It’s really hard to figure out where to start with this one. I’ve spent more time working on Needle Point than pretty much any piece since my dissertation. In short, it’s a song cycle for tenor, piano, and computer on the subject of opioid addiction. But that’s really a gross oversimplification. It takes a little longer, but the program notes below do a better job explaining it, as do the articles in the Oakland University News and the Oakland Post.

The premier and subsequent performances are February 28, March 1, and March 2, 2019. Tickets are available here. I love the added warning (*Warning: this production contains mature themes and adult language, including references to drug addiction as well as drug paraphernalia.)

The Program Notes

I was initially approached by Drake Dantzler in the Fall of 2017 to write a companion piece for a performance of Janacek’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared, a song cycle dealing with a Polish peasant’s obsession with a Gypsy girl, and his subsequent abandonment of family/tradition to be with her. Thematically, it’s relatively tame by today’s standards.

With that as a point of departure, we tried a few ideas – old man facing death and reflecting on his life, a more sexualized or taboo love, the pursuit of power, mental illness, or other existential crises. I don’t remember who first suggested drugs, but after some back and forth, it definitely seemed to be the best topic to tackle.

Living in the US, it’s hard not to be aware of opioids – I’ve had prescriptions for them multiple times myself after knee and shoulder injuries. But the scale of their misuse has been a national focus since at least 2000 with FDA data from the previous year showing approximately 400,000 recreational users of OxyContin. Giving the rate of over-prescription that was encouraged by pharmaceutical manufacturers throughout the 90’s, and the extremely addictive nature of the drugs combined with easy access led to a national epidemic. Death rates rose, first gradually, then exponentially, with over 49,000 confirmed opioid deaths in 2017 alone.

Looking into the lives of users was not difficult. The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and nearly every regional paper I searched had large numbers of articles on users. Many fit a pattern – normal life interrupted by an injury and Vicodin, getting addicted and then losing the prescription, then turning to heroin or fentanyl in desperation, and a cycle of recovery attempts. Some ended with years of sobriety, some relapsed and recovered, but more often than not, the people chronicled succumbed to an overdose. There are hundreds of these stories out there, and the numbers keep rising.

With these as source texts and a few additional texts for vocabulary flavor (including Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, The Downward Spiral, Kubla Kahn, and Les Fleurs du Mal), I set about recreating this pattern in a narrative. Running my source texts through the jGnoetry generator (at I used a simple computer program to select random snippets of text from each source and arrange them in a free verse output. These sources were weighted based on segmenting the sources into sequences – pre-addiction, addiction, recovery, and post, with the resulting texts being lightly edited to remove extraneous punctuation or nonsensical words and phrases. This proved to be extremely effective (somewhat depressingly so) in creating the final text for the cycle. In fact, only movements 10, 17, and 24 use text that is entirely my own.

The result is a text that tells the story of a young, unnamed narrator and their descent into addiction. Musically, it’s reinforced by the gradual loss of harmony, increasing use of extended techniques on the piano, Sprechstimme, and computer processing as the cycle progresses. I’d like to say that this story is an anomaly, but unfortunately, it’s all too familiar.

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