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Weekend Pick: Jacob TV's The News

By Alexander Hough in Arts & Entertainment on May 3, 2012 7:20PM

Photo by Mark van Vugt

Tomorrow night, Chicago new-music group Fulcrum Point will give the first two Chicago performances of The News, the new opera by the Dutch avant-pop composer Jacob Ter Veldhuis that premiered in Pittsburgh last Friday. Ter Veldhuis, better known as Jacob TV, typically writes for one or more live musicians playing along with spliced TV excerpts. His music, which, in tonality, instrumentation, and rhythm, is essentially pop, takes its melodic material from recorded speech fragments, a technique made famous by Steve Reich's early tape pieces and developed further by Scott Johnson. The News is what Ter Veldhuis refers to as a "reality opera," with edited video clips of U.S. and international news playing a duet with eight instrumentalists and two live singers.

The subject of Ter Veldhuis's music is almost always Western (that is, American) culture. It's not entirely clear if he is just fascinated by pop culture or whether his feelings are fonder. It's not just the conspicuously constant use of contemporary media snippets as the basis for his works; his music, while not necessarily uncritical, is imbued with an energy and glee not normally associated with satire. In The Body of Your Dreams, which was deftly performed by pianist Lisa Kaplan at an eighth blackbird concert in March, the source material is an infomercial for the AbTronic Pro, a piece of exercise-without-exercising equipment that is now, unsurprisingly, off the market. Ter Veldhuis's piece makes the ridiculous even more ridiculous, but the frenetic pace and sunny disposition, right down to repeating a woman's gasp to vividly evoke her orgasm, leaves the impression that Ter Veldhuis is so happy that this product and its advertisement exists.

The news is a trickier subject, and we're not sure whether he can remain as agnostic, or whether we even want him to. We saw a brief preview at UIC on a recent Tuesday (by the way, UIC has free concerts every Tuesday during the school year), and we're not sure what to make of it (we weren't helped by the poor acoustics and the fact that it was Fulcrum Point's first reading of the piece, but that's another story). Certain of the songs were quintessential examples of Ter Veldhuis's smiling eyeroll - a conversation between Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, Michael Moore's self-aggrandizing speech to OWS - but one song is devoted to former Marine Sergeant Rob Sarra's account, given to PBS' Frontline, of killing an unarmed Iraqi woman. The accompanying music is appropriately serious, but, more than that, the scene is pregnant with meaning - about the Iraq War and, by implication, the culpability of the media - and Ter Veldhuis's stand has consequences for the work as a whole.

But to paraphrase an old sports saw, that's why they play the opera, and we can't wait to see the entire work. The 90-minute production will be eminently consumable, since its format - 36 TV clips broken down into brief songs - mirrors the ADD-inducing subject matter. It's not lost on us that the same things in our current culture that we feel rot our brains - both the source material and the style's flash and shine - are what makes Ter Veldhuis's music so viscerally appealing. This meta-commentary is what we love about Jacob TV, and it may be the whole point. His music makes us hear familiar sounds in a new way, but it's hard to consider this without also thinking about what we accept and desire from our media culture in the first place. Ter Veldhuis is satirizing pop culture, but the joke may ultimately be on us.

Friday at 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., Park West, 322 W. Armitage, $20 - 30 individual tickets, $140 for a four-person booth, $160 for a six-person booth