March 31 - April 13, 2006
Vol. 36, Issue 6
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U.Va.leads nation's publics with highest graduation rate for African-Americans
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Peace Corps celebrates 45 years of service
U.Va.'s link to the East
How has technology changed history?
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'Building Goodness' in Mississippi
Shatin makes musical sense of Jabberwocky
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VQR beats 'The Yankees'


Shatin makes musical sense of Jabberwocky

Photo by Dan Addison
The Virginia Glee Club, performing here at last year’s Finals, will give its next concert on April 1 at 8 p.m. in Old Cabell Auditorium. The group will be performing a number of works, including a choral piece, “The Jabberwocky,” which it commissioned music professor Judith Shatin to write.
By Jane Ford

Coming upon the Jabberwocky poem in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” readers are often both puzzled and delighted. The nonsensical words — the poem famously opens, “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe” — are a delight to the ears of adults and children alike. To University of Virginia composer Judith Shatin, those playful words were the inspiration for a recent choral composition, commissioned by the Virginia Glee Club.

Shatin, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Music, spent many hours reading texts before she chose the Jabberwocky poem. Research is an important process in creating a choral piece, she said. “I opened a book and saw the Jabberwocky. I like the positive message because there are so many negatives in today’s world. It’s an optimistic text about overcoming one’s demon or demons.”

The Virginia Glee Club, which has a long tradition of commissioning pieces, ex-pected a more serious piece, said its president David Faulkner, a fourth-year U.Va. student. But it proved to be a big hit with the group when it was announced. “There was a spontaneous recitation of the poem by various members,” he said. “I was surprised to see that much enthusiasm.”

Frank Albinder, the Glee Club conductor who is also music director of the Washington Men’s Camerata and the Woodley Ensemble, an 18-voice professional chamber choir, both based in Washington, D.C., said he was surprised at how many already knew the text by heart. “It’s an evocative text. It’s fun to just say the words.”

In addition to being attracted by the rhythm of the word sounds, one word particularly caught Shatin’s imagination: outgrabe. In Chapter VI, when Humpty Dumpty meets Alice, he explains the word as “something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle.”

Top: Composer Judith Shatin. Bottom: The Jabberwock as illustrated by Sir John Tenniel for the original printing of Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.”
That kind of intertwining of sounds is a concept that is familiar to Shatin. Sounds the average person often takes for granted spark Shatin’s imagination. The composer delights in building new sound worlds from existing ones. Previous compositions have incorporated such sounds as machines in a working coal mine, the blast of a shofar (a trumpet made of a ram’s horn), the cry of a wolf and the songs of birds. Her experimentation with both acoustic instruments and computer-generated and manipulated sounds makes her a highly inventive composer who creates works performed by some of the world’s most respected music groups.

Shatin is no stranger to employing one of the most basic and at the same time sophisticated musical instruments, the human voice. She has created numerous choral music compositions with more than 10 to her credit. Included in that repertoire is “We Hold These Truths,”
commissioned by the University and performed by the University Singers in 1992 for U.Va.’s celebration of Jefferson’s 250th birthday. The Jabberwocky is her first composition for an all-male chorus.

The Virginia Glee Club, a student organization that prides itself on its dedication to performing at a professional level, rallied to master the sophistication of Shatin’s composition. “The piece is very challenging. It has a complicated meter and complicated chords. The subtle changes of the repeats and interplay between the parts make it very difficult,” Faulkner said. “It extended the vocal techniques of the group with the Jabberwocky roar, clapping, stomping and whistling.”

“They did a really good job,” Albinder said. “They worked hard and were committed to the piece. It’s a tonal piece that’s fun to listen to and fun to perform.”

The group premiered the composition on a spring-break tour of the South, where the whimsical composition was well received by the average listener as well as seasoned musicians who attended the concerts, Faulkner said.

The Virginia Glee Club, which was founded in 1871 and is the oldest musical organization at the University, will premiere “The Jabberwocky” in Charlottesville at a concert by the Virginia Glee Club and the Virginia Women’s Chorus on April 1 in Old Cabell Hall. It will also be part of the program at their annual Finals concert in May.


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