Introductions: Carrie Shaw, Voice

Newly appointed voice faculty Carrie Shaw (Ben Marcum Photo)

Soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw is soon to begin a new appointment at the University of Washington, adding a base in Seattle to her artistic communities in Chicago and St. Paul/Minneapolis. Her appointment as artist-in-residence in the Voice program begins in Autumn 2020, but she is already anticipating possibilities for creative collaborations and work with the students she will meet come fall. The Chicago Tribune has deemed Shaw a “cool, precise soprano,” but her creative acumen is much broader than her work as a vocalist. Considering her interests in new and experimental music and involvement with early music, she is uniquely suited to collaborations with composers and artists on the faculty of both the School of Music and UW Digital Arts and Experimental Media. Creator and performer of various live-music-for-dance projects, including a dance opera, Test Pilot, about the Wright Brothers, and Rib Cage, commissioned for James Sewell Ballet, she also performs as a member of Chicago’s esteemed chamber ensemble Dal Niente and serves as co-director of the Outpost New Music series in Minneapolis, among other projects. 

This interview was conducted via email correspondence between Carrie Shaw and School of Music publicist Joanne DePue.

Q: All of us at the School of Music are teaching, learning, and working remotely this quarter and adapting to the unique challenges posed by the pandemic. Aside from the drastic impacts on the performing arts and higher ed in general—some of which will only become apparent over time—how has the crisis impacted your teaching and performance activities?

I’ve spent quarantine at home in Saint Paul, holed up with my husband (also working from home) and our dog and cat. Like most musicians, COVID wiped my spring clean—tours, concerts, recording sessions—not  to mention my usual way of teaching voice. After 15 years of being on the road for roughly two weeks per month, it’s been strange not to have touched my carry-on bag for two-plus months, but I’m not hating the fact that I haven’t been stuck on an airplane in a very long time.  

I spent the first two weeks of the stay-at-home order so full of undirected energy that I finished two knitting projects, an online course on electronic music and a calligraphy course, started working on a stack of a cappella vocal pieces that I’ve been waiting to learn for ages, recorded two performance videos for colleagues, and re-read a couple of dense voice technique books.

It is particularly difficult to feel entirely at home teaching my applied students. Sometimes all a student needs is for me to walk to a different corner of the studio where I’m looking at their posture in profile, and voilá, they adjust themselves. Not only can I not control the view, but try singing a high note over Zoom some time and see what happens. I simply have to give them clear instructions and hope that they’re doing what I said, because even the best consumer livestream audio and video simply isn’t at the level it needs to be for me to assess them the way I would like.

That said, I’m always looking for a silver lining. This experience has pushed me to create better backup plans, to teach students skills that allow them to work independently, to write out shareable lesson plans, so they have guidance for self-teaching when the Wifi is on the fritz or they simply need a way to focus their practice time. I’ve also discovered services that I never would have bothered to investigate, such as videoconferencing that allows me to play something into a keyboard and have it played through the student’s computer without latency problems. I might never have bothered to investigate this option without the necessity of longterm online teaching!

Q: You already are part of vibrant artistic communities in Chicago and the St. Paul/Minneapolis area. What attracted you to the idea of joining the UW School of Music faculty and making a move to Seattle, Washington?

Great question—because it’s true: Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul are incredible cities in which to be an artist. Ten years ago, as my career was taking shape, I was wracked with uncertainty about where I should live —Chicago or Minnesota—until one day I realized I didn’t have to choose. I just needed to decide I wanted to make art in both these places and get down to it. That doesn’t mean it’s been easy, and I needed lots of coffee and a flexible schedule to make those seven-hour drives, but what has made my work "go" is to identify my passions and find artists and audiences who share those passions. Flights have gotten cheaper, and the distance has become smaller too as connection via social media has become ubiquitous.

I’ve been in and out of Seattle as a musician for years, and there’s just something about the creative community here that makes me feel at home. I grew up in rural Kentucky and wasn’t exposed at an early age to the classical pantheon and the traditional culture of classical music, so I’ve always gravitated towards cultures of innovation and resistance to limiting traditions. Seattle feels like one of those places, and I’m excited to find out where connecting my past, present, and future colleagues leads!

I always knew I wanted to teach. My maternal great-great-grandmother was a midwife in Oklahoma. My great- grandmother lost her husband in her 50s and went back to school to become a school teacher, in order to support herself. My grandmother was also a teacher. My father died in his mid-30s, and my mother subsequently went to school in order to support us. So I took for granted that women were in the workplace and had families, but I’m the oldest grandchild on both sides of a large family, so I feel like I’ve been either teaching or listening to teachers my whole life. That said, it’s been equally important to me to live and work in a community that strongly supports creativity and performance. The University of Washington is essentially a dream job, because the School of Music puts incredible momentum behind its faculty in supporting them to shape a department with a pioneering spirit, and having met many of the faculty already, I feel confident I’ll have many supportive and incredibly insightful sounding boards with whom to pursue creative exploration.

Q: Will you continue to be involved in projects in Chicago and the Twin Cities once you begin your new appointment at UW?

