Instrumentation: Computer music video/film
Composer Judith Shatin collaborated with filmmaker Robert Arnold to create Rotunda, a 15-minute film with sound inspired by the Rotunda and the Academical Village that anchors Jefferson’s University, now known as the University of Virginia. While sitting in her office, facing the Rotunda and Lawn, Shatin suddenly saw the scene spring to life as a movie that combined the majesty of the place with the daily hum of its life. She also imagined the film as a way of sharing this world-heritage site with people unable to experience it in person. She contacted filmmaker Robert Arnold, currently head of the School of Film and Photography at Montana State University. They had met as fellows at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center and she thought he would be an ideal collaborator because his films treat time in such fascinating ways. He was intrigued by the idea, and they moved ahead, working with Erdman Video Systems, a company that makes a camera/computer system for construction surveillance. They repurposed the system for artistic ends, with the camera located for an entire year on the upper story of Old Cabell Hall, directly opposite the Rotunda. It took still pictures at user-determined intervals and uploaded them to computers in Shatin’s and Arnold’s offices. During that period Shatin collected sounds, both in and around the Rotunda, and conducted unscripted interviews about it. Participants ranged from a variety of students to architectural historians, Jefferson experts, an alumnus, UVA Professors, and then UVA President John T. Casteen. All are acknowledged in the film credits, as are the many other individuals and groups who helped in myriad ways.
The sound world of the piece was derived from these recordings. In one version Shatin included interview excerpts while turning others into music; in the other, she let the sonic transformations and ambient sounds, such as rain, the stacking of chairs, the sound of lawn mowers, and people walking, carry the video. In both, she used computer processing to transform these sounds into music, and both are included in the DVD, available at www.judithshatin.com. The results range from the rich low tones of the opening to the harmonic sounds of lawn mowers racing up the Lawn, to strong rhythmic sections. Meanwhile, Arnold grouped the photos by the time of year, and, after they made the decision to structure the film as one day unfolding over the course of a year. This required exacting attention to the movement of light and shadow, as well as integration of the close-up and longer shots. The day moves from dawn to dusk as the year moves from start to finish. Arnold and Shatin spent many happy, intense hours choosing from the 300,000+ images, which Arnold shaped with a variety of surprises! Work on the film involved frequent exchanges of image and sound sequences and a great deal of discussion regarding shape and duration. The result, which was installed for several months at the University of Virginia Arts Museum, and shown at a number of festivals, garnered the award for best experimental film at the 2011 Macon Film Festival. It captures the timeless flow of life at the University that Jefferson called “…the last of my mortal cares, and the last service I can render my country.”
“Rotunda – A Living Portrait, is a marvelous short film by composer Judith Shatin and filmmaker Robert Arnold.” —SoundWordSight