Part 4: Character and Timbre

One of the most immediate yet hard-to-define characteristics of a standup comic’s delivery is her character(s).  The character that is created onstage is the result of several musical elements and their leveraging of our learned associations: a monotone delivery evokes a boring or mild-mannered person; a fast and prickly delivery means that the character is nervous or excitable; a loud and harsh delivery conveys anger.  These examples are unsubtle and clichéd - the best comics are able to create nuanced and unexpected characters using their voices alone.

In “3 - Dave Chappelle”, the crux of the bit lies in a change of character and change of perspective about halfway through.  Starting with the line “He’s still here!”, Dave's onstage persona shifts from a non-specific narrative voice that we can plausibly associate with the comic himself to the character of a police officer who has been sent to Dave’s house in response to a 911 call.  In order to underscore that change of perspective, the music makes a complete one-eighty, switching from the fast-paced and angular delivery of the opening to a much more tense and slow delivery punctuated by longer pauses in between statements.  The first violin’s groan also serves to differentiate this new character.

Of all the movements in Hack, perhaps none is more reliant on character than “9 - Sam Kinison.”  Kinison’s verbal bombast is legendary in the world of standup comedy, and his comedy achieves its highest musical power in the raw energy and the transgressive force of his wails and screams.  In order to translate those inimitable screams into the medium of string quartet, I found it necessary to reach beyond the traditional timbral resources of the instruments, employing extended techniques to produce cacophonous grinding sounds and labored white noise.

Another virtuosic example of character-driven comedy is the two Robin Williams movements.  In this example, Williams impersonates a Swiss drill sergeant instructing his soldiers how to use their army knives to “open Chardonnay under fire.”  I still can’t listen to this bit without laughing out loud.

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