One on 1 with Judith Shatin

“Music is a form of speech”

Join our One on 1 conversation with Judith Shatin, composer and William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emerita at the University of Virginia.

Judith discusses her new piece, Respecting the First (Amendment), created for the San Jose Chamber Orchestra.


JUDITH SHATIN: What are the experiences of our lives? Those influenced me a great deal in my composing.

MAXWELL NOSBISCH: Hello everyone! Thank you for tuning into this episode of the First Amendment Museum’s one on 1 series. Today I’m joined by our wonderful guest, Judith Shatin- you just composed a piece about the first amendment, do you wanna give the background and- well sort of what it is to anybody listening?

JUDITH SHATIN: Thank you, Maxwell. I’m a composer based in Charlottesville Virginia. Respecting The First Amendment is a piece in its current version commissioned by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra and their wonderful conductor Barbera Day Turner. It is scored for string orchestra and electronics that I fashioned from readings of and about the First Amendment, and there are plans firming up for next season for a live performance of the music and I’m excited about that. 

MAXWELL NOSBISCH: Why do you think the first amendment is important? Wha-what are its goals and purpose?

JUDITH SHATIN: So all of this is fundamental to a society that is tolerant, that is open, that enables people to freely exchange ideas. So to me, they are absolutely fundamental to this society.

MAXWELL NOSBISCH: So what was your immediate inspiration to compose a piece about the first amendment?

JUDITH SHATIN: The inspiration to compose this piece actually came from listening to the various town hall meetings when the tea party had first started making noise about the Affordable Care Act. The back and forth at that time inspired me to want to do a piece about the first amendment so that even though I disagreed with this stance, I thought it was important that people were allowed to express themselves.

MAXWELL NOSBISCH: How do you utilize music to convey messages nonverbally about the first amendment?

JUDITH SHATIN: I think of music as a kind of speech. It has tamper, it has rhythm, it has shaping that invokes emotional responses from people. So in that sense, I think all music does that. This particular piece I used a number of different devices, so for instance just the rhythm of Congress shall make no law, that rhythm, ba-ba, ba-bum bum bum, you will find that very prominent in this composition. You will also hear reference to a couple of well-known American tunes and that is another way to create a kind of external reference as well as building up from the rhythms responses, at least that I experienced and so I hope that others might experience them as well.

MAXWELL NOSBISCH: So thinking about um music as a form of speech, um what can music offer, even music without actual words, what can that offer that just mere words can’t? 

JUDITH SHATIN: Well first of all I don’t think I want to say mere words because words can elicit so much. But if you think about listening to someone speak, the timbre of their voice, the tone of voice conveys so much and that gets amplified a thousandfold in music. So we get a strong sense of for instance–type of mood, we get a vivid emotional response to music that moves us in ways that words themselves don’t. 

MAXWELL NOSBISCH: How do you utilize the First Amendment in your everyday life?

JUDITH SHATIN: I feel free to contact my congresspeople, to express myself, to work for change that I believe is important to this society. I write letters to editors where I want to express my opinions. I practice my religion freely and do whatever I can to ensure that others are able to do that. These are so important and they are under threat in so many parts of the world and now to some extent in our own society, and one other thing that I would like to add when we’re discussing the opportunity to peaceably assemble. One of the voices that I have is that of Gabby Giffords reading the first amendment on the floor of the house the day before she was shot while trying to meet with her constituents who were trying to peaceably assemble. That is one of the reasons why I am so concerned today that our ability to peaceably assemble is so frequently violated. I think it is so important that we’re able to do that and meet with our representatives and express our concerns to them without concern for violence. 

MAXWELL NOSBISCH: Well thank you so much for joining us.

JUDITH SHATIN: Thank you very much