Caroline Shaw is a composer, singer, and violinist who has emerged as one of the bright new voices in classical music. She has already won the Pulitzer Prize for one of her works, and she has composed a lot of music already in her 39 years. And I had never heard of her until last week, when I found her name after Googling “21st century classical composers”. I read a bit about Shaw, whose career has taken her from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to recording with Kanye West. That sort of eclecticism appeals to me; I have always responded well to artists with as wide a view of their artistic expression as possible.
As of my writing this, I’ve only heard one work by Shaw in its entirety, and it’s the one featured here today. It’s called The Observatory and it was commissioned (and premiered) by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where apparently it opened a program that ended with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. That’s gotta be a hell of a thing for a composer, right? “We want you to write a new work for us, you’ll be filling out the program with Beethoven’s Ninth. You can do that, right?”
Well, Shaw most certainly could. The work is a grand-scaled tour de force, opening with huge chords reminiscent of those that open Brahms’s First Symphony, and then taking a 16-minute stream-of-consciousness tour of wonder. The work’s inspiration was apparently LA’s Griffith Observatory and Shaw’s own love of science fiction and the Cosmos. Obviously these themes drew my attention almost immediately. As Shaw herself writes, describing the compositional process of this piece, on the Hollywood Bowl website:
It was a wild ride, and I remember feeling like an observer of a mysterious workshop that somehow churned beauty out of chaos. There is also something about writing an orchestral work for a summer evening in Hollywood that got me thinking about my favorite genre of film and storytelling — sci-fi. I love the way epic tales of the beyond can zoom in and out, using grand imagined alternate universes to tell stories about ourselves. And I love how music in these films carves and colors our attention to those worlds (in their various scales).
While writing music, I often imagine some kind of visual (usually abstract, sometimes figural, rarely narrative), as a guide for myself and sometimes as a thing to write against. There’s an invisible counterpoint here, but I’d rather someone simply listen and create their own contrapuntal narrative adventure than read an account of mine — to leave space for one’s own observation and reflection, whether it be of the music or their neighbor’s t-shirt or cosmology or tomorrow’s grocery list. (The grand story arcs of our lives sometimes play out in minutiae and the mundane.) And often the imagined visuals that I write to are nothing more than shifts in color or a quick cut between undefined scenes. (Sometimes the juxtapositions and transitions [and parentheticals] are where the stories are.)
I greatly enjoyed this work and I will certainly be exploring more of Caroline Shaw’s music! I wonder if she’s given any thought to film scoring…since the inevitable screen adaptations of my Song of Forgotten Stars books are going to need a composer, eh?
Here is The Observatory by Caroline Shaw.