Judith Shatin: Multiple Histories

Judith Shatin: Multiple Histories

Many ingredients go into Judith Shatin’s music. While it is informed by a deep sense of musical history, it is just as much a by-product of her profound desire to search for new sounds. It is also deeply inspired by history itself, but not as an artifact. Rather it is something that is malleable and very much alive, something that we in the present can continue to engage with to better understand ourselves.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

At the home of Cecile Bazelon, New York, NY
June 7, 2012—3:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Homepage image by Mary Noble Ours

Many ingredients go into Judith Shatin’s music. While it is informed by a deep sense of musical history, it is just as much a by-product of her profound desire to search for new sounds. It is also deeply inspired by history itself, but not as an artifact. Rather it is something that is malleable and very much alive, something that we in the present can continue to engage with to better understand ourselves.

A good example of this is her piano and percussion duo 1492, a work commissioned to mark the quincentennary of Columbus’s maiden voyage to the New World. Shatin is quick to point out that also during 1492, England invaded France, the Jews were expelled from Spain, and the Spanish Inquisition began. But her duo is not a direct narrative about any of those things, nor is it in anyway a rehashing of music of that era. Rather, those historical events serve as a starting point, inspiring her to investigate her fascination with the malleability of timbre. In fact, she’s somewhat ambivalent about whether listeners should be aware of these associations as well as any of the techniques involved in forming her compositions.

The ability of Shatin’s music to transcend both its original context and any formal procedures that may have been used to create it is perhaps this is why her music can sound perfectly at home in concert programs alongside standard repertoire whose specific reference points have receded into the past. At the same time, she is completely enamored of the possibilities offered by electronic music and unusual instrumental combinations. And in addition to her works for standard ensembles like piano trios and string quartets, she is not afraid to write pieces for less practical configurations such as shofar, brass ensemble, and timpani or percussionist and six percussion robot arms. Although don’t assume the works for the more common groups are all that common. Her piano trio Ignoto Numine is filled with elements that have made players slightly uncomfortable.

Shatin’s compositions involving electronics also often involve unlikely sound sources. One of the timbres that appears in Beetles, Monsters and Roses was based on recordings of her munching on potato chips. As she explains it, “I just sort of go through life with my sonic antennae up.” But no matter what novel sonorities intrigue her, Shatin still finds the greatest satisfaction in creating music involving live performers that is experienced by an audience in a concert hall in real time.

I personally really love the experience of the live. The other thing about performances that involve live performers is the theatricality of it—there’s delicacy, and there’s the possibility of failure. It’s really a much more vivid kind of experience.

Frank J. Oteri: I know that you’re in New York City this week because there is a concert here featuring your music.

Judith Shatin: I have actually two pieces: Widdershuns, which is an ancient English word that means counterclockwise, and a piece called To Keep the Dark Away, which is inspired by lines from Emily Dickinson poems. They’ll be sandwiched between Debussy, Beethoven, and Villa-Lobos.

FJO: That’s very good company to be in. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately that perhaps one of the reasons some audience members who attend classical music concerts react so negatively to a piece of new music is because the sound world of that lone new piece is completely unrelated to everything else they’re hearing on that program. A concert of all new music, on the other hand, could sound like anything at this point and as a result the expectations are very different; people are prepared to hear something that is unfamiliar. But your music works effectively in both contexts and in fact is often presented on programs that are predominantly standard repertoire. The music that you write is clearly music of our time, its harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary would not have been possible before the late 20th century, and your works involving electronics are very much of the right now, but nevertheless it doesn’t seem to have, at least to my ears, an irreconcilable sonic disconnect with the music of the past. So I don’t think it’s too much of a leap for listeners familiar with the classical music canon to take. I wonder if that is something you consciously think about when you’re writing pieces. What obligation do we have as composers, in your mind, to connect with the larger arc of history? How important to you is having your music be performed alongside a broader range of repertoire rather than just as “new music”?

