Classically Trained Series

Classically Trained: Caroline Shaw

Pictured: Caroline Shaw. Photo by Kris Connor/Contour by Getty Images

By Marisa Mecke

Discover something new today! This series explores the lives and contributions of classical artists with connections to the Carolinas. Intended as quick “brain breaks” for learners of all ages, these educational features can be divided into sections for daily reading or used as lesson plans for students at home.

   
   

NAME: Caroline Shaw

PROFESSION: Composer, violinist, vocalist, and producer

WEBSITE: carolineshaw.com

Fun Fact:
One section of Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize winning piece, Partita for 8 Voices, is inspired by Caroline’s memory of a view of the Albemarle Sound on the northeastern coast of North Carolina, where her grandmother lives.


   
Musician from Birth

Composer Caroline Shaw was born in Greenville, North Carolina. With her mother as her first teacher, Caroline began studying violin when she was only two years old. Her mother, a Suzuki instructor, instilled a passion for playing in Shaw at a young age, and her father, an avid pianist, also helped cultivate her love of music.

By age ten, Caroline was beginning to gain an interest in chamber music and the nature of playing music in a group. Around this time, she began to write music of her own, most of which was written in the style of chamber music from composers like Mozart and Brahms. Caroline later received her Bachelor of Music in violin performance from Rice University in 2004, followed by a master’s degree in violin from Yale University in 2007. Today, she is an adjunct faculty member at New York University and is a creative associate at The Julliard School.

Video: Attacca Quartet with Caroline Shaw: Lincoln Center Offstage


   
Fame and the Pulitzer Prize

After graduating and moving to New York in 2008, Shaw joined the progressive a cappella ensemble Roomful of Teeth and began composing for them, including a piece entitled Partita for 8 Voices. The composition is experimental, featuring singing and speaking as well as throat singing, yodeling, and perhaps most uniquely, recitations of passages from artist Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings combined with square dancing calls. The eclectic combination of styles and inspirations took two years of work to finish. While enrolled in a PhD program in composition at Princeton University, she submitted Partita for 8 Voices on a whim for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music – and to her surprise, she won.

Video: Partita for 8 Voices by Roomful of Teeth
   
   
Collaborations

At age 30, Caroline was the youngest musician to ever claim the Pulitzer Prize in her section. Her composition and vocal skills gained attention worldwide as she collaborated with Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire and The National after her Pulitzer win.

After performing Partita for 8 Voices with Roomful of Teeth in Los Angeles, Kanye West approached her with an offer. Producers working with Kanye were looking for someone with a classical composition background to introduce a specific, orchestral sound into Kanye’s work, while Caroline’s projects had typically incorporated elements outside of traditional “classical” sounds. In interviews with outlets like NPR and the Guardian, Caroline recalls feeling conflicted about accepting West’s proposition; however, after diving deep into Kanye’s music, particularly the song “Say You Will,” she decided to join the remixing projects.

Video/Audio: Song of Wood by Richard Reed Parry

   
   
Music in Popular Media and Beyond

With Kanye, Caroline co-produced the remix to “Say You Will” from the 2008 album 808’s & Heartbreak. She also sang and played violin in the song, injecting her own orchestral twist into the piece. The collaboration continued as she joined Kanye for his seventh album, The Life of Pablo – her voice is featured in the songs “Father Stretch My Hands Pt 2” and “Wolves” (which also features Frank Ocean). In popular culture, Caroline has appeared on TV shows including Amazon original Mozart in the Jungle (as herself conducting her compositions) and wrote the score for the 2018 film Madeline’s Madeline.

Video: Kanye West – Say You Will ft. Caroline Shaw

Caroline has had the opportunity to use her voice, instrumental talent, and composition skill across a variety of mediums and in collaboration with many other artists; her biography notes that she once “got to sing in three part harmony with Sara Bareilles and Ben Folds at the Kennedy Center, and that was pretty much the bees’ knees and elbows.” With regular university residencies and commissions scheduled for a numerous ensembles, Caroline always has something new on the horizon, combining her classical music background with a style all her own.

   
   

Playlist

   
  1. Plan & Elevation: IV. The Orangery – Attaca Quartet
  2. Is a Rose: No. 1, The Edge (Live) – Attaca Quartet
  3. Wolves – Kanye West, The Life of Pablo [EXPLICIT]
  4. Plan & Elevation: III. The Herbaceous Border – Attaca Quartet
  5. Enr’acte – Attaca Quartet
  6. The Listeners: No. 8, Sail Through This to That (Live) – Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
  7. Pt. 2 – Kanye West, The Life of Pablo [EXPLICIT]
  8. The Listeners: No. 6, That’s Us (Live) – Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
  9. Partita for 8 Singers: No. 1 Allemande – Roomful of Teeth
  10. Partita for 8 Singers: No. 2 Sarabande – Roomful of Teeth
  11. Partita for 8 Singers: No. 3 Courante – Roomful of Teeth
  12. Partita for 8 Singers: No. 4 Passacaglia – Roomful of Teeth
   
   
Additional Resources

Video: Kanye West: Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2

Artist Profile: Caroline Shaw by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

Caroline Shaw Sings Her Own Song (NPR)

Is Caroline Shaw really the future of music? (The Guardian)

Caroline Shaw’s website

The Pulitzer Prizes: Caroline Shaw

Caroline Shaw is Firing on All Creative Cylinders (San Francisco Classical Voice)

Classically Trained: Dan Forrest

By Mary Lathem

Discover something new today! This series explores the lives and contributions of classical artists with connections to the Carolinas. Intended as quick “brain breaks” for learners of all ages, these educational features can be divided into sections for daily reading or used as lesson plans for students at home.


