In 1967, 13 years before Jacob Cooper was born, Steve Reich dreamed of an impossible piece of music: he imagined a single repeated sound, gradually becoming slower and slower, but without ever changing pitch or timbre at all. It was impossible to achieve this effect with the tape machines of his day. Reich called his piece Slow Motion Sound.
Nowadays, this technology is in the toolkit of every electronic musician. There's hardly a DJ alive who hasn't slowed a vocal down, or sped it up, to fit another beat, while keeping it in the same key. Even Reich has used it in his recent video operas. And it has been taken to extremes in conceptual pieces like Nick Pittsinger's internet meme "Justin Bieber slowed down 800%" or Leif Inge's 24-hour Beethoven remix, 9 Beet Stretch.
The result is a different way of thinking about musical time. "Flawless" musical performances can be put under a microscope to reveal strange landscapes of undulating pitch within a single note. The "seamless" transitions between notes can be prolonged to become musical events in themselves. A moment too short to notice can last forever.
This landscape is the place where Jacob Cooper calls home. His breakout piece, the two-person pop art opera Timberbrit (2008-2010), puts pop music under this microscopic lens, just as the relationships of its title characters, Justin Timberlake (played by composer Ted Hearne at the premiere) and Britney Spears (new-music muse Mellissa Hughes), have been put under the equally powerful magnifying lens of tabloid scrutiny.
At the time, Timberlake's musical career was taking off from superstardom to megastardom, while his ex-girlfriend Spears was descending into tabloid reports of drugs and bad decisions. Timberbrit dramatizes an operatic moment of reunion for the two of them with a nightmarish intensity derived from applying the principles of Slow Motion Sound to live performance. The two singers slur through seemingly never-ending melodies, howling like sirens, to reveal the nightmare beneath the polished pop surface.
If it all sounds like a joke—it sort of is. But Cooper's musical intentions are serious. He has applied the same technique he used for the trials of Britney Spears to the sorrows of Mary at the Crucifixion in his Stabat Mater Dolorosa (2009) for four voices and strings, a work of unmistakably solemn beauty.
Cooper has branched out into the exploitation of other uncanny digital effects—his video Commencer Une Autre Mort (2011) rapidly alternates between two recordings of the death scene in Carmen to turn it into a disturbing new piece of music, and his Alter ad Alterum for accordion (2011) does the same with Monteverdi. Clifton Gates (2011) for composer/pianist Timothy Andres runs Cooper's logic in reverse: where John Adams's Phrygian Gates used harmonic "gates" inspired by electronic gating technology, Cooper applies actual gates, among other digital effects, to an Adams-inspired piano piece.
It's too soon to guess what sort of impossible music Cooper will realize next. But in the meantime, he's given us a very long moment in which to dwell on it.