Judith Shatin comments on Black Moon

Black Moon, for conductor-controlled electronics and orchestra, will be premiered on October 28 at 7:30 p.m. at Zankel Hall. It was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for this performance, with conductor George Manahan and the American Composers Orchestra.

When I was first approached about composing a new piece for this program, I started, as always, by ruminating and researching. I compose pieces that have specificity in terms of content and context, yet go beyond the particulars of a given performance. I knew that I wanted to build on techniques developed for Being in Time, a recent project scored for conductor-controlled electronics, wind ensemble and interactive video. The goal in both was to give the conductor more immediate control of the electronics, blending them seamlessly with the ensemble. I used a Kinect Controller for both, with programming developed by composer Paul Turowski, who just finished his PhD in our department at University of Virginia. I created the electronics for Black Moon from recordings I made of the orchestral instruments, transforming them in ways that create new sonic worlds.


Still, the question remained as to design. In thinking about the time of year, I was drawn to the mysteries of the moon, and specifically the ‘black moon,’ which is thought by some to be an auspicious time for rituals. The term ‘black moon’ refers to the appearance of a fourth moon in a season when typically there are three. It occurs approximately every 2.5 years, and is linked to the length of its orbit versus that of the earth. These cycles inform the large-scale design of the piece, as well as some of the more local elements.


The ACO invited me to develop the project through its coLABoratory series in March, 2016. This was a welcome opportunity to try out both some musical ideas and the technology. I composed some snapshot movements, called Red Moon, and scored them for string quintet and electronics. It was an important experience. An orchestra conductor has many gestures to make with his/her hands, and I saw that, although the gestures to trigger the sound files involved only the left hand, it felt constraining. So, for Black Moon, we have used a foot trigger to start each electronic passage, and saved the left-hand motion for places where the conductor is asked to move the sound around the space. In the end, what fascinates me, beyond the particular technologies involved, is how one can use both electronic and acoustic soundworlds to create musical experiences that result from new sonic vistas.

While I know that all technology, whether pianos or computers, changes in ways that afford particular compositional responses, and that these are anything but static, it is exciting to explore them as they evolve.