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Snake Oil

Percussion Septet

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Snake Oil

Since as early as the 1700s, “snake oil” had been sold as a cure-all or panacea for all sorts of conditions, ranging from the nuisance to the life-threatening. Almost invariably, the oils being sold were essentially solutions of herbs like camphor, useful for only a few minor conditions and often harmful for those battling others. Following consumer protection laws passed in the early 20th century, snake oil fell out of favor; but the use of medicine to prey on our fears of disease, aging, and weakness was not going anywhere.

During the time I was working on this piece, revelations began coming on a daily basis about the opioid crisis and the role of pharmaceutical companies in proliferating drugs that are addictive and lethal, often when those companies were fully aware of the risk. This is hardly an isolated example of modern medicine being used as a weapon, of course; the cases of Martin Shkreli and Novo Nordisk’s insulin prices are still fresh in memory, too. I was thinking about this predatory side of the medical world when I began writing a piece for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s percussion ensemble, directed by my great friend and colleague Dave Hall, to take to their second consecutive performance at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) 2019. The use of drums as a healing instrument transcends culture, and after some conversations with Dave about his ensemble, I became obsessed with the idea of “a healing dance that doesn’t work:” heavy grooves and prayer-like chorales that get more and more desperate, until finally — maliciously — the healing dance is revealed as a fraud.

Score and Parts: $40

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