Composing 'The News,' With A Musical Twist

Originally published on May 4, 2012 8:03 pm

JacobTV cried censorship.

It was the autumn of 2011, and the Dutch avant-pop composer — real name Jacob ter Veldhuis — had arrived in Rome to discover that the gallery Maxxi Museo had yanked from its exhibition space a "video concerto" he'd created.

The cause? It featured former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi denying charges of corruption, and the museum's curators were worried that was too provocative. They feared political repercussions.

"I felt betrayed," JacobTV says.

The 60-year-old JacobTV, who writes for orchestras, ensembles and rock bands, often gets tangled in controversy, usually because his found-object compositions frequently incorporate the words of world leaders, politicians and celebrities.

But he often gets the last laugh, as well. That banned Berlusconi video concerto appears two times in his thumping reality opera The News, which premiered April 27 at Pittsburgh's Distinctively Dutch Festival. It plays again May 4 and 5 during Chicago's Fulcrum New Music Project.

In its new setting, the Berlusconi aria opens with mythical Mark of the Beast — "666" — floating across the screen over images of a blank-eyed news anchor, who seems to be describing the Antichrist. Berlusconi's speeches follow — manipulated footage in which the colors have been tweaked to look garish, as if he's on an acid trip. Berlusconi's political rhetoric bursts into a spray of large-scale graphic elements, with phrases tweaked to stutter, a la the scratching of a hip-hop DJ, or slow-mo'd — or turned into a spastic New Age rap.

A speech given by then-candidate Barack Obama — "We are one day from changing America" — becomes a menacing spoken-word aria. Paris Hilton's interview of Lady Gaga at a London party morphs into a duet of blurted-out pseudo-love.

And JacobTV recomposes two TV interviews into separate strange duets — a Fox News chat between talk show host Glenn Beck and ex-governor Sarah Palin on the subject of untrustworthy politicos, plus Charlie Rose's PBS interview of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in which the latter denies responsibility for waterboarding at Guantanamo.

But The News is not the political hit job you might expect. JacobTV insists that he takes a neutral attitude toward the political figures whose communications he chooses to retouch. And nothing would please him more than if conservatives were to approve of his work.

"When you work with sound bites," he says, "it is too easy to make a fool of Palin and Beck. My technique is to try to zoom in and investigate what it is exactly that moves Palin. I don't want to judge. I don't want to moralize. I want to show."

"If the outcome of the way I portray her is positive, so be it. Through music, I can make a new reality. I feel almost like a poet, because I play with the words, syllables, images and turn that into a new reality."

In fact, one of The News' critiques is in the way it calls into question the objectivity of news media themselves. How? By exposing the process of editing and digital reprocessing necessary to deliver another kind of composite — the nightly news.

"I am just like a journalist, because I am manipulating the news," JacobTV argues.

Randy Gener is a New York-based writer and editor, and winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for drama criticism.

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