"BREAKDOWN," a 20-minute visual/musical composition that premiered at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall in New York on February 20, is a shotgun wedding uniting innovative montage and musique concr�te to a lambently responsive orchestral accompaniment. Experimental sound and video artist Kasumi (a professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art) joined forces with composer and Cleveland Institute of Music Professor Emeritus Margaret Brouwer to create a powerfully innovative, excitingly mutant work. Both artists are internationally known, and their collaboration for the American Composers Orchestra's Orchestra Underground series was a landmark event.
Subtitled "A sample-based hybrid opera in one act," the multi-leveled "BREAKDOWN" needs to be seen and heard more than once. Portions of dialogue and sound derived from film and video clips are retrofitted to a fast-paced montage, telling a cautionary tale of greed and political manipulation. Kasumi's found-text libretto - extracted from early TV sci-fi dramas, propaganda footage, B movies and commercials, - wraps the work's narrative in aural texture and musical motives, driving a storyline that is at once parodic and deadly serious. The scene, established visually by the opera's cold war-era sources, is the Amerika of the McCarthy era - a stand-in for the darker side of American realpolitick. But the metaphorical events depicted are immediately recognizable in the context of recent wars and domestic policies. The time evoked may be an all-purpose "then," but it's also urgently now.
The work begins with a long, beeping electronic noise - the universal cliché for urgent transmission - juxtaposed with standard sci-fi imagery. Quick visual slices showing vintage telescopes and radar screens alternate with legions of lab-coated scientists and a sprinkling of quaintly rendered planets, underpinned by the counterpoint of Kasumi's acousmatic sounds and Brouwer's score. It appears that a surreal invasion of blinking doll heads is underway. Shots of first-generation TV screens show these brunette comets with neatly trimmed bangs, bouncing around the sky. Scientists, businessmen, army brass and generic family members lounging in suburban living rooms lift their heads in apprehension. "There they are!" says a distinguished-looking man in a necktie, evincing authoritative alarm; he makes a sweeping gesture. They are everywhere.
Soon it becomes clear that this "invasion" means big business for the military-industrial complex. Things go from bad to worse as the population is tricked, tortured and enslaved - at least for the time being. The word "breakdown" appears at the end of the third of the work's four scenes, following clips outlining the rapid brainwashing of the population. A drugged-looking man recites the phrase "Some things we do just because we believe in them," slowed to a dream-like crawl, set against an ironically lyrical orchestral passage. The situation looks bad, but don't leave your seat prematurely. There may be hope after all.