Yes, I plan on continuing to perform regularly with Ensemble Dal Niente and Quince, to serve on various boards, and to play a role in the new music series I started, Outpost, as well as to produce occasional shows in the Twin Cities. No doubt, I’ll have to be choosier than I have been about freelance work that I get offered in the Midwest. It’ll be tough, because I’m a sucker for my friends’ projects!

Q: Many artists who are passionate about new music seemed to have had a specific turning point or defining moment that lit a spark in terms of their attraction or interest. Can you speak about the evolution of your involvement with new and experimental music and what inspired your love of music others may find challenging or incomprehensible? 

When I was in high school, my family lived in Louisville, Kentucky, and I had the chance to join a regional youth choir. I had a strong ear, so I was admitted to the chamber choir, a 12-voice subset of the main choir, which performed advanced repertoire, including 20th-century music. I specifically remember a gnarly Hindemith choral piece that, to this day, pops into my head at least once a month. It was tough, but the challenge didn’t frustrate me. It was a fun puzzle, and when we put it together, it didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard before.

When I think back on it, the joy of camaraderiepersistence in the face of challengecertainly had a big positive influence on the way I experienced that music. But I think fundamentally I was attracted to enigmatic things (Twin Peaks, James Joyce) and enjoyed art that revealed itself to me slowly and perhaps never revealed itself entirely, but engaged with me vividly nonetheless.

If I had to describe my involvement with new and experimental music now, not much has changed. Enigmatic experiences, I believe, draw listeners away from the patterns that take over our thinking and lull us into numbness. I only feel more adamantly now about challenging the inertia of believing that you’ve seen or learned everything that could ever be of use to youculture as a race with an endpoint rather than as a hike across a landscape whose end you’ll never see.

Q: Early music seems also to be a specific focus for you. I’ve noticed that musicians who are interested in new music often have a concurrent interest in early music. What are some of the areas of overlap in these two genres separated by centuries that appeal to composers and musicians who are excited by experimentation?

Yes, I fell hard for early music in high school, before I knew what ‘early music’ was. At age 16, Vivaldi was the most psychedelic thing I’d ever heard. It rocked my world. My voicewhich is light, bright, and flexiblealways clicked with early music, so it was very satisfying to perform. When I started studying at the college level, I had a real intuitive connection to the expressive intent of Baroque harmony, and later when I discovered Baroque improvisation styles, that sealed it. I was hooked. 

The athletic part of music undeniably plays a role in drawing certain musicians to early and new music. Much early and new music for the voice prioritizes clarity over color for a variety of reasons. It would be too simplistic to say that all new or Baroque music is defined by this leaning, but a large number of composers since 1920 seem to prefer a voice with less vibrato, laser-sharp pitch accuracy, a sense of effortlessness in the face of acrobatic aural tasksin other words, a sound that’s distinct from the traditional Classical/Romantic operatic aesthetic. I’d have been happy if I had been born with a voice for Verdi too, but when there’s so much amazing music in the pre-Mozart and post-Strauss world, I’ve never felt like I’m missing out. 

Q: The works you’ve created encompass work as a composer, dancer, musician—how did you come to incorporate these various aspects into your creative practice? Will you be involving your students at the UW in projects of this sort?

I did not set out to become an interdisciplinary artist. Honestly, I was trying very hard to prepare myself the traditional way: learn to sing, take auditions, get hired to sing. What happened was somebody asked me early in my career to do something unusual, and I said Yes. I can’t remember what the first thing was. Maybe it was singing something difficult in a student composition recital. Or maybe it was being asked to dance in slow motion for 30 minutes in an opera production. And then I became the girl who would say Yes. I was willing to dance (or try). I was willing to go into a de-commissioned coal mine and be hooked up to electrodes and sing. I always believed something cool could come out of something unexpected and that nothing cool would come from staying home. Because of that, I’ve rarely needed to do the traditional route. There are more than enough opportunities for a person to be a busy creative worker as long as you educate yourself in ways that make you versatile. I can’t wait to see how I can bring students into this process!

Q: What might your students expect in their one-on-one lessons with you and/or their master class/workshop time?  

My one-on-one students can expect a lot of kinesthetic awareness work: observe very small movements in their own bodies and in the bodies of top-level singers; observe how physical bodies and music mutually influence the viewers’/listeners’ perceptions; observe how their bodies either work for them or against them when they perform. Also I’ll encourage students to cultivate their natural inclinations while enriching themselves with new (maybe unfamiliar and difficult) skills. We’ll cover a lot of ground stylistically and also work on learning to articulate oneself well about one’s work to any sort of audience, professional or casual.

More than ever before, my students can expect to be asked to record themselves and assess what they hear and see, as well to develop tastes about the recordings they see and hear on the internet. It can be terribly painful and personally difficult to learn this skill, but it’s a band-aid that eventually has to come off. Especially with the unknown extent of the potential interruption of live music performances, one can’t sit back and wait for ‘normal’; we’ve got to keep creating. Furthermore, building up one’s ability to adapt to new modalities can be nothing but an asset.

Q: What excites you about your impending move to Seattle?

Packing all my stuff and driving for two days? Haha, just kidding. This may seem silly, but I’m excited to experience winter in Seattle after 20 years in the tundra. Is it true I can be outside in January?

Carrie Shaw’s faculty appointment with the UW School of Music begins in September 2020.