JS: I think that’s a really good question and one that has very individual answers. In my own musical world, I like to roam both in the past and across the present. So I have music that connects back; a piece called Ockeghem Variations is inspired by Ockeghem’s Prolation Mass. I think that one of the amazing things that we have now is the opportunity to think of the past as present. I’m reminded of an exhibit that I saw earlier today, the absolutely amazing retrospective of Cindy Sherman’s work, and how she uses self to explore the present and the past. I think that one can do something of this same thing in music. One can look to the past as a kind of lens on the present, as well as looking at music from different contemporary places in the world. So I think we live at a really fascinating time when the past as prologue really seems to be operational.

My music has evolved certainly from a long and deep interaction with music of the classical era and earlier, and also various contemporary threads. But I think it really depends on the piece. There’s a recent piece of mine called Sic Transit for percussionist and six percussion robot arms that were created by some of our wonderful grad students at the University of Virginia. It involves some improvisation by the robot arms, in conjunction with this percussionist, and that might seem a little different in a concert that had traditional music. So I think that one of the things I’ve really enjoyed is exploring quite a range, from pieces that do have more of a connection to music of the past and that have inspired me, to electronic works where the cracks between pitches become relevant and where intonation is quite different and there are different types of continuities, discontinuities, than one would find in more traditional music. But drama always inspires me, and I think that maybe that’s one aspect that people can pick up on who aren’t exposed to a lot of contemporary music.

FJO: Yeah, the robot piece probably wouldn’t work with Debussy, Beethoven, and Villa-Lobos. And yet Villa-Lobos was a contemporary composer. He lived until 1959, much later on into the 20th century than, say, Webern did. But you know, Webern’s works are not necessarily going to appear on a standard repertoire concert programmed the way that, say, Villa-Lobos or Prokofiev would. Some composers fit better within that canonic trajectory. But I think another aspect of your music fitting in is that you’ve written quite a lot of music for standard instrumental combinations: piano trios, string quartets. There’s a whole wonderful disc of your repertoire for violin and piano. Plus you’ve written concertos and other works involving a standard symphony orchestra. Every one of these combinations is a kind of loaded historical time bomb in a way.

JS: They are, in a way. For instance, my piano concerto, The Passion of St. Cecilia, is about the relationship between Cecilia and her society. It’s also about a mistranslation, purposefully or not: the fact that Cecilia, although she is portrayed as the patron saint of music, had nothing to do with music. My piece is actually about her martyrdom, and it’s an extremely violent piece. It opens up with this huge orchestral explosion, and it ends with quite a violent shriek actually. It’s a three-movement piece, the second of which is much more contemplative, so it’s a piano concerto, but certainly not in a traditional mold.

FJO: And you gave it another name instead of just naming it Piano Concerto. So you’re not conjuring up the association as much. I think when you use a name like Piano Concerto, Piano Trio, String Quartet, or Symphony, you’re entering a realm that has very specific associations for listeners.

JS: My most recent string quartet is called Respecting the First, and it’s for amplified string quartet and electronics made from readings of and about the First Amendment: from JFK, to Pete Seeger, to Mayor Bloomberg, to various newscasters, etc. One of the reasons I wanted to make it about the First Amendment is that I think people are so unaware of what the amendments actually say. I also have Gabrielle Giffords’s reading of the First Amendment from the floor of the House. The piece is dedicated to her. It’s a string quartet, but with quite a different kind of twist than you might anticipate. The other thing that I did, which I love doing, is to record a number of friends and students from different parts of the world reading the First Amendment. So these are woven throughout the piece as well. I talked to Ralph Jackson about it, and I said, “I’ve been assured that all of this is fair use.” And he said, “Well, at BMI, we don’t believe in fair use. You’ve got to get permission from everyone.” So I got a letter of permission from Pete Seeger, which I thought was pretty nice.

FJO: Another place where I really wanted to go, in talking about composing for standard ensembles, is that if you write for such combinations, there are so many groups out there that could theoreticaqlly play what you’ve written. So on the level of practicality, it’s a smart idea to write a piece for, say, string quartet, since there are a zillion string quartets out there. But when you do, you’re also dealing with the legacy repertoire of that ensemble.

JS: That’s absolutely true, but I will say that it’s not so easy anymore as soon as you add electronics. You’re dealing with having to have sound checks, a playback system, etc. Often you’re dealing with having to have extra union people around. So working with a traditional ensemble, but with a twist, sometimes creates other kinds of difficulties.

