for Mezzo-Soprano and Piano

Written: 2018
Duration: ca. 16'
Instrumentation: mezzo-soprano and piano
World Premiere: American Modern Ensemble, Blythe Gaissert, mezzo-soprano, Blair McMillen, piano, Varnegie Hall, Weill Recital Hall, New York, NY, USA, April 26, 2018.
PublisherBill Holab Music

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Also available as a version for baritone and piano.


CAPTCHA originated with an assignment I was given as a participant in the American Opera Projects (AOP) Composers & The Voice program. Throughout the year, we wrote a variety of arias and songs and were given various "challenges." Some of the challenges included using no more than four lines of text, using found text, using prose, and also trying to avoid the passagio (a term used in classical singing to describe where different voice ranges cross over, for example, where the chest voice and head voice cross). I neglected to incorporate any of the challenges into previous pieces, and I only had one song or aria left, so I had to incorporate all of the remaining challenges into a single piece.

For found text, I decided to use CAPTCHA texts. The term CAPTCHA (for Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart) was coined in 2000 by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University. A CAPTCHA is a program that protects websites against bots by generating and grading tests that only humans can pass. For example, humans can read distorted text presented as a graphic, but current computer programs cannot. To find interesting words and phrases, I spent many tedious hours in front of my computer loading CAPTCHA texts. Actually, what I ended using are reCAPTCHA texts, which are derived from a free version of CAPTCHA that uses combinations of real words from scanned books that need human confirmation and gibberish text.

I initially wrote one song entitled CAPTCHA for baritone and piano, but later decided to compose an entire song cycle that incorporates the original song. Each songs uses a few key words (the few that are actually real words and phrases) as a springboard. I attempt to phonetically interpret the other words and phrases that don’t make sense, infusing emotion where none exists. Ultimately, my goal is to create an emotionally moving experience, despite the nonsensical nature of the words.

Press Quotes

There’s Schumannian drama and melancholy in the song cycle “CAPTCHA” that opens this beautiful, witty and sometimes utterly desolate collection.
— The New York Times
Paterson’s knack for supreme vocal writing and effective, elegant structures becomes all the more apparent in CAPTCHA.
— Broadway World
Paterson’s quirky “CAPTCHA” cycle draws on computer-generated texts that have the effect of a modern-day “Jabberwocky.” Each is set expressively by Paterson, who latches onto words such as “blood” and “dream” to establish tone in music reminiscent of Ives.
— New Jersey Star Ledger
What really stands out within these pieces is the thought behind each cycle. The first cycle titled CAPTCHA produces a striking balance of nonsense and clarity. With repeated phrases such as “Robert ROBERT” and “oongled ROBERT” in a row shows the absurdity in how our existence is validated by machines.
— Buffablog