Judith Shatin: Roaming the Universe of Sound

Judith Shatin

This month we got to know Judith Shatin, composer, sound artist, community arts partner, and educator. Her music, called “something magical” by Fanfare, reflects her fascination with the arts, the sounding world, and the communicative power of music. Known for her dramatic acoustic music, she has also created a large body of path-breaking electroacoustic music. We asked her about those intersections of acoustic and electroacoustic music, and more.

In an interview with NewMusicBox a few years ago, you spoke about studying abroad in Jerusalem, and how upon your return, you organized a composition recital rather than a typical piano recital, and how this encouraged you on your path as a composer. Did you waver following that, or were you a composer from that moment on?

Following my return from Jerusalem for my senior year at Douglass College, I studied with the outstanding composer Robert Moevs at Rutgers College. If anything, I became even more enthralled with composition, and this led to my quest to present a senior composition recital, rather than the piano recital that was expected of me. After managing that, I never wavered in my decision to follow this path.

You have a background and are active in computer and electronic music—you’re the founder of the Virginia Center for Computer Music at the University of Virginia. At ECS we know you as a composer of choral and vocal music. Historically these two areas don’t often go together…what do you think about that? What draws you to both?

It’s true that choral music has not traditionally drawn composers who are engaged with digital media. However, I have personally never made any distinction between these domains. I compose for both individually, and love combining them as well. My Beetles, Monsters and Roses, for treble chorus and electronics, commissioned by the San Francisco Girls’ Chorus, was the first electroacoustic piece they performed.

I have composed numerous acoustic choral pieces. Most recent is ‘Tis You, a setting of the beautiful poem Listening by Amy Lowell. Commissioned and premiered by the Voorhees Choir at Douglass College, my alma mater, for their Centennial, it is scored for SSA, string quartet and piano, though there is also a version for SSA and Piano. And this season, Illinois Wesleyan University, directed by Scott Ferguson, has commissioned a piece for unaccompanied SATB chorus in its ongoing choral commissioning series.

Do you have a favorite medium to write for?

I really don’t have a favorite medium—I love roaming around the universe of sound and what I compose just depends on the situation. My most recent piece is Ice Becomes Water, for string orchestra and electronics that I fashioned from field recordings shared by glaciologist Oskar Glowacki. This one was commissioned and just premiered by the terrific San Jose Chamber Orchestra. I chose this topic out of my concern over climate change, and a desire to join help raise awareness about it. While I don’t have a favorite medium, one of my favorite aspects of composing is collaborating with performers, and especially those who have an exploratory approach.

Computers and composition are both fields in which women are minorities. What has your experience been like from that perspective?

There have certainly been challenges being a women composer as well as one active in electronic media. However, I’m a determined person, and have just kept going no matter the headwinds. I have also been an advocate for contemporary composers through my service as President of American Women Composers, former board member of the League/ISCM and American Composers Alliance, and as current board member of the International Alliance for Women in Music and the Atlantic Center for the Arts.

When do you feel most inspired to compose? What’s your compositional process like once you’re inspired?

I don’t have an easy answer to that question. Ideas come both bidden and unbidden. What I can say is that the more involved I am in a project, the more quickly ideas come, and the more inspired I feel.

As to process—it is a blend of conscious and unconscious. I typically start with a clear overall shape and clarity about the structural pillars. However, I am often surprised along the way. I also work through many drafts, and the process is an intricate one. It’s difficult to define one’s style, but I would say that my music is guided by underlying harmonic motion, hidden and interrupted as it sometimes is. Again, this differs considerably from piece to piece.

You’re a very active teacher, both at the University of Virginia and at festivals and conferences. What’s your favorite topic to teach?

Teaching is fascinating in so many ways. I enjoy the exchange of ideas, the liveliness of it all, the ‘aha’ moments that both my students and I often have. And I very much enjoy meeting students in different contexts—I have worked with very advanced students at a variety of festivals and schools, and also with some very young children, especially while involved in a project called Preserving the Rural Soundscape, which ultimately led to my Singing the Blue Ridge, for mezzo, baritone, orchestra, and electronics made from indigenous wild animal calls.

As to favorite topics to teach—composition! But my very favorite is teaching composition as response to a particular area. For instance, one of my seminars was called Parsing the Electroacoustic, and the students read widely about perception of electroacoustic composition, as well as composing pieces in response to these readings and discussions. I also established a choral composition course at the University of Virginia. It seemed to me that this should be taught as a topic in its own right, and that is all too rare.

How do you spend your time when you’re not engaged in musical activities?

My time when not spent on composing has until now been taken up with teaching and the administrative work that goes along with it, though my husband (cognitive psychologist Michael Kubovy) and I always have made time for family and friends. We have also had the good fortune to team-teach ‘Psychology of Music’ and ‘The Mind of the Artist.’

Any exciting projects on the horizon?

I am just now stepping down from my regular teaching position at the University of Virginia to focus more exclusively on composing and other music-making activities. I am looking forward to having the time to devote to some larger projects that have been percolating for a while. First, though, in addition to the choral piece mentioned above, I have just started on a commission for mezzo and piano. My work often goes like this, jumping among  a wide variety of media. In whatever domain, it is always an exciting journey.

Recent choral performances include Songs of War and Peace by the Southampton Choral Society, who performed it on their WWI Commemoration concert. It is a setting of four powerful poems on the topic, and is scored for SATB + piano or chamber orchestra.


See a list of Shatin’s works published by
E. C. Schirmer here.


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