Now I Am Become Death

Michael Cotten
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Featured at the 2022 International Trumpet Guild National Conference "New Works Recital" performed by Dr. TJ Perry

In 1965, J. Robert Oppenheimer gave a televised interview which would go on to live in infamy. Reflecting on seeing the first atomic bomb successfully detonate, he said:

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another”

Now I Am Become Death explores the emotions felt by Oppenheimer and the world created in the wake of the atomic bomb. The composition doesn’t seek to pass judgement on atomic weapons, rather to explore what a human would feel knowing they have forever shifted the paradigm of humanity forever.

There are multiple motifs present throughout Now I Am Become Death. The first is the constant ticking of a clock. This clock represents the doomsday clock which was started in 1947 in response to the use of nuclear weapons. The ticking is ever present and at times is amplified to feel pressing on the listener. In addition to this is the use of sampled of audio from various sources. The 1965 Oppenheimer interview is weaved throughout the entire composition. This interview is chopped up rhythmically at times, appearing only in small bursts; at others it is distorted to take on a malevolent feel; and at the apex of the composition, the interview is allowed to play in its entirety without interruption. Beyond Oppenheimer, the composition features sampled audio from former presidents Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and Donald J. Trumpet, along with a few other sources such as a nuclear bomb drill PSA.

Supplementing the above audio are dozens of tracks including sampled choirs, custom synthesizers, sirens, static, and more. The accompanying piano part will sound highly reminiscent of Henry Cowell and his piano works. The piano switches back and forth between playing large cluster chords/slow moving melodies and sharp, jarring melodic fragments.

The trumpet provides the final and central element of the composition. At times the trumpet imitates a distant bugle call, a haunting parallel to Oppenheimer’s quote. This quickly morphs into a fierce, angular melody that gives way to sweeping melodic passages.

To add a feeling of unease. There is a subtle frequency of 18hz present throughout the piece, emitted by a clean sine wave. From a paper titled "Mechanical Resonant Frequency of the Human Eye in Vivo", this is claimed to the be roughly the frequency at which a human eyeball vibrates. Thus creating a subconscious pressure and sense of unease on the listener.


More on Ocular Frequency Vibration by via Adam Neely:

  • You'll get a copy of the music and audio track with no trumpet

  • You'll get a copy of the music and audio track with no trumpet
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