Last fall I did a graduate seminar on the string quartet because our graduate students were composing for the ensemble. That issue of historical weight was certainly very much on everyone’s mind. What is there still to say for this ensemble? But they came up with all kinds of fascinating takes on how you can use the instruments in different ways. One of the students created a piece where he used handwriting to create the score, and wrote a program that interpreted the handwriting, and did a beautiful, interesting graphic score. Braxton Sherouse did that. So there are still people thinking very creatively. Another of our students, Chris Peck, took endings from a number of string quartets and put them together and created a kind of historical mirage quartet. So they did it very much in clear thought of the history and yet what one could still do now. Of the string quartets I’ve done, two of them have involved electronics. Elijah’s Chariot is for amplified string quartet and electronics made from processed shofar sounds, so that was also a very different kind of use of the ensemble.

FJO: That’s the piece that Kronos did.

JS: Yes it is.

FJO: Well, even though Kronos is a string quartet, writing for them is usually quite different than writing for a standard ensemble, since they are so adventurous and their audiences always expect something new. I’m curious about the pieces you wrote for other standard ensembles, like piano trio or wind quintet, and the pieces you have composed for Pierrot ensemble, a configuration that is now a century old and has become a contemporary music standard, like your lovely Akhmatova Songs. How often do pieces written for more standard combinations get done versus, say, a piece like the one you mentioned involving electronically processed shofar and string quartet? You also have a piece for actual shofar and brass instruments. I love that sound, but how many shofar players are there out there who will play this piece?

JS: Let me first say that I did this piece called Teruah for shofar, brass ensemble, and timpani, which was commissioned by the Jewish Music Festival of Pittsburgh, and was played by this wonderful horn player Ron Schneider, who’s in the Pittsburgh Symphony. Ron had a number of shofars, so I asked him to record them and send them to me. And there was one that happened to be an E-flat shofar. It’s a beautiful, long, curly Yemeni shofar. Finding shofars that play in E-flat is not necessarily so easy. It turned out a year ago, the Washington Symphonic Wind Ensemble wanted to play this piece. I went and the performance was wonderful, and I said “How did you find the shofar?” So listen to this. The fiancée of one of the members of the group lived in Pittsburgh. They had contacted Ron Schneider and driven the shofar from Pittsburgh to Washington.

As far as piano trios go, I have two. One of them is called Ignoto Numine, Unknown Spirit, and it’s about exploding traditional form. The ending of the piece came to me in a dream, and it’s very explosive. I dreamed that the performers were screaming while they were playing. And my first response to that dream was, I can’t really ask people to do that, can I? And then my second was, well, why not? And so the piece does wind up with the performers using their voices. And some piano trios got very excited about that, and some said, “Are you kidding? I’m not playing this.” They did not want to have to scream in a performance. The other thing is the pianist uses timpani mallets and snare sticks on the strings. So it’s a piano trio, but it does require that they do some things that traditional piano trios wouldn’t do. The other piano trio, View from Mt. Nebo, is more traditional in its approach. I don’t ask them to do anything quite that unusual.

FJO: So which piece gets done more?

JS: View from Mt. Nebo gets done more. Funny you should ask.

FJO: So how important a factor is the practicality of writing a piece that could be done many times in determining what you are going to write?

JS: What’s been more of a factor is what’s come along as commission opportunities, or groups that I’m excited to work with. I’ve written a fair amount for Pierrot ensemble and groups within that because I have a long-standing working relationship with Da Capo Chamber Players. I love working with them. So I think part of it is about who you’re working with and what the opportunities are. That said, I’ve never been able to make either a distinction or decision about my preferred ensemble. I’m not a choral composer, or an electronic composer, or an orchestral composer, or a chamber composer. I love it all. To me, it’s all about sound and exploration. Every ensemble I think really has its voice. I also think that Pierrot ensemble is ubiquitous. But now what we’re seeing is the emergence of different ensembles, especially with electric guitar which I haven’t composed for yet, but I’m hoping to because I think it’s really a fascinating instrument that bridges the worlds of electronic and acoustic.

FJO: Also the saxophone quartet, a combination for which you also haven’t written yet.

JS: I haven’t, but I have written a piece for soprano sax and electronics that’s gotten done a fair amount. There are some really ace players around.

