Silicon Valley Breakdown

Silicon Valley Breakdown
for a symphony
of imaginary plucked strings
(4-channel computer-generated sound)

Duration: 20' 

Instrumentation: Four-channel computer-generated sound (Stereo version also available)

"Silicon Valley Breakdown" for computer-generated sound (1982) presents a symphony of imaginary plucked stringed instruments. This electronic orchestra---all sounds are entirely synthesized---is often divided into four smaller ensembles, each with its own tone quality and character. The CD/iTunes recording is a stereo version of the original quadraphonic work.

Click here to purchase Silicon Valley Breakdown on iTunes. For quadraphonic performance materials contact Terra Non Firma Press.

The piece opens with bluegrass music pitted against opposing chromatic "abstract" material. Gradually, these two styles exchange attributes---the rock-solid rhythm of the bluegrass fractures, while the abstract material adopts country music harmony. The two eventually find a kind of resolution, fusing together into a single cohesive texture during the extended finale, then flying apart into opposite corners of the cosmos.The title is a pun referring to classic bluegrass titles like "Shenandoah Valley Breakdown," as well as to the explosion of rhythmic complexity that characterizes the work. A FOONLY F-4 Computer controls musical timing in ways that would be nearly impossible with human instrumentalists. Custom simulation programs extend traditional contrapuntal imitation to produce "elastic canons", in which parts begin together, diverge in tempo and eventually find their way back into perfect synchronization.

The sound was synthesized by the giant Systems Concept Digital Synthesizer at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, Stanford University. This device models the physics of a plucked string, using a technique invented by Alex Strong, Kevin Karplus, David A. Jaffe and Julius Smith, and combines a variety of filtering and modulation methods to blur the dividing line between string resonance and reverberation, between instrument and space.

Since its premier at the 1983 Biennale in Venice, "Silicon Valley Breakdown" has been presented in over twenty countries on five continents. Jacques Lonchampt of Le Monde hailed it as a landmark of computer music.


1984 film by George Olczak, in which Jaffe discusses the making of Silicon Valley Breakdown


Lecture for the general public, entitled "The Making of Silicon Valley Breakdown," presented at the University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada, November 6, 2013, as part of the 2013 Orion Visitor Residency.