Sensational Revolution in Medicine (2008)

  • Instrumentation: sop, piano + voice
  • Duration: 16’00
  • Performers: Xin Wang – Soprano, Gregory Oh – Piano, speaking voice

Program Notes

I wrote Sensational Revolution in Medicine in 2008, and it was premiered by Xin Wang and Gregory Oh at The Music Gallery in Toronto. The text for the piece is derived from spam emails—which, admittedly, is no longer all that novel in terms of approach. In my defense, however, I do think this piece treats the genre in a unique way. A lot of spam email pieces dwell on one of two themes: either the incoherence of the mangled English grammar, or the annoying nature of getting junk email. Those make for “ha ha” moments and cutesy puns, but the jokes get old really fast.

I didn’t take either of those approaches, because I was mostly interested in what spam emails say about us, the spam recipients. After all, why do people send you spam? It’s because they’re trying to trick you into doing something you don’t want to do: giving them money or infecting your computer with a virus or what have you. To do that, the spammers need to get under the skin of the spammees, attacking their most deep-seated vulnerabilities.

Sure, many of their approaches are laughably crude. (Though I’ve heard arguments made that they do this on purpose so that they only get responses from the most gullible targets—self-selection through mediocrity, if you will.) Crude as they are, however, spam emails are based on deep, dark truths about who we are. Spam emails are, therefore, fundamentally humanistic, if also unsympathetic and often psychopathic. They stare, steely-eyed and uncaring, into the 21st-century zeitgeist. They don’t sugarcoat their messages—instead, they pick away at our scabs to keep them raw. That is the side of spam that I wanted to address in Sensational Revolution.

The format of the piece is a conversation between the soprano and the pianist (who speaks while playing), and all of the text is taken from spam emails. There are five songs in this cycle, and I chose one email for each. The songs each deal with a different type of vulnerability, creating a sort of survey of spam. Finding those five contrasting pieces was not as easy as you might think. I had to read quite a lot of spam—which does weird things to your brain, let me tell you! In the end, however, it was worth it, and this piece has remained one of my long-time favourites.

Below is an overview of the themes you can look for in each song:

  • Sensational Revolution in Medicine – Physical infirmity, failure of conventional treatments, lack of hope.
  • The Most Important Work of Your Career – Job dissatisfaction, get rich quick, appeals to authority.
  • One Hundred Seventy-Three Centimetres, Fifty-Three Kilograms – Loneliness, lack of social interaction, lack of romantic opportunity.
  • Dear User. Why Don’t You… – Lack of self-confidence, problems with body image, lust.
  • A Time of Resource – Greed, feelings of missing out, peer pressure.