For 40 years, Judith Shatin has combined computers and instruments to make riveting music

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Music computer hasn’t always been this easy. Just ask Judith Shatin. 

Forty years ago, you might have found her, a Ph.D. student in composition at Princeton University, slithering under the cover of night into the Engineering department with a stack of primitive punch cards, feeding them through a digital convertor, and then making her way into the underground bunker that housed a hulking IBM360. She would stick her cards in the computer and it would issue a hubbub—buzz, clack, zip, thwap…and if you made a typo when making your punch card, she says, “Your whole job would blow up.” 
 

Shatin’s most pressing deadline is for a piece, to premiere at the National Gallery of Art in March, called “Sic Transit,” for solo percussion and percussive robots. The robots were designed by a trio of Ph.D. students who founded a company called EMMI—Expressive Machines Musical Instruments.

The new world of computer music was exciting, but the actualities were nearly impossible. Since Shatin joined the UVA faculty in 1979, computer technology has revolutionized everyday life, and along with it, what it means to compose music. By the late 1980s, MIDI—which allows computers and synthesizers to communicate—was about to make computer music technologies widely available. So Shatin, ever the self-starter, parked herself in a couple of music stores to research the possibilities, and wrote a grant proposal to UVA. She won it, and in the 1987-1988 academic year Shatin started the Virginia Center for Computer Music with a couple of Macs and synthesizers. 

 
In her own work, and by founding the VCCM, Shatin has coursed along a wave of technology from the early part of her career, when she was among the first round of women admitted to graduate programs in composition, through now, when widely accessible technologies have blown the lid off the old definitions of who can compose. Now, for example, an undergraduate TechnoSonics class—taught by Shatin’s colleague Matthew Burtner, inventor of the metasaxophone—boasts a regular roster of 240 students. Shatin also helped guide the state’s first Ph.D. program in composition to completion.
 
“We try not to privilege either traditional instrumental composition or composition for new technologies, but try to foster involvement with both,” says Shatin’s UVA music department colleague and composer Ted Coffey. Coffey, for example, is working on a piece for parabolic speakers on remote controlled boats and a string quartet. “Judith established that value.”
Today, the VCCM is located in Old Cabell Hall. When I visited recently, the shades were drawn, and two undergraduate composition students were bent over two of about a dozen gleaming iMacs. A vintage Arp synthesizer sits in the corner of the room. Answering painstaking getting-to-know-you questions, Shatin says her favorite composers include Mario Lavista, a little-known Mexican composer of incredible chamber and incidental music.
As the list went on—György Ligeti, Brahms, and Mahler—one of Shatin’s undergraduate students reached for his backpack and knocked a headphone from its jack. A drone filled the room. He looked at us sheepishly.

Earworms

The German poet Friedrich Schiller needed a bowl of rotting apples nearby to work. Shatin, who is 61, needs peace, quiet and a strong cup of coffee. When I went to visit her in her home studio, she sat in a rolling chair cradled in the U of a wraparound desk. Outboard effects were stacked and blinking next to a computer.  

Beyond the desk, a grand piano shone beside a pair of hand drums. The strangest objects of all were a team of (what Shatin would soon explain to be) small white robots fastened to the tops of microphone stands. It was as if six Imperial Walkers had been decapitated, their heads shrunken and put on savage display. 

The little heads are computer-activated percussion instruments that Shatin will incorporate into an upcoming piece, “Sic Transit.” She describes it as a “kind of partnership for a robot percussion and live percussionist,” and for which the deadline is fast approaching. (It will be performed at the National Gallery of Art on March 16 and 17, as part of an anniversary celebration there.) The robots were designed by a team of Shatin’s Ph.D. students, Steven Kemper, Scott Barton and Troy Rogers. The trio founded a company called EMMI—or, Expressive Machines Musical Instruments—that has produced robots that perform autonomously.

“I feel so lucky to get to compose, that I just sit down and start. If I have a pressing deadline,” as she does now, “then anything goes, in terms of hours. The more intensely I’m working on a piece, the more I think about it when I’m not actually sitting and composing, says Shatin. “Sometimes it’s really annoying. It gets to be like an earworm.” 

Right now, “Sic Transit” is an earworm, and that means no work is to be done on other commissioned pieces. She can’t touch the piece for all-female vocal group Scottish Voices, from Glasgow. Nor for the Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players. To say nothing of another piece, commissioned for the Cassatt Quartet, for which Shatin has been recording people reciting the First Amendment and processing their words with a battery of computer techniques.

