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Composer Judith Shatin’s Interactive “Tree Music” Brings Forest Alive at U.Va. Art Museum’s Brzezinski ExhibitEmail this article to a friend

Contact: Jane Ford
(434) 924-4298
TV contact: (434) 924-7550

July 1, 2003

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

This age-old philosophical question resonates in Professor Judith Shatin’s new music installation "Tree Music."

The interactive sound installation is part of the University of Virginia Art Museum’s exhibit, "Emilie Brzezinski: New Directions," which runs through Sunday, Sept. 7. Shatin’s composition was commissioned by the museum with support from the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

Shatin, who is also director of U.Va.’s Virginia Center for Computer Music, composed "Tree Music" using sounds recorded while Brzezinski sculpted tree trunks. She captured the sounds of falling wood, chisels, axes, saws, brooms and other tools that Brzezinski used, echoing the sculptor’s goal to reveal the process as much as the product in her large-scale works.

"I wanted to create music that embodies her process," said Shatin.

She incorporated some of the recorded sounds, using the natural rhythms of the tools hitting the wood. Other sounds she transformed electronically beyond recognition, creating more than 100 sound files that form the basic building blocks of the installation.

The composition also directly involves people attending the exhibit — their movements choreograph elements of the sound installation. A wireless camera with a wide-angle lens records motion in the exhibit space and sends the image data to a computer where it is transformed into signals that change elements of the music.

The composition has four linked sections. When someone enters the empty room, the first section is triggered.

A selection of short set pieces then plays. After a short break, the second section begins. Sounds of differing density and duration are layered in a way the composer calls controlled improvisation. The computer decides at what time and which pieces are played together. Shatin likens it to jazz where certain contrasting pieces go together and others don’t.

"I always like surprises," said Shatin. "That’s one of the reasons I chose this technique."

Next comes the interactive segment. The motion of people in the room changes the elements of the sound, including pitch and register. "In this section the texture thickens," she said.

The fourth section happens after the viewers leave the room. The camera continues to monitor the motion in the empty room. It’s in this section that Shatin plays with the question: If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? At this point the computer plays a series of what the composer has dubbed hypermeasures — sounds unfolding over time. In extended time-spans, ranging from five to 60 minutes, a certain number of beats of one sound play against a different number of beats of another sound. In "Tree Music" these rhythms play out over long durations, creating large-scale polyrhythms.

"I’m really stretching rhythms over super-stretched time," said Shatin.

"Tree Music" was created using Graphic Audio Interface Application, a new computer software music program created by David Topper, technical director of the Virginia Center for Computer Music. GAIA enables the composer to work with user-friendly graphic elements, such as sliders, timers and buttons, as well as programs that interact with the graphics to create interactive pieces. Such pieces can use a wireless camera, or MIDI, or a variety of other sensors. These provide an interface that allows the composer to create pieces that involve interaction between the environment and the art form.

Shatin’s compositions are internationally performed and widely recorded. Her music has been commissioned by groups such as the Ash Lawn Opera Festival, the Barlow Foundation, the Core Ensemble, the Kronos Quartet, the National Symphony, the Dutch Hexagon Ensemble and Wintergreen Performing Arts, through Americans for the Arts.

She composes for a wide variety of media, ranging from traditional chamber, choral and orchestral ensembles to electroacoustic, interactive and multimedia genres. "Piping the Earth," a compact disk of her orchestral music, will be released this fall by Capstone Records.

The VCCM, located in the University’s McIntire Department of Music, supports a wide variety of activities: courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels and research in topics such as interactive media, synthesis techniques and multichannel spatialization. Software developed at the VCCM is made freely available as a service to the entire computer music community. The VCCM Web site is located at

The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Limited parking is available behind the museum.

For details about the exhibit and information about the museum, call (434) 924-3592 or visit the Web site at

For interviews, contact Judith Shatin at (434) 924-3052 or

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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