   
Quick Facts
   

NAME: Dan Forrest 

PROFESSION: Composer 

WEBSITE: danforrest.com

Fun Fact
Many of Dan’s best loved works have premiered right here in the Carolinas! Notable examples include his most popular work, Requiem for the Living, which was commissioned for The Hickory Choral Society’s 35th anniversary, and LUX: The Dawn From On High, which was commissioned and premiered by the Greenville Chorale and Symphony. 

   
   
Musical Beginnings

Composer Dan Forrest is known for his expertly-crafted melodies and “superb writing…full of spine-tingling moments,” primarily using sacred texts and themes (Salt Lake Tribune). With dozens of critically-acclaimed pieces for ensembles of all sizes and skill levels under his belt, Dan’s works are beloved by choral musicians and audiences alike – but composition wasn’t his first path as a musician.  

Dan’s formal training as a pianist began at the age of 8, but his interest in music blossomed even earlier. In an interview with music publishing company J.W. Pepper, he remarked: “When I was really little, my mom would play little songs at the piano and teach me to hear the difference between major and minor chords… I became our church pianist when I was in sixth grade, and that gave me a lot of valuable experience while I was still young.”

Dan went on to major in piano at Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC, where his flair for composition truly took off. After studying advanced theory and composition throughout his time at Bob Jones, he remained in South Carolina as a piano teacher and later earned his D.M.A. in composition from the University of Kansas. 

   
   
Interest in Choral Music

Though Dan’s earliest forays into composition were solo works for the piano, he discovered a deeper interest in the human voice while pursuing his Master’s degree: “I was completely infatuated with recordings of choral music, and I heard what choirs could do, musically… it was when I got excited about choirs that I really started composing.” His first published choral piece with Beckenhorst Press, “Sun of My Soul,” came out in 2001 and sparked a lasting relationship: Dan now serves as assistant editor for the publishing company. 

   
   
Notable Projects and Awards

Dan’s best-known work, Requiem for the Living (2013), began as an open-ended commission from The Hickory Choral Society in Hickory, NC, which he described as a “composer’s dream come true.” Tasked with creating a large-scale piece for chorus and orchestra, Dan chose to invert the traditional formula for a Requiem, focusing on “light, peace, and rest” for both the deceased and the living. Subsequent large-scale works include Jubilate Deo (2016) and LUX: The Dawn From On High (2017). One of his shortest choral settings, “Good Night, Dear Heart” (2008), is particularly well known in choral circles and has been published in several iterations since its original SATB arrangement, including a version for mens’ choir and a transcription for wind band. 

Among numerous other awards and accolades, Dan is a two-time John Ness Beck Foundation first-place winner (2004 and 2009), a 2005 winner of the ACDA Raymond Brock Composition award, and a 2006 recipient of the prestigious ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composers Award for selected movements from Words From Paradise. In addition to his composition career, Dan is a regular adjudicator, accompanist, and educator and frequently collaborates with choral ensembles through commissions, presentations, and residencies. 

   
   
Videos
   
Video: Dan Forrest Interview – Requiem for the Living
   
Video: And Can It Be (Dan Forrest) – 2019 BBC Proms
New Irish Chamber Choir and Ulster Orchestra
   
Video: Tulane Choir dedicating “Good Night, Dear Heart”
to those who have lost their fight to Covid-19
   
   
Playlist
       
  1. Good Night, Dear Heart – Seraphic Fire, 2014
  2. Gaelic Morning, arr. Dan Forrest – Illuminations, 2015
  3. Requiem for the Living: V. Lux Aeterna – 2013
  4. Lux: The Dawn from On High: IV. Gloria in Excelsis (Live) – 2017
  5. Jubilate Deo: IV. Ngokujabula! – 2016
  6. The Breath of Life: 2. First Breath Last Breath – 2019
  7. The Sun never says (Voces8) – Enchanted Isle, 2019
   
   
Reading and Additional Resources

Choral Conversations: Dan Forrest (J.W. Pepper)

The Music of Dan Forrest – Composer. Pianist. Educator.

Dan Forrest (Wikipedia)

Classically Trained: Bejun Mehta

Pictured: Bejun Mehta by Marco Borggreve, CC BY 3.0.

by Mary Lathem

Discover something new today! This series explores the lives and contributions of classical artists with connections to the Carolinas. Intended as quick “brain breaks” for learners of all ages, these educational features can be divided into sections for daily reading or used as lesson plans for students at home.

