Part 1: Transcribing Speech

The first step in any musical treatment of speech is transcription, the translation from recorded source material into musical terms and notation. Just like conventional music, the sounds of speech are defined by pitch, rhythm, and loudness, but unlike conventional music, those qualities are constantly in flux. This makes it difficult to accomplish an exact translation, but through some ingenuity and a willingness to simplify, an acceptable approximation is possible.

In this example from the very beginning of the piece, the cello simply plays the transcription of Lenny Bruce’s opening lines. Here is that cello solo alone:

And here are those same measures composed out for the whole quartet:

Using the transcribed speech as a starting point, I was able to treat it the same way I would any other musical material, subjecting it to development, elaboration, and transformation as I saw fit. In this example, from the end of the Dave Chappelle movement, I took the speech rhythms and fleshed them out into full chordal harmonies. The speech rhythm is still perceptible in the violins and the viola, but the individual pitches of the source speech have been subsumed within the chord voicings.