Frank J. Oteri: Caroline Shaw: Yes, a Composer, but Perhaps not a Baker!

Still catching up on my reading after my surprise hiatus. New Music Box has a really extraordinary, must-read interview with Caroline Shaw, one of my favourite living composers (though she doesn’t like the term).

Classical music is a broad term that means many things, but to many who are not in that classical music world, it means a particular thing which is a particularly 17th, 18th, and 19th century version of music. And there’s a comfort level in experiencing that music in museum-like situations which I’m actually not critiquing. I love museums. I love concerts where I sit and listen very carefully to something that was beautifully constructed a long time ago. I love that experience. But I think that sometimes there’s not a real awareness and consciousness of what that is and what it means for new music now and what the possibilities are for thinking about older music and thinking about newer music.

Composers since Beethoven have applied stricter and stricter performance directions to their music, but Shaw’s music allows performers an unprecedented (in classical music) level of freedom. She’s following an established path: Terry Riley and Witold Lutosławski, for instance, have allowed improvisation in their music, but within strictly controlled boundaries. (Lutosławski once said that even though the tempo was uncontrolled, every note written was still wholly his.)

Shaw grants a truer freedom: play the music, and enjoy it. I can’t imagine Riley or Lutosławski ever giving a performance direction like “get crazy town”.