A career-spanning collection of Shatin’s music, performed by the Borup-Ersnt Duo, helped nominate its producer for Classical Producer of the Year at the Grammys. Shatin says that hours go by when she is experimenting with the virtually infinite possibilities of computer music. “Some people think that if you’re working with electronic media, you can whip it off faster. For me, it’s much slower.”

Coffey calls Shatin’s compositional style “tape plus.” In short, it means that live electronics are performed with live instrumentation. Perhaps no piece captures her work better than “Penelope’s Song.” [To listen to it, click here.] The work was recently released on a disc of her music, performed by the Borup-Ernst Duo, called Tower of the Eight Winds. The recording helped nominate Blanton Alspaugh for a Grammy for Classical Producer of the Year.

“Penelope’s Song,” a piece named for Ulysses’ wife, who tells her many suitors—most wanting to assume Ulysses’ crown—she won’t take another king until she’s done weaving a shroud. Of course, she unravels each night. Beneath Borup’s vivid playing, the rhythmic looping of a weaver’s loom—Shatin captured the sounds of local weaver Jan Russell working—refracts into sharp hisses and windy howls. Emotion and intensity ebb and flow. Hearing the piece, we can almost see Penelope spinning the shroud and slowly unraveling it.

Tim Summers, who co-directs the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival, explained the piece this way in a program note: “It falls to the live violin to loosen the time, to bend the narrative into habitable lyricism, and to spin pattern into fantasy.” Summers also notes that the punch cards used in looms are early ancestors of the punch cards Shatin used in early experiments with computer music.

Like Shatin, “Penelope’s Song” is a feminist spin on a classic tale, told in the digital age. The rest of Tower of the Eight Winds, a career spanning retrospective, reflects the same compositional rigor and emotional intensity that keeps her commissions coming.

Moving blithely ahead

 

After the Second World War, new music technologies like phonographs and tape machines became widely available, making it possible to conceal a sound’s origin. At once, you could hear an orchestra without seeing it. Pierre Schaffer, the French composer at the front of the musique concrete, called the technologies “acousmatic,” and applied them in compositions that undermined the “musical” tradition that prized basic elements like rhythm and melody. The line between sound and music blurred.

Shatin was born when Schaffer’s experiments were first achieving notoriety. She was born the second of four sisters, to a clinical psychologist father and a mother with a Ph.D. in Medical Bacteriology, to whom Shatin would later dedicate her “Singing the Blue Ridge,” scored for mezzo, baritone, orchestra and indigenous wild animal sounds.

In his work, Shatin’s father explored the intersection of music and psychology, curating a series of records called Affect Your Emotions Through Music. (Copies today fetch upwards of $60 on boutique vinyl websites.) “That was an interesting project that was maybe a little before its time, but he was aware that music has a powerful affect on mood.”

Some of the musicians he worked with told Shatin that since he had daughters, he should get a piano. So dad “got this old upright, and I gravitated to it,” she says. “This was back in the day when public schools had really wonderful music programs, and we were taught to read music in school. I learned to read music when I was about 5.”

Shatin loved the piano as soon as she was exposed to it, but the flame of her early interest in the instrument was stoked by sibling rivalry. “One of my sisters and I used to race down to see who could get to the piano first.” Judith won the race; her sister became a medical researcher.

Meanwhile, by the early 1960s composers and scientists began to explore the possibilities of using computers to create music. Those pioneers including Milton Babbitt, who died in January, created perplexing works that pushed computers—and his listeners’ sonic palates—to their outer limits. (Babbitt is well-known for publishing an article in High Fidelity magazine that ran as “Who Cares if You Listen?”)

Forgoing the one-track musical education of a conservatory, Shatin enrolled as an undergraduate at Douglass College, the all-women’s college of Rutgers University. There, her early interest in composing finally morphed into the serious thought that she might be able to do it for a living. “When I was an undergraduate I was the first person in the history of the school who decided that I wanted to do a composition senior recital instead of an instrumental recital,” she says. “I was told that if I organized it, found the players, put it together, I could do it, so I did. That was a sort of defining moment.” 

Happily, she says, she didn’t have a clear idea of what it would mean to be a composer in America. “I went blithely ahead,” first to Juilliard, and then Princeton. Shatin studied under Babbitt at Princeton, where she earned a Ph.D. in composition, and cites him as an important teacher: She has said that Babbit taught her to “think more deeply, in, about and beyond music.” Her other teachers included J.K. Randall, Paul Lansky, Jacob Druckman, Gunther Schuller and Otto Lueneng. Asked if any of her teachers were women, Shatin simply laughs. 

There were few. Through the 1970s conductors denied women and people of color entry into orchestras; world-renowned conductors denied women in particular because they were said to have “smaller technique.” Shatin says that women were categorically denied entry to graduate levels in music composition. The nation’s big five orchestras were white boys’ clubs.

But by the late 1960s, the tides were slowly turning. The Juilliard-trained double-bassist Art Davis, an African-American, waged a high-profile legal battle against the New York Philharmonic and conductor Leonard Bernstein, charging he’d been denied a permanent position on the basis of his skin color. In its wake, beginning in the 1970s, symphony orchestras started requiring that musicians try out behind screens in “blind auditions.”

The change benefited women as well. Between the 1970s and 2000, thanks to those battles (and to groups like American Women Composer, Inc., which Shatin headed for four years in the early ’90s) it became 50 percent more likely that a woman would advance beyond a preliminary round in orchestra auditions. 

“When you go to see an orchestra now, what you will see—in this country at least —is many women,” says Shatin.

The well-timbred composer

Small technique? If anything, Shatin’s technique is huge. “I don’t think that music should always be pretty any more than art is about being pretty. It can be powerful, it can be overwhelming, it can violent—it can be all shades of different emotional color.”

Take her 2009 piece, “Jefferson, in His Own Words,” performed by symphonies in Richmond, Charlottesville and Illinois. It juxtaposes Jefferson’s sentiments about slavery, with his matter-of-fact talk about the slaves that he had. One of its movements, “Justice Never Sleeps,” has a passage so violent it might’ve made Charlottesville’s most famous resident plug his ears. 

Her music expresses violence well, she says, because of her interest in timbre—the quality of the sound, as opposed to its loudness, pitch or tempo. “I think—and I could be wrong—that my emotional response to sound is tied up with what its timbre is. Maybe part of that originates in our being wired to think of certain kinds of sounds as motivators of actions. If you hear the sound of an animal, you think maybe you should be quickly moving in the other direction.”

And it is ultimately that interest in timbre that makes the infinite possibilities of electronic composition so exciting. A recent piece called “For The Birds,” for amplified cello and processed birdsong from the Yellowstone region, was a collaboration with the renowned cellist Madeleine Shapiro. “Maybe one of the reasons I enjoy working with electronics, is there is that sense of exploration—of what happens if I process it this way or that way. Some people think that if you’re working with electronic media, you can whip it off faster.”

“For me, it’s much slower. I have this sort of obsession with experiencing what the timbral possibilities are. You can be sitting here saying, ‘let’s try this, let’s try that.’ And then 10 hours go by—” a time warp that she and Shapiro regularly experienced.

When I brought it up, Shatin seemed to bristle at the notion that her eclectic work might be called “classical composition”—though with violin and piano (with computer, granted) that’s what it often resembles. A more suitable title? Concert music. “When I was a child and I heard some of the music from the great classical composers I simply responded to it. I didn’t know that it was ‘elite,’ and that I wasn’t supposed to like it.

“I think that the labeling issue”—by which she means that if you mention classical music, most people will clam up—“has unfortunately become a kind of block for people to just have the experience and see,” she says. “They might only enjoy it, instead of the exposure being its use in advertising to set a certain tone for what’s being advertised, which is really sad.”

Meanwhile, classical music has come far since it earned its name, shedding its association with men in filigreed coats trancing before harpsichords. (Think of the “Saturday Night Live” sketch, where a pair of concerned women approach John Belushi, as Beethoven in a powdered wig, and try to convince him to eat.) 

“We still have a culture that in many respects is a museum culture, of course I love the great classical music,” says Shatin. “But I think that, unlike any countries in Europe, there’s not much pressure for organizations to include works by contemporary American composers. In the time of Mozart, everybody wanted to know what’s new. But now there’s this fear of the new in music.”

“I frequently have the experience when I have a piece performed that someone will say, ‘I don’t like contemporary music’—whatever that means—but I really liked your piece,’” says Shatin. “Well, my piece was a piece of contemporary music.”

 

 

 

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