Can Classical Music Make a Comeback?

Caroline Shaw is often cited as proof that the genre has an exciting future.

illustration of Caroline Shaw with violin
Lauren Tamaki

This article was published online on February 13, 2021.

A few months before the coronavirus pandemic made even the smallest gatherings seem quaint, the composer Caroline Shaw asked her audience at the Kings Place concert hall, in London, to hum in B-flat while she sang from the stage, accompanied by the strings of Attacca Quartet. This was not a typical classical concert. For much of it, Shaw sat atop a barstool, either singing or introducing her works to the audience. After the intermission, she joined the quartet as second viola for a more conventional performance of a well-loved classic, Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 2.

The audience skewed younger than one might expect. Shaw, who lives in New York City, is often cited as proof that classical music has an exciting future. In 2013, at the age of 30, she became the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, for Partita for 8 Voices. The citation for the winning composition described it as “a highly polished and inventive a cappella work” including “speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects.” Since then, Shaw’s music has been performed at the Hollywood Bowl and Lincoln Center, and used for a Beyoncé tour video. She has collaborated with hip-hop giants such as Kanye West and Nas, and received a 2020 Grammy nomination for Orange, an album of her music recorded by Attacca Quartet. She released her latest album, Narrow Sea, in January.

Shaw is a little younger than the average classical listener (who is 45, according to a survey of listeners across eight countries). She was born in 1982, in Greenville, North Carolina. Her mother, a singer and violin teacher, was her first mentor, introducing Shaw to her instrument at the age of 2. “I started on a 64th-size violin,” she recalls. Shaw fell in love with classical music—singing in a church choir and watching Amadeus over and over. She had a Lisa Loeb tape and a passing acquaintance with 4 Non Blondes, but by middle school, classical music was key to her identity.

At 14, Shaw attended the music camp Kinhaven, in Vermont. The experience was a revelation. “That’s when I figured out there are other kids in the world doing this and they are better than I am, and they know more things,” she told me. “Someone would put on a recording of the Ravel String Quartet and talk about it like their mind was going crazy. I’d never heard this piece before, and I was just interested in why they were interested in it.”

Of course, Shaw and her Kinhaven peers were the exception. As recently as the mid-20th century, classical music was a mainstream genre in the United States; today, it’s a niche preference. (By 2019, the genre accounted for only 1 percent of all music consumption in the country, according to Nielsen’s end-of-year report.)

Throughout the ’90s and into the 2000s, the major labels were casting about for ways to introduce classical music to new audiences. They had some reason for optimism: When the Three Tenors, a trio of well-known opera singers, performed the aria “Nessun Dorma,” from Puccini’s Turandot, at the 1990 soccer World Cup, an estimated 800 million viewers around the world tuned in. Whole pieces were filleted for their signature tunes and used for advertising or movie soundtracks, and photogenic musicians such as Nigel Kennedy, Joshua Bell, and Vanessa-Mae were marketed as unbuttoning the sometimes stuffy genre.

But if these tactics were designed to turn masses of young people into fans of classical music, they didn’t exactly work. Lately, though, classical composers like Shaw have been reaching younger listeners through the unlikely means of modern pop. And a new generation of ambitious artists, Shaw among them, has helped break down the formerly rigid boundaries between genres.

After graduating from Rice and then Yale, where she studied performance, Shaw began composing in earnest. “I wanted to take the music I was playing, that I didn’t really like very much,” she told me, “and ask, ‘What would I do differently?’ ” In the summer of 2008, during the financial crisis, she moved to New York. “It was really scary, because I didn’t know how to make enough money to pay all of my bills,” Shaw said. She worked with the choir at Trinity Church Wall Street, and picked up jobs as an accompanist for ballet classes at various dance academies in New York.

Around this time, a new indie spirit had started to emerge among classical musicians. Early in 2009, Shaw’s friend Caleb Burhans, a composer, recommended her for a new a cappella ensemble named Roomful of Teeth. The band’s commitment to exploring vocal techniques from around the world, incorporating different folk and classical traditions, intrigued her. After being accepted, she decided to join. She hadn’t told her friends that she composed her own music, but she wrote “Passacaglia,” now the last movement of Partita, for her new group in order to experiment with yodeling. “They loved it,” she said, “and the audience really loved it.”

Still, her worries about the future persisted. She considered applying to journalism programs or to law school, wrapping her LSAT study guide (which she still has) in packing tape, out of a fear of broadcasting her intentions at a time when she was still performing around the city.

Instead, she began a doctoral program in composition at Princeton. While studying there, she finished the remaining movements of Partita, which she submitted for the 2013 Pulitzer—in what she describes as a “bold-ass move” designed to draw the attention of the prize committee to Roomful of Teeth, which was then struggling to book shows. One bright April afternoon, having time to kill before a rehearsal in Brooklyn, Shaw wandered a Lower Manhattan park overlooking the Hudson. She took a call from Jeremy Faust, the board president of Roomful of Teeth, who told her the news.

