The Perils of Obedience

commissioned by Decibel Ensemble

Violin + reverb and distortion effects, loop station

Bass Clarinet
Cello + reverb and distortion effects, loop station


This work is inspired by the series of social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. Milgram first described his research in 1963 in an article published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.

The experiments began in July 1961, three months after the start of the trial of German Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised his psychological study to answer the question: "Was it that Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust had mutual intent, in at least with regard to the goals of the Holocaust?"

Three individuals were involved: the one running the experiment, the subject of the experiment (a volunteer), and a confederate pretending to be a volunteer. These three persons fill three distinct roles: the Experimenter (an authoritative role), the Teacher (a role intended to obey the orders of the Experimenter), and the Learner (the recipient of stimulus from the Teacher)

The "teacher" was given an electric shock from the electro-shock generator as a sample of the shock that the "learner" would supposedly receive during the experiment. The "teacher" was then given a list of word pairs which he was to teach the learner.

The piece is separated into three distinct parts.

The graphic score indicates both relative volume and changes of thematic motifs. The motifs are separated into sections A/B/C, and are meant to serve as a guide to the performers to improvise with.

The cello and violin contain drone/loop parts. These must contain a concert pitch C, F & A. It’s at the performers discretion to add more sounds as desired. The overall parts also contain a line on the graphic score indicating amount of reverb and/or distortion to be used during the performance.

The middle section has clearly defined roles. The teacher is in the form of the performer operating the sampler. The samples provided are separated into “Peril#....” and “Shock#V”

The “Peril” samples 1 – 11 can be triggered in any order in the first section, but must start with “Peril1”. “Peril” samples 12 – 17 in the last. Where samples are to be triggered are indicated with dots.

In the middle section, the “Shock/Voltage” samples trigger a response from the other performers. As the Voltage increases, the performers move through a series of chords, gradually increasing intensity.

||: Am | Dm | Em | CM :||

The Last section is a mirror of the first. As indicated on the score, the performers gradually fade out. The samples do not decline in volume.