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Caroline Shaw Sings Her Own Song

When Caroline Shaw, at age 30, won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2013 she told NPR that she considered herself a musician first. Composing, she seemed to imply, was just something she did.

Modesty, it turns out, will get you everywhere. Shaw has proven herself a compelling composer, violinist and vocalist, performing her own pieces, such as the beautiful violin concerto titled Lo, or contributing vocal tracks to Kanye Westsongs or even stepping into the Amazon television series Mozart in the Jungle for a cameo as herself.

It's Shaw the singer and composer who shines in this video, directed by Lew Baldwin with an austere, Richard Avedon-like aesthetic. It documents the first performance of Shaw performing her own song "And So," part of a three-song trilogy she wrote for mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

In a reduced, but radiant, arrangement, Shaw is backed by the Attacca Quartet, which plays without vibrato and finds vast coloration in the composer's evocative approach to pizzicato – marking moments like the ticking of interlocking clocks. Shaw's voice, at turns ferocious and tender, emits a purity of purpose.

The lyrics, Shaw says, are a combination of her own, interwoven with those of Gertrude Stein, Robert Burns and Billy Joel. Odd bedfellows they may be, but the admixture, rich in wide open, accentuated vowels, sparkles with a kind of metaphysical whimsy. Love and the lives of lovers are defined, literally, in poetic terms. One verse reads:

Would scansion cease
to mark the beats
if I went away?
Would a syllable interrupt the feet of tetrametric iambs when I am gone?
Listen and I will sing a tune of love and life and of the ocean's prose and the poetry of a red, red rose
that's nearly sprung in June

And so it goes for Caroline Shaw. The modest North Carolinian, since her Pulitzer win, continues to create arresting music.

Caroline Shaw and the Attacca Quartet perform at Lincoln Center's White Light Festival, Nov. 14.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.