A Blunt Object, Oh Robert

I have mentioned that I love to write method songs. That is to say, to get into the head of a character I’m interested in and ask myself what I might think in his/her shoes. “A Blunt Object, Oh Robert” is about J. Robert Oppenheimer and his involvement with the Manhattan Project. I’ve been somewhat obsessed with him ever since seeing John Adams’ amazing opera, Dr. Atomic. John Adams is a bit of a hero of mine, (sorry Phil and Steve…oh, ok, I love you guys too…), for his totally free (and gorgeous) use of minimalist, romantic and serialist influences. So, this song is definitely an homage to that work (see the intro and choruses) but it’s also just my take on the story and the character. I also had this iconic photo of him in mind from the fantastic Phillipe Halsman series of people jumping (via The Photography Post).

I became obsessed with thinking about Oppenheimer’s story as a metaphor for the artist. He was a true, old-fashioned, renaissance man, as well-read in poetry, philosophy, and history, as he was in physics. He might have pursued poetry or philosophy but he was in love with physics, and by all accounts was incredibly, intellectually ambitious. He was not a hawk and was torn between his intellectual desire to open the door in front of him, and his fears about creating such a massively destructive weapon. These twin desires of creation and destruction often go hand in hand: the desire to build up and to tear down. You can explore both – as an artist – to fruitful results, regardless. It takes on a different tone for an atomic physicist.

A Blunt Object, Oh Robert by Mappa Mundi

Musically, I tried to evoke the southwest, where the development and testing took place, as well as the precise, cyclical, contrapuntal movements of a watch. Most importantly, I tried to capture the paradoxical, twin feelings of exhilaration and dread he must have been feeling when he watched the bomb go off for the first time. He is reported as quoting from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

SPOILER ALERT: Please do listen to the song all the way through before I tell you that the explosion/thunder sound, and distant foghorn/alarm immediately following the “siren” coda of the trumpet and violin, is created by nothing more than the trumpet and air. I dropped it digitally a number of octaves, and ran it through tons of distortion and some delay. The explosion itself is just breath, air, and ambient sound distorted, compressed and made extra loud. The foghorn/alarm is the trumpet.

Lastly, the incredible fiddle work is thanks to Mappa Mundi violinist, Suzanne Lipkin. She captured exactly the fervor and rue the song needed.

As always, please let me know what you think in the comments. Downloading and sharing is encouraged and enabled using the buttons on the player.