This piece was composed using the transcribed vocal deliveries of standup comics.  The source materials vary in length from four seconds to three minutes, and the comics selected encompass a wide range of comedic styles and historical periods.  Some are truculent, some are reflective.  Some use the stage as an arena for withering social critique, some for personal confession, some for ritualized transgression.  Each section treats a single comedic bit by a single comedian; the source material is not always clearly foregrounded - it is often submerged, dissected, amplified, deconstructed, or otherwise transformed.

As users of spoken language, we are constantly producing and receiving musical information of a staggering degree of complexity and subtlety.  It is my hope that by excavating recorded fragments of speech for material, the resulting musical textures, in all their detail and complexity, will be accessible to that deeply ingrained prosodic sensibility that all humans, as users of language, possess.

The standup comic’s material is modular.  Bits are self-contained and portable.  They can be pithy or sprawling, tightly structured or rambling.  Hack is likewise organized into a collection of loosely assembled “bits” that seek to explore the great variety of forms used in standup comedy.  These forms include the one-liners of Rodney Dangerfield, the highly perforated but immaculately paced and deadpan storytelling of Tig Notaro, the strident enumerations of George Carlin, the lyrical musings of Richard Pryor, and the athletic character-pieces of Robin Williams.

At its heart, standup comedy is fundamentally about performance, not comedy.  Humor is undoubtedly important, but it is the irreducible fact of a performer on stage in front of an audience that defines the medium.  To see this, one needs look no further than some of the canonic routines of Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor which, insightful, engaging, revelatory, or boundary-pushing as they are, are decidedly unfunny.  This is a comedic piece of music in that it engages deeply with comedy as a medium, but its comedy is not purey jocular.  It might get a laugh or two, but that is not its primary intention.  Its primary intention is to connect with that kernel of human truth that every comic presents to the world the moment they step in front of an audience.

For an interactive look at the use of transcribed speech in this piece, go to spektralquartet.com/hack-unpacked.


Hack was premiered by the Spektral Quartet (Austin Wulliman, Clara Lyon, Doyle Armbrust, Russell Rolen) at Chicago's Constellation on May 30th, 2015.

It is dedicated to the memory of Lee Hyla