Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer Caroline Shaw on Writing Music for Winter Moods

'I'm trying to figure out the balance between winter and holiday and joy and sadness.'

Caroline Shaw, center, with the Attaca Quartet. Jorsand Diaz

There’s a lot of digital refuse to sift through when it comes to entertainment this year, especially since so many different online platforms are breaking out and creating their own content. Therefore, you’d be forgiving for yearning for something like the experimental classical music on display at White Light Festival at Lincoln Center, which runs through November 24. There are a host of different creative talents performing during this extravaganza, including Leonard Bernstein Award-winning pianist Kit Armstrong and acclaimed soprano Christine Goerke, but Caroline Shaw is perhaps the artist who’s most thoroughly rooted in the contemporary. Shaw is a composer, singer and violinist who’s the youngest-ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music (no big deal) who can count Kanye West as one of her past creative collaborators. On Wednesday, she spoke with Observer about what she’s planning to present with the Attaca Quartet when she takes the stage on November 14.

SEE ALSO: 5 Virtuosos Bringing Their Work to Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival This Fall

What new works are you going to debut at White Light?
There’s a song that I wrote for a really different context, it was for a really famous Swedish mezzo-soprano named Anne Sofie von Otter, and the song is called “And So.” She did a version with orchestra, and this is a new one with string quartet and since I’m singing it myself the vocal part is much lower and it has much more of a pop sensibility than the original classical version. It has references to Gertrude Stein and Billy Joel, and it’s a funny little mix. I really like the song, it’s pretty new. And then there’s another one that we’ll do, which I had written about a year and a half ago for orchestra, and this is a much more intimate version, called “Other Song.” I wrote it for a concert I had done with Sara Bareilles. It’s kind of an homage to her.

There was something I read in a Guardian interview about how closely you pay attention to the timbre of people’s voices, and it made me want to ask you if there’s been a particular speaking or singing voice that’s inspired you lately?
Yeah, I really like the strange border between spoken language and singing. That’s why I like how certain pop singers have this certain edge and imperfect quality to their singing that’s really lovely. But I also love a lot of hip hop artists. I have a complicated relationship with Kanye West, but I’ve really enjoyed the last few years of getting to work with him. There’s a young rapper that I still am really interested in, I don’t think she’s released her album yet, named Chika, Jane Oranika, and she has such a musical, beautiful delivery of words and I love what she does. And it’s funny, sometimes I write for really classical opera singers, so I’m curious about all the different ways that people choose to use their voices.

Does visual art ever play into your compositions?
All the time, really, and in different ways. Sol LeWitt, the conceptual artist, was a big part of how I conceived of an earlier piece called “Partita for 8 Voices,” because he deals with just giant blocks of color and there’s a lot of playfulness and joy in that, which I really love. But I’ve also always been really excited about artists who work in a certain medium like sculpture or painting—looking at their sketches, and what they do with pencil or pen is something that I think about a lot with music. What are the bones the concept and how do you grow from there?

And are there any commissions you’re working on that you can talk about?
There’s a performance at the Guggenheim museum in December, I think they bill it as their holiday show but I’m going to write something new that’s not exactly a Christmas carol but that’s something for the winter, for voices and percussion. It’s kind of a whole concert that I’m curating, but I’m trying to figure out the balance between winter and holiday and joy and sadness.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer Caroline Shaw on Writing Music for Winter Moods