Prayers for a Feverish Planet

Plain Song (2015) – Judith Shatin (United States)
I. Plain Song
II. Lullaby
III. Shadow and Smoke
IV. Tutta Gloria
text by Charles Wright

One day while I was driving my car, listening to NPR, I heard a voice say ‘Live life as though you were already dead, Che Guevara declared.’ My responses, seemingly simultaneous, were: ‘fantastic line,’ and ‘wait, I know that voice – it’s Charles.’ I also knew that I would like to find a way to set it, incorporating his voice.

As luck would have it, I knew Charles Wright. While we both taught at UVA, we met when we were fellows at the Rockefeller Center at Bellagio in 1990 and became friends over the years. I already knew his poetry and was taken right away with the quality of his voice: gravelly, with a soft southern flavor, not to mention the wryness and wit of his conversation. Still, I was hesitant to ask whether he would consider recording some of the poems from his new collection Caribou, and allow me to compose a piece built around them. But, I did ask, and he agreed, and we had a fine time in The Sound recording studio in Charlottesville. Mark Graham was the sound engineer, and composer Joe Adkins, assisted.

I decided to compose Plain Song, named for one of the four poems, and to score the piece for piano and fixed media stereo electronics made from the recordings of his readings. These meditative poems deal with loss and death, and at the same time, with gratitude and life. They reflect his wide-ranging interests, from ancient Chinese poetry to country music! Plain Song is dedicated, with gratitude, to Charles Wright.

The more I compose, the more I want to continue to respond to what we are facing: climate change and all that goes with it, as well as other challenges we are facing. I’m so glad that you were able to include Plain Song [in Prayers for a Feverish Planet] – while it is not as direct as some of the other pieces you have chosen, it does resonate with references, such as “the hour of our undoing,” the images of leave-taking, the bare branches … but at least while we are here, it makes such deep sense to try and make a difference in whatever way we can.

Ann adds: I didn’t know the poetry of Charles Wright before I received this piece. These poems are simply incredible: death, life, time, departure, silence, shadows, dark, light, songs, paradise and stars — expressed much more eloquently than by me. They don’t specifically refer to climate change, but this work is so powerful with such resonant concepts I had to include it.

Judith Shatin

Composer Judith Shatin is renowned for her richly imagined music that seamlessly spans acoustic and digital realms. Called “highly inventive on every level” by The Washington Post, her music combines an adventurous approach to timbre with dynamic narrative design and a keen awareness of the sonic landscape of modern life. She draws on multiple fascinations with the sounding world (both natural and built), literature, the visual arts, and music’s social and communicative power to craft a clear, direct musical language that resonates with performers and audiences worldwide.

Shatin’s extensive catalog includes chamber, choral and orchestral music, and electronic, electroacoustic, and multimedia pieces. Her music has been commissioned by organizations such as the Barlow Endowment, the Fromm Foundation, Carnegie Hall, and The Library of Congress, and by acclaimed ensembles including Kronos Quartet, Da Capo Chamber Players, Ensemble Berlin PianoPercussion, Hexagon Ensemble, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and the Young People’s Chorus of NYC. The American Composer’s Orchestra and the Charlottesville, Denver, Houston, Illinois, Knoxville, Minnesota, and National Symphonies, among many others, have programmed and commissioned her works. Her compositions are performed in concert halls around the world such as Carnegie Hall, The Concertgebouw, The Kennedy Center, Konzerthaus Berlin, and Tel Aviv Opera house; and featured at festivals including Aspen, BAM Next Wave, Grand Teton, Moscow Autumn, Seal Bay, Spring in Havana, and West Cork.

Recent works include La Frontera, premiered in 2022 by the L.A. Master Chorale, and Kassia for clarinet, harp, and string quartet, commissioned by the Kassia Ensemble. Terra Infirma for mixed chamber ensemble and electronics, commissioned by Michigan Technological University in collaboration with the Great Lakes Research Center, will receive its world premiere in October 2022. Compositions in progress include commissions from the Atlanta Young Singers and the vocal ensemble Zephyrus.

Electronic media is a key element of Shatin’s creative process; interactive electronics, pre-composed audio playback, computer-generated sound, and processed field recordings appear in compositions of every genre. Her work Penelope’s Song for solo instrument and electronic playback, now available for six different solo instruments, has received hundreds of performances and has been commercially recorded by an array of acclaimed musicians, including flutist Lindsay Goodman. The works Ice Becomes Water for string orchestra and electronics, which incorporates sonic material fashioned from glacier field recordings, and For the Birds featuring amplified cello paired with electronically manipulated birdsong, highlight the impact of the disappearing natural world on our challenged climate.

Another primary creative focus for Shatin is the text-setting of writings drawn from a broad range of sources. She has composed an eclectic assortment of vocal works ranging from texts by poets Barbara Goldberg, Gertrude Stein, and Avraham Sutzkever, to religious texts such as Adonai Ro’i (Psalm 23), to La Frontera, an anonymous poem by an undocumented immigrant youth held in an American maximum-security detention center. Her folk oratorio COAL, an evening-length work for chorus, Appalachian ensemble, synthesizer, and electronic playback, features a libretto written by the composer. COAL was sponsored by the Lila Wallace Readers Digest Arts Partners Program as part of a two-year retrospective of Shatin’s music at Shepherd College in West Virginia.

Shatin’s music has been honored with four National Endowment for the Arts Composer Fellowships and grants from the American Music Center, Meet the Composer and the Virginia Commission for the Arts. She has held fellowships for creative residencies at Bellagio, Brahmshaus, Casa Zia Lina, La Cité Internationale des Arts, MacDowell, Mishkan Omanim, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and Yaddo.

Shatin’s music is published by C.F. Peters, Colla Voce, E.C. Schirmer, Hal Leonard and Wendigo Music. Her music is featured on albums on the Centaur, Innova, Navona, Neuma, New World Records, Ravello, and Sonora labels.

In demand as a master teacher, Shatin has served as a senior composer at the Wellesley Composers Conference and the Chamber Music Conference of the East, as a Master Artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, Senior Composition Faculty at California Summer Music, and guest composer at the Aspen Music Festival. Shatin is also a powerful advocate for her fellow composers. She served as President of American Composers (1989-93), has been a Board member of the League/ISCM in New York, of the American Composers Alliance and currently serves on the Board of the National Council of the Atlantic Center for the Arts. She has served on the Executive Committee and as a member of the  Fellows Council of the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and is on the Advisory Board of the International Alliance for Women in Music.

Shatin holds degrees from Douglass College (BA, Phi Beta Kappa, Julia Carlie Prize in Composition), The Juilliard School (MM., Abraham Ellstein Award), and Princeton University (MFA, Ph.D.). She is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emerita at the University of Virginia, where she founded the Virginia Center for Computer Music.