FJO: In terms of this getting multiple performances, I’m curious about your experiences with writing for orchestra. There are definitely fewer opportunities for the greater composer community to write for an orchestra, so a lot of composers don’t. And many of the ones who do have only had their works played a few times and sometimes never recorded. But there’s a whole disc of your orchestral music out there, which is a fabulous CD. Some composers who don’t write for orchestra but who want to write for large ensemble have had great experiences writing for concert band: multiple performances and sometimes multiple recordings. But you’ve only done that once so far.

JS: Actually I would love to do more of that. And I love writing for orchestra; I think it’s just such a fascinating timbral world. But you’re absolutely right. Not only are there few opportunities, but the amount of rehearsal time that’s expended on new pieces is typically so vanishingly small that it’s really kind of traumatic. On the other hand, it’s such an exciting ensemble to compose for. So there is really a kind of struggle there. I would love to do more.

The most recent piece I did is for orchestra and narrator. It’s called Jefferson, In His Own Words, and it’s about Jefferson’s struggles in his life. The first movement is called “Political Passions,” and it’s about how he was drawn into the world of politics. The second movement is called “Head and Heart”; I found this amazing monologue that he wrote between his head and his heart. He was basically a very cerebral person, but he had a big crush on Maria Cosway. And he wrote a very long monologue, of which I could only use a little bit, but it’s very romantic, and it ends by him saying to her, “I promise that my next letters will be short, but if yours are as long as the Bible, they will seem short to me.” I also used a brief excerpt of a letter to his daughter where he tells her how she should spend her time on her education, and that if she does she will warrant his affection. It’s a very interesting and affectionate but withholding letter at the same time; it’s conditional love. The third movement, called “Justice Never Sleeps,” is about his struggle with slavery. I intercut his high sentiments about slavery and the importance of the abolition with his farm books where he talks about slaves as property. You get a real sense of this struggle. Then the final movement is more of a look back at his life, his founding of the University of Virginia, the importance of the freedom of reason, and his hopes for the future. It’s about a 25-minute piece.

FJO: To make an investment of almost half an hour is huge for an orchestra. And then to throw in a narrator of top of that…

JS: That’s true.

FJO: So dare I ask how many times that piece has gotten done?

JS: Actually, fortunately, it was a co-commission of four orchestras, and they each did it a couple of times: the Charlottesville Symphony, the Illinois, Richmond, and Virginia Symphonies. And the Virginia Symphony had as its narrator Bill Barker, who is the Jefferson impersonator for Colonial Williamsburg and a master actor. In Richmond and Charlottesville, Gerald Baliles, who was the former governor of Virginia and is a lawyer himself, was the narrator.

FJO: Does this piece at all reflect Jeffersonian-era music, or is it completely music of now?

JS: There are two spots where I refer to pieces that he is said to have liked. There’s a Scottish air, and there’s a dance. There’s a bit of Corelli. But most of it is music of now, and in fact, probably my favorite is the third movement which is extremely intense.

FJO: The slavery movement.

JS: Yes.

FJO: Using history as a jumping off point for creating something that sounds contemporary, rather than attempting some kind of reenactment, reminds me of how you approached the commission to write a piano and percussion duo called 1492 about the quincentenary of Columbus’s discovery of America—actually, it was Columbus’s discovery that there were people here in America. And as you have pointed out, it was also the year the Spanish Inquisition began, England invaded France.

JS: The expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

FJO: It was a really bad year, in a lot of ways. And, of course, the Columbus “discovery” of America led to some incredibly bad things. We’re all here now probably because of it, but Jefferson debating the pros and cons of slavery can be traced back to that voyage. To take it back to the music, what you wrote really has nothing to do with the music of 1492.

JS: No, no.

FJO: But it begs a question about what it means to you and to listeners to reference history in your music, the St. Cecilia piano concerto we talked about a little bit is another one. In all of these cases, how much of the narrative is important for listeners to know?

