HACK Unpacked

On May 30th at Constellation, we premiere a commission of staggering scope, Hack, by Chris Fisher-Lochhead. Maybe you remember the proof-of-concept we posted for this piece last year, featuring comedian Richard Lewis? It's gotten a lot bigger since then, and given the intricacies of the project, we thought we should hear from Chris himself. Dig in!


"In the spring of 2011, I started making musical transcriptions of routines by some of my favorite standup comics.At the time, I was beginning to get interested in the purely musical characteristics of speech, and standup comedy, as a medium that demands a heightened, even exaggerated use of speech and encourages idiosyncrasies of style, was a perfect arena for such an exploration.For several years, the idea of using these transcriptions as the basis for an original piece of music hung around in the background until finally, with the support of my friends in the Spektral Quartet, it came to fruition in the form of a large, multi-movement work for string quartet entitled Hack.

The first question one might ask about a string quartet based on the deliveries of standup comics is "why?"To answer that, I first have to say a few things about speech and music in general.When we create and interpret meaning in speech, we are relying on how something is said at least as much as (if not more than) what is said.It is these mini-performances that people are constantly putting on that can swing the meaning of a sentence from dire earnestness to arch sarcasm.In my opinion, the ability to detect these sometimes very subtle differences in tone and cadence is the same sensibility that allows us to appreciate and understand music.At times, instrumental music can be alienating without the familiar foothold of words or images, but it is my belief that anyone who can find meaning in human speech has the tools to understand and interpret what is going on in that music. Hack is an attempt to make those connections evident.

One of the perks of writing a piece like this is that I got to watch hours and hours of standup comedy and call it composing.As someone who knows and appreciates a wide variety of standup comics, it was a difficult task to choose a set of performers and bits to use for this piece.In order to make that decision, I used three main criteria:

Is it funny?This is extremely subjective, I know, but it would seem to me pedantic and wrong-headed to work with a clip that I didn't personally find funny.Given that the premise of this project is to explore how comedians use speech to effectively communicate with their audience, an unfunny bit would seem to fall short of effectiveness.

Does it have musical potential?There is some comedy that I find extremely funny that would not prove particularly apt as a source of material for this piece.I love the comedy of Steven Wright, but his style (dry, atomistic, absurd one-liners delivered in a monotone) is not particularly fertile for musical exploration.This does not, of course, mean that there is only one type of delivery that has musical potential; I wanted at least to have some sense of how I could treat the bit as music.

Does it fit within the musical world of the piece?Part of my decision related to how well the musical material contained within the bit fit within the overall arc of the piece.Despite the fact that the piece is composed of 22 self-contained modules, I still want it to work as a coherent whole.In some respects, this came down to how I treated the fragments, but I also wanted to be sure that the material I was working with supported the piece's sense of unity.In counterbalance to the need for unity, it was also important that I explore a variety of different deliveries.The standup comic spends years honing an onstage persona, and the way they deliver their bits is an extremely personal and important part of their act.I wanted to be able to emphasize the musical differences between the breathless, accusatory delivery of George Carlin and the perforated, deadpan delivery of Tig Notaro.

In the end, I wound up with the following list of comedians whose material I had settled upon: Lenny Bruce, Sarah Silverman, Dave Chappelle, George Carlin, Robin Williams, Dick Gregory, Professor Irwin Corey, Rodney Dangerfield, Sam Kinison, Redd Foxx, Kumail Nanjiani, Mort Sahl, Susie Essman, Richard Pryor, Ms Pat, and Tig Notaro.


Between picking the material and treating it musically (which I will cover in an upcoming post), is the sensitive process of transcription.The musical properties of speech that I am interested in do not inherently exist on paper.We imbue what we say with a musical impetus in the moment of speech and hardly ever think about how one would quantify or notate it.As a result, transcription of speech is always a creative act.I make certain choices about how I am going to translate speech into a written medium that invariably alter the source material in some way.For example, in one situation, it might be best to track the rhythmic emphasis of a passage by using a constantly shifting meter while in another, it might be best to establish a regular tempo and notate rhythmic emphasis as syncopated accents against the prevailing beat.In my transcriptions, I do not pretend to be capturing the essence of speech in notation (a futile endeavor); I use notation to record the collision of speech (a chaotic and unruly object) with the tidy regularities of music notation.In the example below, I have included the transcribed source material for the opening four bars of the piece.This source material, taken from Lenny Bruce's 1961 performance at Carnegie Hall, in this case has been adapted as a cello solo."