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Shakespeare & Beyond

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!