A sample based hybrid opera in one act for chamber orchestra and video
Commission: American Composers Orchestra
Premiere: American Composers Orchestra, Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, 2/20/09
Duration: 19 minutes
Instrumentation: 1111; 1111; 3 perc, pno, hp, strings (65432)
SCENE 1: LOOK OUT! When an unidentified object is spotted in space, observers immediately alert government authorities.
SCENE 2: THE MACHINES/PERPETUAL PROFITS The US government, now in the hands of the Illegal Party, puts the country on red alert: vast profits can be made from this unknown enemy. Washington's propaganda machine goes into overdrive to generate fear in the public, through whose labors the military/industrial/media complex has reaped rich rewards.
SCENE 3: JUST BECAUSE Mesmerized by the righteous glories of war, people fall into step with the military drumbeat, and finally completely anesthetized, drift into total complacency to the lilt of a free market bandwagon. Many lose the power to question their government and cannot recognize the looming breakdown of their world.
SCENE 4: BREAKDOWN Others, moved by Washington's disdain for its impoverished citizens and the environment in which they live, foment resistance. People march out to vote, but rigged voting booths open onto an even worse fate. The smallest protest becomes a treasonous act and citizens are rounded up, imprisoned for interrogation, and ultimately tortured by a vindictive and triumphalist government.
In Brouwer and Kasumi's work of experimental film and music, sampled audio/visual/film materials and live orchestral music are mixed, woven and, integrated to create a multi-layered narrative flow that reveals intriguing structural formations and compelling meanings. Each sample is a portion or fragment of audio and visual material extracted from its original source like movies or early television. These are chosen on the basis of one or more formal elements: movement, gesture, color, tempo, pitch, timbre, texture, emotion, content, etc. Some of these samples are used to derive motivic musical material for the orchestral score. At other times the inspiration flows in reverse, as orchestral rhythms and intervals suggest the content and manner of the visual rhythms and melodies. Sometimes an audio sample is used as an instrument, thus expanding the orchestral sound and texture.
The goal in the creation of this hybrid opera was to create music and video/sound simultaneously, allowing each to inspire and propel the other. From the very first moment, the music and the video are completely inter-related. Most of the musical motives were created by imitating a rhythm or a group of intervals existing in the speeches or soundsos on the screen. Many are exact replications. Spoken phrases were picked that are not only emphatic, but also have vibrant rhythms and definitely pitched intervals. For instance in the sentence "The machines give you the power to control the universe", the speaker's voice steadily rises in pitch, and the rhythm of his speech is definite and emphatic. The first time this musical motive appears, it begins in the brass, and as the pitch rises and intensity of the speaker increases, the entire orchestra joins in. This motive is used in different ways throughout the opera. Other phrases that are literally copied and then used as musical motivic material are: "that's extra fine", "perpetual profit", breakdown", a short phrase from an operatic-type singer, and the rhythm of a repeated laugh. In Scene 3 the forward motion slows down and a dream-like sequence begins. Near the end of this scene, the speech of the person who says the line, "There are some things we do just because we believe in them,” has been slowed down considerably. The phrase has been set to a melody that follows the pitch shape of the voice, and is timed to the rhythm of the speaker. In the style of a Gesamptkunstwerk, sometimes the musical motives appear or are elaborated upon even when the particular character or idea is not on the screen deepening the drama or showing a hidden message.
"Kasumi, a video artist, plundered old films for an uproarious bricolage of alien-invasion panic, financial distress, military might and patriotic sentiment. The composer Margaret Brouwer responded with speech-inflected melodies and sharp-witted musical puns. A contemporary political resonance was obvious, but robust humor deflected any hint of preachiness." - Steve Smith, The New York Times, 2009
"For all its outwardly playful demeanor, Margaret Brouwer's 20-minute video opera Breakdown was four fearlessly scathing scenes about America's current economic crisis...The black and white film clips often cut in and out in nanoseconds, with the score employing whatever appropriate musical color was needed for characterization. The totality was ingenious." - David Patrick Stearns, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2009