Composer Judith Shatin has been making engaging electro-acoustic music for years from her home base of Charlottesville, Virginia, where she serves as a professor and director of the Virginia Center for Computer Music at UVA. Her recent Innova release, Tower of the Eight Winds, caught my eye because it contains primarily works for violin and piano without electronics. Teaming up with the Borup-Ernst Duo (Hasse Borup on violin and Mary Kathleen Ernst on piano), Shatin has assembled a vivid set of compositions, rendered in well-recorded, vigorous performances.
The inspiration for three of the five works on the CD is drawn from Greek mythology. Each movement of Icarus is based on some aspect of the myth, with the instruments suggesting the characters of Icarus (violin) and his father (piano) throughout the work. The first movement, “Majestic”, portrays confidence and grandeur, while “Delirious” illuminates the occasionally fraught relationship between father and son, with sharp musical corners for violin and edgy rhythmic material. “Soaring” stretches out and elegantly depicts the two floating in the sky, under the heat of the sun. In the more choppy, intense “Wild,” you can hear the frenzy and confusion of Icarus’s fall to earth.
The composition Tower of the Eight Winds, after which the disc is titled, takes its name from the Tower of the Winds, located at the Acropolis in Athens. Each movement explores the motion of sound through time by illustrating a different “type” of wind as described in Bowditch’s The American Practical Navigator. “Taku” is rhythmically driving and intense, inspired by a type of wind common in Southeast Alaska, whereas the musical landscape of “Barber” is dotted with sharp bursts of more dissonant material contrasted with violin trills and harmonics. “Caver” depicts a gentle breeze in the Hebrides, while the gusty “Williwaw” streaks through at a breakneck pace from start to finish.
Sandwiched between the above two compositions is the one electro-acoustic work on the recording, Penelope’s Song for violin and electronics, in which the violin performs over a series of rhythmic patterns created from the recorded sounds of a wooden loom, evoking the image of Penelope weaving as she awaits the return of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. The electronic sounds form an arc through the piece, becoming increasingly processed and then moving back to less audio manipulation towards the end. The violin travels through a wide range of emotions—high and breathy, jumpy and intense, lyrical. In the end the instrument scampers up the high range, jumping off into the stratosphere.
Widdershins for solo piano begins in angular spurts, then stretches out luxuriously in the second movement, and becomes faster, heavier, and energetic in the third with big, pounding chords, topped off by a surprisingly straightforward ending cadence.
Constructed from four sections of the Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus, Fledermaus Fantasy is predictably the most traditionally “classical” sounding of the works on this disc. It sports many very familiar elements of the original work, with slight detail-oriented twists and turns that mix in Shatin’s own compositional voice.
With extensive imagery set out in all of these works, the message comes through loud and clear that Shatin is a very visual composer. Throughout this CD, and indeed in many of her other compositions, both electro-acoustic and purely instrumental, you get the sense that she is painting with sound, or building musical terrain for the listener to hike through, panoramic views included.