coLABoratory: Composer Spotlight – Judith Shatin

On Saturday, March 5, 2016 at 2pm, American Composers Orchestra (ACO) presents a new work-in-progress by composer Judith Shatin, part of coLABoratory at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music. Judith will be joined by Music Director George Manahan and members of ACO to begin developing and workshopping the new piece, Black Moon, for conductor-controlled electronics and orchestra. Shatin will be utilizing Kinect, a motion-sensing input device commonly used in Xbox video-gaming systems, to analyze the conductor’s motions, then send the data to a computer that is programmed to generate electronic sounds that respond to the conductor and musicians in real time.

The coLABoratory workshop at the DiMenna Center, which includes a performance of Red Moon and For the Birds, is free with RSVP here. Judith was kind enough to speak with SoundAdvice about the project.

Composer Judith Shatin

American Composers Orchestra: Your piece Black Moon uses Kinect, a motion-sensing input device commonly used in Xbox video-gaming systems, to generate electronic sounds from the conductor’s movements as he or she leads the orchestra. Can you tell us about the genesis for this idea?
Judith Shatin: The idea to use a sensing mechanism to give the conductor more immediate control over the electronic sound first occurred to me when I was composing Being in Time (2015), scored for conductor-controlled electronics, wind ensemble and interactive video. Rather than have the ensemble stay rigidly in time with the electronics, or use a click track, I wanted to give the conductor control over the pacing and placement of the electronics. Sponsored by a University of Virginia Arts Faculty award, I worked with a terrific team at UVA to develop this technology and am now working with graduate composer and programmer Paul Turowski to refine the composer gestures for Black Moon. I’m looking forward to trying these out with conductor George Manahan to make sure they are comfortable for him. They are adjustable for each conductor.

ACO: Can you tell us a bit about what parameters in the electronics are being changed by the conductor’s movements?
JS: The conductor triggers electronic cues, and can also move the sounds around in space, and control their volume. Given how much the conductor of an orchestra has to manage, it is important not to add too many extra elements. I want to offer control over those elements that seem most crucial. For this piece, I am designing the actual content of the electronics in advance.

ACO: In general, beyond needing to keep the tempo and meter, conductors have a lot of autonomy in how they use gesture to lead an orchestral work. In Black Moon, because the conductor’s gestures will directly affect the sound of the piece, do you give any specific instruction? Or is Black Moon aleatoric in this sense?
JS: We worked with William E. Pease, Conductor of the UVA Wind Ensemble, to develop gestures that are both convenient for the conductor and do not interfere with typical conductor gestures. It is important that the Kinect controller be able to read only those gestures which we want it to use!

ACO: The coLABoratory workshop on March 5 will present Red Moon, a musical sketch demonstrating your work-to-date. Is this piece an exercise in writing for Kinect-controlled electronics or will the final piece contain thematic elements from the sketch?

Kinect controller and sensor

JS: I can’t answer this question yet! The beauty of the coLABoratory is that composers can try things out in advance of composing the final piece. If some work in ways that are suggestive, I will keep them; otherwise, not. And, of course I will be working with a string quintet, rather than the complete ensemble. So, in any case, there will be dramatic changes.

ACO: What has surprised you most about the way your electronic sounds are responding to the conductor-controlled Kinect motion sensor?
JS: I can’t really say that I am surprised. Rather, it is delightful that we now have the technology to enable new kinds of interactions that give performers more freedom, and that support more partnerships between the acoustic and digital worlds. I love them both, and am excited to find new and suggestive ways to combine them.

ACO: How has being involved in ACO’s coLABoratory workshop affected the  process of writing Black Moon?
JS: It is always important to me to try out ideas with performers. I deeply value the collaborative process, and the coLABoratory provides just such an opportunity. I also look forward to sharing ideas with the audience, and providing the opportunity for them to try out the conductor-controlled electronics.

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