   
   
Quick Facts
   

NAME: Bejun Mehta

PROFESSION: Opera Singer

VOICE TYPE: Countertenor

WEBSITE: bejunmehta.com

What is a countertenor?
“Countertenor” classifies the highest voice type for a male classical singer, achieved by using falsetto. A countertenor’s range is usually similar to a female contralto or mezzo-soprano, but can even be as high as a soprano’s range!

   
   
The Boy Soprano Years

It’s not unusual to go through a career change or two over the course of your life – but can you imagine retiring from your first career at 15? Though he is one of the most celebrated countertenors alive today, Bejun Mehta’s journey from accomplished boy soprano to the opera stage was less of a straight line than you might think. 

Born in Laurinburg, North Carolina in 1968, Bejun quickly attracted attention for his unusually strong, clear soprano voice. By the age of 8, he had established himself as a prodigy, regularly performing as a soloist with major orchestras around the globe – but even as his skill developed, he knew this stage of life wouldn’t last forever. With a voice change quickly approaching, he recorded the 1983 album Bejun at 14, and his boy soprano career halted shortly after. 

   
Video/Audio: Bejun Mehta sings “So shall the lute and harp awake” from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus, Age 14.
       
   
A Time of Transition

In a 1998 interview with the New York Times, Bejun described the end of his boy soprano years as a “double whammy:” ”Not only did you stop being visible and famous, but you lost what it was that you could do. And that was tremendously painful.” Over the next several years, he continued his musical pursuits as a cellist, conductor, and producer, but he could never shake the need to sing. After attempting to train as a baritone (an effort that “just wasn’t working”) and nearly giving up on singing altogether, Bejun experimented with his range one afternoon after reading an article about a countertenor – and something truly magical happened. 

       
   
A Singing Career, Reinvented

Though becoming a countertenor might seem like a logical next step, the mechanics of the boy soprano and countertenor voice are not always compatible – and Bejun wasn’t interested in the “hooty, broken-voiced sound” of many countertenors he knew as a child. In fact, he disliked the idea of being a countertenor so much that he never considered becoming one until the day of his “experiment.” 

Listening with the ears of a music producer, Bejun was surprised to discover that he liked the quality of his higher register – and after a fateful audition just one month later, opera legend Marilyn Horne connected him with a manager. Less than a year after discovering his countertenor voice, Bejun made his New York City Opera debut as Armindo in Handel’s “Partinope.” 

   
   
Notable Projects

Since his first operatic role in 1998, Bejun has gained a reputation as one of the finest countertenors of a generation. Described by Opera News as “perhaps the most sophisticated and musically satisfying of today’s countertenors,” Bejun regularly performs repertoire ranging from Baroque to contemporary music in addition to his thriving opera career. 

Among dozens of other notable projects, Bejun’s 2011 solo CD Ombra Cara, a collection of Handel arias, won the ECHO Klassik for Best Operatic Recording of the Year. Bejun has recorded extensively after his 1983 debut record; his most recent album, CANTATA – yet can I hear…, was released in 2018 and received the Diapason d’Or distinction. In 2012 and 2013, Bejun appeared in both premiere casts of George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin; the role of the Boy was created specifically for him. A new recording of Handel’s Orlando with Bejun in the title role was released in 2014, and in the same year, ArtHaus released a complete, staged film recording of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with Bejun as star and artistic advisor. 

Gluck – Orfeo ed Euridice (Vienna version, 1762) featuring Bejun Mehta.
   
   
Resources & More
   
Fun Facts
   
Leonard Bernstein By Jack Mitchell, CC BY-SA 4.0.

As a longtime supporter of Bejun’s boy soprano career, Leonard Bernstein once remarked, “It is hard to believe the richness and maturity of musical understanding in this adolescent boy.”

       
2020 Grammy logo. Credit: Courtesy of the Recording Academy™/Getty Images © 2019

Bejun won a GRAMMY award for his production work on Janos Starker’s 1997 recording of Bach’s Cello Suites. 

               
Videos
“Fammi combattere” – Handel’s Orlando, 2010.
       
“Up the dreadful step ascending” – Handel’s Jephtha, 2016.
               
Playlist
   
  1. Semele, “Where’er you walk,” Bejun (1987)
  2. Bach Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, I. Prelude – Janos Starker (1997)
  3. Giulio Cesare in Egitto, “L’empio, Sleale, Indegno” (2003)
  4. Handel: Ombra cara “Aria Voi, che udito il mio lamento” (2010)
  5. Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Bright is the Ring of Words,” Down By the Salley Gardens (2011) 
  6. George Benjamin, Written on Skin, “Part One, Scene IV: Agnes and the Boy I” (2012)
  7. Jose de Nebra, “Vendado amor es, no ciego” El Maestro Farinelli (2014)
  8. Handel Orlando: Act I, 15. Aria “Fammi combattere” (2014)
  9. Handel, “I Will Magnify Thee,” Cantata (2018)
       
Sources and Further Reading

Bejun Mehta’s website

Career Reborn, on a High Note (New York Times, 1998)

A New Voice, Fully Formed (Los Angeles Times, 1999)

CANTATA – Yet Can I Hear… (Opera News)

Bejun Mehta (Wikipedia)