It was almost too much to process. “I remember thinking that day when it happened, This is not something I can celebrate or cherish; I have to go to rehearsal.” Her friends “were proud of me but also shocked and didn’t really know what to make of the news,” she said, describing “a fear of resentment” that haunted her for months.

Sustaining a professional career as a composer was almost as great a weight on her. Shaw told me about “the pressure of not knowing if I could write music on assignment or commission.” Having submitted Partita to raise the profile of her ensemble, she was suddenly in demand as a composer. Concert programmers wanted to hear more of her work, yet she didn’t have much to offer them. “But I loved music,” she recalled. “I said to myself, You’re not going to get through this if you don’t have the confidence, so I just dove into it and started writing.”

The composer Jennifer Higdon, who won the Pulitzer in 2010 for her Violin Concerto, invited Shaw to Philadelphia to talk, a gesture Shaw appreciated. Since then, Shaw has found herself bearing the responsibilities of mentorship too. “I visit schools, and one of the things a lot of young composers ask me is, ‘How do you win a Pulitzer Prize?’ No! This is not what it’s about, kids! It should be about making the sound and organizing things and working really hard.” Since her win, Shaw has also cultivated close ties with small, grassroots ensembles such as the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, for which she has written several pieces, and the North Carolina Symphony.

These relationships with local groups represent a departure from how classical music has traditionally been presented to the public. In 2018, Alex Ross of The New Yorker reflected on the centenary celebrations for Leonard Bernstein, perhaps the greatest public advocate that classical music has ever had. Ross suggested that the role of heroic communicator could never be re-created, “not because talent is lacking but because the culture that fostered him is gone.”

That culture centered on the remote and glamorous figures of maestros and divas. But Bernstein, who understood how classical music could be integrated into the postwar cultural landscape of movies, records, and TV, might have admired—and envied—Shaw’s collaboration with some of the most innovative musicians in pop.

After a performance of Partita by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2015, Kanye West went backstage and introduced himself to Shaw. Soon after, West and his team contacted her about arranging music from his album 808s & Heartbreak for a concert. “I actually didn’t get back to them for a couple of weeks,” Shaw said. “I was sort of depressed, and I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. I didn’t want to be the crossover thing. I want[ed] to make something new, something different.”

Eventually, she did. Instead of creating a straightforward orchestration, Shaw took her favorite track from the album, “Say You Will,” and improvised a delicate, wordless vocal line to flutter around West’s verses. He “wrote back immediately the next morning and literally said, ‘This is going to be the greatest collaboration of all time.’ ”

Shaw talks fondly about West’s creative process. “What I love is that they’ll give me a raw song, where it’s pretty improvised and there’s maybe a beat going through, and he’s loosely improvising over it, just riffing, and then he hears possibility.” When the two met, Kanye was working on a video game that depicted his late mother’s winged ascent to heaven. Shaw later supplied music for the game’s trailer, which was screened at the Life of Pablo launch party in 2016. She also worked with West on that album, and on ye (2018), even performing with him on the Pablo tour. “I’d never been to an arena show, and there I was in front of 20,000 people,” she said.

The collaborations with West were at times disorienting, but Shaw maintained her creative independence. “I think he enjoys just having a lot of different voices in the room, and I never take any direction. I think that’s what he likes about me.” In 2018, after working on ye in Wyoming, Shaw contacted West’s assistants to see the lyrics before production. “I’m not going to be part of something that says something that I don’t believe in,” she said.

In recent years, Shaw has pursued numerous other pop-culture collaborations. She did vocals for the score of the film Bombshell, working with the celebrated movie composer Theodore Shapiro. For the Amazon TV show Mozart in the Jungle, she wrote a small piece and even appeared as a fictional version of herself.

But for all these moves into the mainstream, Shaw doesn’t saddle herself with the expectation that her work might reverse the decline in classical music’s fortunes. The trend is too well established. What’s changed since Shaw’s childhood is that today, classical music is alternative. It’s a place where casual listeners go for contemplation, but also a place for pop musicians to look for innovative and unusual sounds.

And now there are more ways than ever to encounter classical music. It’s possible that the young people I saw at the Kings Place concert were drawn to Shaw’s music by hearing it on streaming services and social media, or on the soundtrack of the indie movie Madeline’s Madeline, or through her collaborations with West. Shaw’s career may be an exception, but if classical music is to endure, it could begin by embracing its improbable new status as a subculture.

This article appears in the March 2021 print edition with the headline “Caroline Shaw Is Making Classical Cool.”