JS: I think they really need to have very little. I would be very unhappy if my music didn’t stand on its own without people knowing any back story about it. But I think it can add. I guess I think of it as a way of sharing my inspiration more than telling someone what and how to listen. And it does have its dangers. For instance, there’s one piece I wrote, Icarus for violin and piano. It’s inspired by the myth, and I think, as you traverse the piece, if you wanted to listen to it from that point of view, you could get a general idea. However, I remember one time, someone came up to me after performance and said, “Well, when does the wax melt?” And that just showed me the problem of somebody being a little too literal about their interpretation of it.

FJO: So in 1492, there aren’t episodes that represent the different events of that year.

JS: No, not at all.

FJO: But the Jefferson piece sounds like it does that.

JS: Well, it’s a texted piece, so in that sense, the music embodies some of that meaning and there are these two quite small places that sort of tie more into the period, but they’re very isolated moments. It had to do with creating a way in that was related to the text at those points.

FJO: So in terms of what listeners should know and what they don’t necessarily need to know. There was an article by Kyle Gann about your music in Chamber Music magazine, and he talked about the language of your music employing 12-tone techniques. I’ve listened to so many of your pieces over the years and have looked at scores, but it’s not something I ever thought about. Not having done rigorous analyses of any of them, I was quite surprised by this, though of course composers have done all sorts of things with 12-tone techniques.

JS: But people actually don’t think of it that way. They also assume that if something sounds quite chromatic, or involves a lot of leaps, that’s probably 12-tone music. I’ve had that response as well. I think that’s really a back story that isn’t that important. But in the music of mine that came out of that tradition, I always was more interested in collections that give you harmonic location and the particularity of sound. I thought one thing that Kyle Gann picked up on that absolutely rings true for me is the particularity of sound in register. I never bought the octave equivalence idea because it just doesn’t sound equivalent, and so I never wanted to treat it as equivalent. So register and how things sound in their particular place has always been really important to me. And how the sound is made, both in terms of the traditional sound production and also what the more extended ranges are.

FJO: So I think it’s probably fair to say though you’ll use different techniques, your music is not about those techniques and therefore a listener does not really need to be concerned with how you put a piece together.

JS: I want to use those techniques to express something. I’m not using them for their own sake. That’s true. But I think that the more one knows about music, the richer one’s experience is. I get into these arguments all the time. My husband, Michael Kubovy, is a cognitive psychologist and studies visual and auditory perception. He is very perceptive of musical design, but is not well schooled in it. We frequently get into this discussion about how much you need to know. My contention is that the more you know, the more you will enjoy it, but it’s not essential to your ability to enjoy or empathize with or be moved by music. I mean I certainly have experienced music and performance, like East Asian music, that I’m not schooled in, but I’ve been moved by it. I think it’s a very interesting question, and one that also reflects what so many students say about studying music theory: “Oh, this is like putting it under a microscope and I’m not going to like it anymore because I’m going to understand too much about it.” I’ve always thought the flip side of that is true. It’s fascinating to know how people think about music and design it and structure it. So I think the more one knows, the better. But can one respond to music without having a deep theoretical knowledge? I think the answer is yes.

FJO: I can clearly hear East Asian music in your piece Dream Tigers for flute and guitar. There’s a portion of it that almost sounds to my ears like shakuhachi and koto. So something from this tradition has obviously seeped through into your compositional language, even if you’re coming at it from intuition rather than deeply immersing yourself in its music theory.

JS: It did not come out of any analysis of East Asian music. I’m laughing because I had never written for guitar before, so I borrowed a guitar and bruised and calloused my fingers trying things out on it, and it was really a fascinating experience to work that way. I like getting physical with instruments and trying things out myself, even if I don’t play them, and then of course I check with people who actually can play them to make sure they’re doable.

FJO: Well, I know you were playing piano before you ever started composing.

JS: Right. I had composed some as I was growing up, but it was really not until I was well into my undergraduate career that I became really fascinated by it. I grew up playing piano and flute, mainly piano. And when I was an undergraduate at Douglass College, I spent my junior year abroad in Jerusalem at Hebrew University, and it was very hard to get to a piano, and I studied other things that I was interested in at the time. When I came back, I was not at all interested in doing a senior piano recital, which would have been the norm. I asked to do a composition recital and was told that if I found the performers, wrote the music, and organized it all, they would let me do it. So I did, and that was what really started me off on the path into composition.

