Hearing island voices: Roomful of Teeth’s Caroline Shaw talks Shakespeare and ‘The Tempest’

Caroline ShawIn this special anniversary year for Shakespeare, the Folger has commissioned Caroline Shaw to compose a new vocal piece inspired by The Tempest.

Shaw, who has toured with Kanye West and is the youngest person to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, belongs to Roomful of Teeth, which received the Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance in 2014 and was nominated again in 2016. The vocal ensemble also appeared on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert in 2014 (see the video below).

Shaw captures the sounds of Prospero and Caliban’s island in The Tempest in this new vocal piece, which Roomful of Teeth will premiere at the Folger on Nov. 20. In advance of the performance, we asked Shaw some questions about Shakespeare and her music.

This is a musical celebration of Shakespeare. Can you tell us about your first encounter with Shakespeare’s work?

My first encounter with Shakespeare’s work was when I was 11, seeing The Merchant of Venice in London while on a trip with other violinists from my hometown. It was another world and language for me then! But coming to each play feels like an entirely new encounter, and one of my strongest memories of a “first time” was of seeing King Lear, and being so moved by Cordelia’s initial lines. Kevin Spacey’s Richard III at BAM back in 2012 was also something to behold.

Can you tell us a little about what you’re drawn to in The Tempest? Do you have a favorite scene or a favorite passage in the play?

When I first began speaking with [Folger Director] Mike Witmore about this piece, nearly two years ago, we both felt a strong affinity to the language and the musical qualities of The Tempest. In his fascinating book, Shakespearean Metaphysics, he points to the potential role of music on the island, and this mysterious relationship between music and language. Of course, I love Prospero’s final soliloquy — the brilliant rhythm of it, the details of its consonance, and his wish to drown his book of spells and words into the sea. As a musician, I had fun taking this as my cue to summon swells of music to swallow up the text in a swirl of voices!

This new work captures the sound of Prospero and Caliban’s island using human voices. Prospero and Caliban are very much at odds in the play, and their relationship to the island is different. Are there aspects of this relationship that you see expressed in the music or that you thought about while you were composing?

Yes, there is very much a play between control and freedom, between strict order and loose improvisation. There are moments of fiercely aggressive music but also long stretches of tenderness to evoke Shakespeare’s direction to include “strange and solemn music”. I was especially interested in the permeable borders between the speaking voice and singing voice, and the way we morph between these sounds. What would the island have sounded like? What residue of consonants and vowels and harmony would one be able to hear?

Are there any other Shakespeare-inspired musical pieces that you particularly enjoy or admire?

I’ve always loved Mendelssohn’s mercurial music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Prokofiev’s smart, turgid take on Romeo and Juliet. Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also a favorite. And my colleague in Roomful of Teeth, tenor Eric Dudley, has written a beautiful setting of a fragment of Hamlet’s soliloquy, which we will also be performing on Nov. 20.

If you were to compose another vocal piece inspired by another Shakespeare play, which play would you be interested in exploring?

Well, I could keep digging into The Tempest for a lifetime! So many delicious corners and surfaces to explore there. But I think I’ve got some searing, devastating things in mind for King Lear if the opportunity ever came up. Those characters absolutely destroy me…

Watch Caroline Shaw and Roomful of Teeth in this NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert from 2014: