UVA brings the music and sounds of early America to life

 It started with an aria. Shortly after arriving at UVA five years ago, music professor Bonnie Gordon was searching for a score to “Cara Sposa” from George Frideric Handel’s opera Rinaldo. Thomas Jefferson’s own copy of the aria, it turned out, was sitting nearby in UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. There was only one problem. “I didn’t have enough credentials to actually look at the music,” said Gordon.

Virginia Women in History honoree Judith Shatin crosses the digital divide with her energetic orchestral compositions. (Photo by Ashley Twiggs)

That lack of access may have thrown a wrench into her research at the time, but it led to a much larger project, which has produced both “Sound in Early America,” an exhibition that opened last week at the Special Collections Library, and “Soundscapes of Jefferson’s America,” a two-day symposium taking place this weekend.

“Soundscapes,” which Gordon co-organized with fellow music professor Richard Will, begins Friday with lectures and demonstrations throughout the day at UVA’s Harrison Institute, followed by a free concert at Old Cabell Hall featuring Harmonious Blacksmith. “They are kind of a rocking badass early music group that capitalizes on the gritty sounds of early music,” Gordon said.

Saturday the symposium will head to Montalto, the part of Carter’s Mountain that Jefferson purchased and named in 1777. The day will include an old-time banjo performance by Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, as well as lectures and presentations by a variety of scholars, including New York Law School professor Annette Gordon-Reed, whose The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in history.

Saturday night the symposium will return to Old Cabell Hall for “Jazz Meets Jefferson,” which will feature the Free Bridge Quintet, UVA’s official all-star jazz ensemble, as well as Gordon on viola and Will on violin and vocals. In addition to folk songs like “Oh! Susannah,” “Shenandoah” and “Careless Love,” the concert will include “Let’s Go Inside,” a new composition by UVA trumpet master and composer John D’earth. Exploring the sounds of Jefferson’s time, the piece incorporates everything from fiddle, parlor and ballroom music to slave songs, a graveyard lament and the sounds of nature.

The “Sound in Early America” exhibition at UVA’s Special Collections Library takes on a broader scope, spanning from Jefferson’s time through the Civil War era. Gordon curated the exhibition in collaboration with students from her graduate seminar, UVA’s Music Library, and the Special Collections Library. “The idea behind it was that, although everyone knows that UVA has all of these amazing historical documents, they also have a tremendous amount of interesting music,” she said. The exhibition features everything from “The Death Song of the Cherokee Indians,” a 1786 score that transcribed a Native American song into Western notation, to a recording of a Frederick Douglass speech and a Civil War valentine song.

One item that Gordon found particularly fascinating was a songbook sent to Jefferson by the European musician and composer Maria Cosway, whom he met in Paris while serving as U.S. Minister to France. Though she was married, Cosway and the widowed Jefferson became close, and their separation inspired his famous love letter, “A Dialogue Between My Head and My Heart.” The cover of the songbook features Cupid subduing a lion. “It’s a very expressive image,” Gordon said. See for yourself in “Sound in Early America,” which will be on display through August 20.

The right tone
We also want to congratulate another UVA music professor, Judith Shatin, who has been selected as a Virginia Women in History honoree. Each year, as part of National Women’s History Month, the Library of Virginia in Richmond recognizes “outstanding Virginia women who have made important contributions to Virginia, the nation, and the world.” Shatin, who founded UVA’s Virginia Center for Computer Music in 1987, is being honored for championing “music that blurs the line between acoustic and digital.”

She’s also the subject of a new Chamber Music magazine feature by renowned music critic Kyle Gann, who offered a more descriptive take on her work. “Her music bristles with energy,” he wrote. “Chords pound repeatedly. They are mostly dissonant, and I would generally describe the idiom as atonal. Yet the music often swoops into tonality, and you’ll find yourself in a pool of calm e-flat major before you’re aware the change was coming.” Coincidentally, one of Shatin’s most recent compositions is Jefferson in His Own Words, an orchestral piece based entirely on Thomas Jefferson’s writings.

Sons on the horizon
Last but certainly not least, we’re excited to hear that Sons of Bill will join The Infamous Stringdusters and Sarah White and the Pearls to play the nTelos Wireless Pavilion on May 12. Presented by The Festy, the show will celebrate the 40th anniversary of Blue Ridge Mountain Sports and benefit Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the Central Blue Ridge. Hot off their string of free Virginia shows and set to play at least 20 more East Coast shows in the next few weeks, Sons of Bill will be in good form when they hit the pavilion stage.

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