FJO: Was there a lot of music around when you were growing up?

JS: I was very lucky in that when I grew up—mainly in Albany, New York, and South Orange, New Jersey—there was terrific music in the public schools. I played flute in the school band and orchestra. I sang in the special chorus. So I had a lot of live music experience, though much less concert music than I did later, having become a very avid concertgoer in high school and after.

FJO: So I’m curious to learn how you wound up in Virginia; you’ve been based there since 1979, right after you got your Ph.D.

JS: Actually, what led me there was a job. I was graduating, and I applied for this job. It was a one-year job at the time. And it became a four-year job. And then it became much more. And I’m now a chaired professor there, which is really a wonderful position. There were certain major advantages. I was not in a situation where I was held back by people having an idea about how things should be. So when I started the Virginia Center for Computer Music in the late ‘80s, there wasn’t anyone there who said you should do it this way, you should do it that way. Actually, I had been very intrigued by the idea of computer music while I was a graduate student, but it was in the dark ages where you had to type out your note cards and it was mainframe computing, and you’d get to use the digital analog converter in the middle of the night at the engineering school. If you made one typo in your cards, your job would blow up. When I had the opportunity to start the VCCM, I went to a couple of stores in New York. MIDI had just come out, and I sort of camped out and learned enough about it to write a grant application that got funded, and started it with a couple of Mac SEs, a Mac 2, and an Amiga, and it really just sort of developed from that point on.

FJO: Amiga. Wow. That’s a computer I haven’t heard anyone talk about it quite a while.

JS: I know. When I look back, what I was even thinking? I just can’t tell you. It just seemed like a fascinating idea at the time. And it was. One of the problems is that the technology keeps changing. My first piece in this medium was a piece called Hearing Things for amplified violin, MIDI keyboard controller, and a bunch of peripheral devices: a sampler, a voice processor, effects processors, etc. And within two years all of those pieces of equipment were obsolete. That was a real wake up call to how we think about these things. Do we care whether our pieces are ephemeral or not? And I guess for the most part, I kind of do because I spend a lot of time working on them. It’s still an issue; operating systems change. You create programs that work, and they may not work on a later date. It’s not like writing for piano. That probably is pretty settled at this point.

FJO: That leads back to the beginning of this conversation, talking about writing for instruments that have a long repertoire history and the practicality of writing for established ensembles. At this point, electronic music also has a long history, but it’s a history of constant change and flux. There are no standards still, even after all these years. You started this thing 25 years ago. That’s more than a generation. If anything is in dire need of a period instrument movement at this point, it’s the electronic music compositions from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

JS: I know. It’s really funny when you think of an instrument like the DX7, which was absolutely ubiquitous. When I ask my students now, they’ve never heard of it. They just have no idea about it.

FJO: And no doubt the instruments people are working with now will also be obsolete in another decade, probably less. So what’s the point in making such a composition investment in something so precarious?

JS: It’s really a fascination with the malleability of timbre, and the world around us. I’ve composed using the sounds of the animal world, in a piece called For the Birds, for cello and electronics made from bird song from the Yellowstone region. The piece was commissioned by Madeleine Shapiro, who loves to hike in that region. I did another piece called Singing the Blue Ridge: crazy instrumentation, totally impractical. Mezzo, baritone, orchestra, and electronics made from indigenous wild animal sounds. And I worked with the wonderful Macauley Natural Sound Library at Cornell University. They’ve done a fantastic job of collecting sounds from all over the world. There’s a soundscape artist, Erik DeLuca, who always goes to a place to record animals. However, in this piece, I knew that I wanted to use the indigenous sounds of animals, such as wolves and river otter, and I knew that I was not going to be capable of going and recording the sounds myself, but I thought they were particularly appropriate for a work that has poetry that was newly commissioned from Barbara Goldberg. It would be very easy to do a piece about how humanity is destroying the world, but I wanted it to be about more than that, what the world might have been like before humanity, what kind of interactions we have with that world, and thinking about ourselves as animals in relation to that world, and how that all adds up. I’ve used the sounds of a contemporary weaver on wooden looms. I’ve used the sound of a hand-held egg beater, of the chink of a fork on a cup. I just sort of go through life with my sonic antennae up.

