Uncanny Valley (2012)

piano, reader, and electronics

Commissioned by Oni Buchanan and Jon Woodward.

Excerpts from the full 50-minute piece.

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(program note by Ariel Artists)

In this concert-length piece, the piano performance of Oni Buchanan joins and reflects the spoken text of the poem “Uncanny Valley” as performed by its author, poet Jon Woodward. “Uncanny Valley” is a long serial poem in 16 sections, meant to be read out loud, with numerous optional repeats throughout the text. These repetitions act as accumulations of sound, maddening as well as hypnotic, and Gibson’s piece provides a sonic environment in which they can truly blossom. Although the pacing is determined by the two performers, the musical specificity of each section (from Morse code to sine waves to jazz to a brief quote of Schumann) reflects the poem text in ever-different ways. Digital samples triggered by the reader enmesh the piano and spoken text, haunting the music with echoes of itself. Extending outward from the phenomenon of “semantic satiation” (whereby a single word loses all apparent meaning and identity when repeated for even a short duration), Uncanny Valley investigates whether or not the same satiation is possible with phrases, sentences, pairs of verse lines, or musical forms.

In 1970, roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term “uncanny valley” to describe the emotional and empathic chasm between humans and imperfect human simulacra, a gap created by their imperfection. This piece searches out what is most uncanny, and most human, in both language and music.

Performance of Uncanny Valley by Oni Buchanan and Jon Woodward at Paine Music Hall, Harvard University, February 2, 2013. Sponsored by the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University.

NOTE: The audio in this video is in mono.


with Oni Buchanan (piano) and Jon Woodward (reader)

  • University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, 3/18/14
  • Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, 11/5/13
  • University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 10/30/13
  • Visiting Writers Series, Nebraska Wesleyan University, Lincoln, Nebraska, 4/16/13
  • CNMAT Center for New Music & Audio Technologies, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, California, 4/14/13
  • Fine Arts Series, Pacific Union College, Angwin, California, 4/9/13
  • Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 3/13/13
  • Paine Music Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2/21/13
  • Smith ArtsFest 2013, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, 2/12/13
  • Center for New Music, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1/27/13
  • Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, 1/24/13
  • Voices in the Valley Series, Saginaw Valley State University, 10/4/12
  • Hope College Visiting Writers Series, Knickerbocker Theatre, Holland, Michigan, 10/2/12
  • Zell Visiting Writers Series, Michigan Union, University of Michigan, 9/27/12

Here is a screenshot of the Max patch. (Click to enlarge.)