wrote the winning piece, Partita, for the awesomely named choir Roomful of Teeth, in which she’s a performer. This Slate article gives more background.

I’m pleased to note that Shaw’s website contains a complete recording of Partita. You’ll find it’s odd, cheerfully eccentric, often lovely, and at about 25 seconds into the first movement, it opens the throttle in a way I found breathtaking. Mostly I just wanted you to get a chance to hear it.

The broader story is a struggle over many years to define the music Pulitzer and ensure it’s awarded to music that deserves recognition. It’s a story Wikipedia actually tells fairly well. For decades the music Pulitzer was squarely in the hands of the leading university music faculties, who ensured only the thorniest modernist composers — the guys whose music no audience enjoys — would win. From 1960 to 1996 if you’d never heard of the winner of the music Pulitzer you were basically lucky. In 1997 Wynton Marsalis won, an inevitably controversial choice. I’d defend his work, Blood on the Fields, but it probably shouldn’t have qualified for consideration because it wasn’t a new piece of music. After 2000 a conscious attempt to broaden the jury has led to a few winners that weren’t classical music, certainly weren’t a product of the university music faculties, and have nonetheless accomplished little by way of bringing the Pulitzers to a broader audience. This would include Ornette Coleman’s CD Sound Grammar, which, being small-ensemble jazz, was hardly composed at all; a Steve Reich piece that amounts to penance for not having named the minimalist pioneer earlier; and The Little Match Girl Passion, another choral composition by the downtown New York composer David Lang that really did, I think, represent something fresh and exciting. Here again, you can hear the whole piece online.

Today’s broader palette of nominees, it seems to me, underscores even more than the 35-year reign of the theory wonks how broad the gulf is between popular culture and art music these days. In 1945 Aaron Copland won for Appalachian Spring; since then there’s been very little connection between the American people and their highest musical honour. Caroline Shaw won’t change that but she richly deserves a listen.

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