FJO: So for you it’s not restricted to sounds that are electronically generated, but also taking sounds from the real world and processing them.

JS: I’ve done both. Beetles, Monsters and Roses is a piece commissioned by the San Francisco Girls Chorus for treble chorus and electronics. In one of the movements called “The Wendigo,” which is a setting of a poem by Ogden Nash, all of the accompanying sounds sound like traditional string instruments and they’re all totally synthetic. And then the sounds of the monster, I made from sounds I recorded myself while munching on potato chips.

FJO: You usually work with a live soloist and electronics or a chamber group and electronics. Writing for electronics with larger ensembles seems very risky. I think part of the problem with folks in the so-called classical music community—not just the performers but also the folks at the venues—is that many of them are terrified of electronics.

JS: That’s true. I think that there are two issues. One is the practicality of the venues. Most of them are not set up to deal with electronics, and they make it extremely difficult. I mean, places where if I go in and I want to deal with my own electronics, I’m not allowed to. It’s made into something much more complicated than in fact it needs to be. And there’s also the fact that most performers don’t have the equipment. They’re not set up to do it, and so it feels sort of scary and confusing. Even though at this point, there’s a lot of music that combines chamber ensemble with electronic playback. And if you have a CD player in your apartment, you can probably find a way to at least practice it. It’s more complicated if you’re dealing with interactive electronics and there are certain performers who have taken that on, but most don’t come from backgrounds where it’s taught. Most conservatories don’t really deal with teaching people how to work with electronics. I know some of them are making some efforts in that direction now, but it’s still something that’s not the norm. Until that changes, I think that we’re going to continue to run into those issues.

FJO: This is in a way a slightly anachronistic conversation because so much of how music is disseminated these days is not through live performance at a venue. It’s through recordings, whether it’s somebody listening, as you said, to something coming out of a CD player, or on the web. But I imagine that for you the ideal musical experience is still a live one, especially since almost all the pieces you have done involving electronics also involve a live musician.

JS: It’s very interesting, even for ones that don’t. I have a piece called Hosech Al P’ney HaTehom or Darkness Upon the Face of the Deep; it’s totally electronic. And I’ve had a number of discussions about why we should bother going into a hall to listen to a piece through loud speakers. And my answer is two-fold. One, the sensation of sound in a large space is radically different. It can envelop you in a completely different way, so that psychologically, I think the impact is quite different. And the other is the sociality of the live experience, the sort of group interaction that happens. So yes, I personally really love the experience of the live. The other thing about performances that involve live performers is the theatricality of it—there’s delicacy, and there’s the possibility of failure. It’s really a much more vivid kind of experience. That said, I listen to lots of music that’s recorded, as well. And I’m happy to have this incredible largesse of recorded music that I would otherwise not experience. But to me, if I have the opportunity to hear something live, I enjoy that more.

FJO: At the very beginning of this conversation, you said we’re at this unique point in history where all time periods can co-exist for us. The past is the present. That’s because of recordings.

JS: Absolutely.

FJO: You’re not going to hear Ockeghem live in most communities. But anyone can now hear Ockeghem anytime and anywhere on a recording.

JS: That’s true. That’s an advantage. Do I wish I could hear it in live performance readily? Yes. But I think it’s an incredible advantage that we can make the acquaintance of this music in a way that is not just trying to read from the score. So I think it’s fabulous that we have these recordings. That doesn’t take away from what the meaning is of the live performance.

But I think music is changing. There are really fascinating experiments and pieces that use the web. There are people like Jason Freeman or Peter Traub, one of the graduate students who completed our program who has done net-based music. He did a piece on MySpace where he used sounds from commonly found objects and then created ItSpace, where people could add to them and change them and mix with them. I think what we’re seeing are whole new strands of possibilities for interactive creation that are very exciting. But I don’t think of them as replacing the live experience and the kind of interaction that you have working with live performers and being in the environment where you have that kind of exchange.

FJO: So you wouldn’t see yourself doing an interactive web piece?

JS: I certainly don’t say no. I like to remain open to the possibilities that the electronic media offer us. And as I become enthralled with them or inspired to create something, I very well might want to do something that is web based. I haven’t done it yet, but that doesn’t mean I won’t.