Jim Jones, Devolution, and Speech-Music

The use of recorded human speech as source material for music compositions has a fairly brief but very rich history. Many 20th- and 21st-century artists have used recorded speech as the basis for their compositions and performances: Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” hinges on speech that emulates recordings (answering machines, etc.), Robert Ashley’s “Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon” is based on recorded descriptions of crimes, and Stuart Smith’s “Links” series of vibraphone pieces use the rhythms of human speech as their starting point.

When percussionist Scott Farkas asked me for write him a piece for snare drum and computer, it was only days after I had heard the Jonestown “death tape” for the first time. Aside from the obvious and deep impact of hearing Jim Jones convince his followers to commit suicide, I was struck by the slurred, stop-and-start quality of his speech. Quick Internet searches (mostly on YouTube) yielded several short recordings of Jones speaking earlier in his life, and on these recordings his voice was something else entirely: staccato, firm, forceful. The devolution of his speaking voice (aided by increasing drug use and exhaustion) from these earlier recordings to the “death tape” is clear. As the compositional process began, I sought out as much source audio of Jim Jones’ speech as I could, and obtained more than 100 mp3 recordings from this website, ranging from Jones’ sermons in Indiana and California, to his reading of the news to the people of Jonestown, to community meetings leading up to November 1978.

While the snare drum is capable of many different sounds, most percussionists spend a large amount of their time focusing on only one of those sounds: the roll. Percussionists spend years making this crisp, articulate instrument sound as smooth as possible by refining their roll technique. This contrast between the short, sharp accents of single strokes and the legato buzzing of the roll provides the foil to Jim Jones’ voice.

The opening section of the work consists of a structured snare drum improvisation (with the performer first using their fingers, then brushes and felt mallets, and finally sticks) that is interrupted and punctuated by unaltered phrases spoken by Jones. The second section is composed of transcribed speech rhythms from the “death tape” played by the performer set against a heavily-processed background of Jones’ “news broadcasts” to Jonestown members. The third section completes the devolution: the snare drummer only plays rolls, and the computer plays back unaltered portions of the “death tape.” The computer follows the performer’s sound, starting and stopping playback when the performer starts and stops their roll. In this way, the performer can shape the pace and phrasing, though not the content, of Jones’ speech.

Jonestown Triptych for snare drum and computer will be premiered at the University of Akron in the spring of 2010. My thanks to Scott Farkas for the commission, and to the Jonestown Institute for its assistance. The final score and computer program are not yet completed at the time of this writing. If you’d like more information, please contact me at billsallak@gmail.com.

(Bill Sallak is Assistant Professor/Dance Music Director at the School of Theatre and Dance at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.)