Caroline Shaw’s Classical Music Fan Fiction

Seattle Symphony premieres the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer’s postmodern take on Beethoven.

Composers since the dawn of composing have used existing music as raw material for their own—at once enshrining the older music in a canon while laying claim to their own part in the ongoing tradition. It’s especially been a favored strategy in the past half-century; if the point of modernism was to expand the sonic palette, postmodernism examines the results to see what can be turned to its own purposes.

Very few composers do this as deftly or satisfyingly as Caroline Shaw. Whereas music in postmodernism’s early days sometimes found it difficult to shake a feeling of self-consciousness—quite often you can, so to speak, hear the quotation marks in their borrowings—Shaw makes her every note, no matter the source or influence, sound as freely personal and unstudied as birdsong. For this talent she was rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize in 2013—the youngest Music prizewinner ever and, incidentally, one of a tiny handful of women. Just listen to just the first minute of the winning piece, Partita, which she wrote for the vocal octet Roomful of Teeth (of which she is a member). The raw, almost nasal brilliance suggests American shape-note hymn singing, or perhaps Eastern European folk styles; the opening spray of crackling spoken-word collage reaches beyond music to the performative speech of poetry slams—and also to the similar use of speech in Luciano Berio’s 1968 Sinfonia, a postmodernist landmark which Shaw and Roomful of Teeth have performed and recorded with the Seattle Symphony. (Partita’s four movements are given the titles of traditional 18th-century dances; this first one, “Allemande,” found its way into square-dance terminology, and Shaw embraces that reference too.)

Shaw’s latest, Watermark for piano and orchestra, takes Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto as a source. At the work’s Seattle Symphony world premiere this weekend, the SSO and pianist Jonathan Biss will play the two side by side. Ludovic Morlot will also conduct Shostakovich’s First Symphony. (Shaw’s string-quartet piece Valencia can also be heard this weekend as part of the “Cheating Lying Stealing” concert at Washington Hall on Sunday.)

Seattle Weekly caught up with Shaw over the phone last week to discuss Watermark:

I’ve listened to a bunch of your music, and I wonder how Watermark differs from or is similar to your general approach—your interesting postmodernism, quotation, the idiomatic freedom of your other music?

Yeah, I think that’s a good and fair question, and I asked myself the same question as I was writing it: Why do I keep doing this? I keep coming back to this idea of digging into a past specific piece of music, and letting that be the jumping-off point. I listened to the Third Piano Concerto for a couple of years on and off, to absorb it in a very intuitive way, rather than strict score study.

Are you a pianist? Did you play it?

I’m a violinist, but I don’t think I’ve ever performed the orchestra part. Just trying to figure out how to make the sounds of the act of composing music, I think, is a real part of this piece—what does it sound like to hear a fragment of a theme or a melody and to roll it around in your ears for a while, then to explode it into another section of the piece? There are several sections of this concerto where I start with the texture of the Beethoven concertos, where you have running 16th notes in the strings and the bass line is kind of a particular way, and woodwind chords above… so it’s the same kind of Beethoven texture and different chords.

That reminds me of Beethoven’s sketchbooks—the way he has fragmented ideas that grow before your eyes in notated form. Were you thinking of that?

Definitely. Even the title of the piece, Watermark, is a reference to the field of musicology that studies the watermarks of the manuscript paper for dating. And that was of particular interest for the third concerto, because we don’t exactly know when he wrote it. But yeah, looking at the fragments of a melody and where could they have gone, or how did he get to those, and what’s thrown away, and what becomes something else.

In one interview you made the analogy to “classical-music fan fiction,” which is a fun way to think of it. You have these given characters and situations, and you kind of do your own thing with them.

And I use that description knowing full well the term “fan fiction” is usually not a positive term, but I think it’s a really wonderful community of people who are trying to make something—writing stories out of the stories that they already know and love, which I think is a really positive way of being a creative human.

Of participating in it.

And imagining something different and creating other worlds for a character or a story you love.

So the idea of basing a piece on Beethoven’s Third was your idea?

No, it was Jonathan [Biss]’s idea. It was a perfect match—part of a project where’s he’s commissioned five new piano concertos, each paired with the five Beethovens. This is the fourth one. On purpose, I haven’t listened to the others, just so I can feel like I’ve got my own approach.

Is your piece scored for a Beethoven-size orchestra?

Almost exactly. Except that the second clarinet is a bass clarinet and the second bassoon is a contrabassoon, and instead of timpani it’s just bass drum. I tried to see what I could do with the same tools.

You have a string quartet, Blueprint, that is also based on Beethoven?

That was kind of my practice piece for this concerto. I was using Op. 18 no. 6 and trying to do the same things: absorbing that language and structure and letting them spin out every so often. I wrote that about two years ago, knowing that in two years I’d be doing this piece.

So what was the timeline for this commission?

I think I talked to Jonathan about four years ago. I’ve never had four years to think about a piece—it was pretty amazing! My process is usually there’s a long, long gestation period, figuring out what it can be. Then the actual writing is a pretty fast frenzy.

When did Jonathan get his part?

I think it was mid-November… but then I just finished the cadenzas a couple weeks ago.

How much during the composition did you consult with him? How much actual input did he have?

During composition I keep things really to myself. I got my own input by watching his online course at [Philadelphia’s] Curtis [Institute of Music] about the Beethoven sonatas, and of course listened to his recordings, and there’s a book he’s written. Since giving him the part, we’ve talked a little bit about certain questions and ideas … [I told him] the score is really a template for the dynamics that you would like to do, so the dynamics aren’t particularly prescriptive… it’s a piece that’s hasn’t been done before, so you don’t know exactly where the energy needs to be.

Especially in questions of balance with the orchestra—you have to hear it in the hall, really, before you can finalize that.

We’re not even sure yet at the beginning of the third movement: Should it begin very softly, very quietly? Or kind of right out of the gate bombastically? So there are some of those key energy points that I think we’ll figure out next week.

You could try it different all three performances! Are there aspects of the orchestra parts, too, that are left up to the individual players?

Yes and no—mostly I’ve tried to streamline the rehearsal process; I feel like that’s a lot of the job of the composer, to make that uncomplicated. But there are things I’m going to talk about with the conductor about stylistic choices—if there are running 16th notes, I don’t want them to be played like you would play “new music” coming out of one tradition, but played exactly as you would play the Beethoven. And letting the stylistic tendencies of the 18th or 19th century guide the articulation and phrasing.

Seattle Symphony: Watermark World Premiere and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3

Thurs., Jan. 31 at 7:30 p.m. | Fri., Feb. 1 at noon | Sat., Feb. 2 at 8 p.m. | Benaroya Hall | $22–$122 |