Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Speaking of music

Strange. I was already planning to write a post about a light-hearted little speech-to-music thing I created - and then a speech-heavy work wins the Pulitzer Prize! I'm so cutting edge - though I don't have much more to say about this year's surprise prize. The Pulitzer has never really meant much to me anyway. Honestly, there are many previous winners whose music I don't know much better than I know Kendrick Lamar's work, though I know he's not the first to use speech in a musical way. For example, here's your 2013 Pulitzer winner.

(There are also iconic works by Steve ReichAlvin Lucier and many others which incorporate speech.)

I became interested in the idea of speech becoming music when I first heard an excellent 2010 (?) RadioLab episode called Musical Language. The opening segment features a fun little story about an audio expert hearing her own speaking voice looped and thinking she's hearing singing. The looped words that behave so strangely are: sometimes behave so strangely.

You can hear the whole segment via the link above. I used to play it for classes learning about recitative as a way of thinking about the tonal and rhythmic characteristics of language. I've since returned to the idea of looping speech into music a couple of times, and also just remembered that I'd explored it many years before.

Most recently, I was having a Facebook discussion with my composer friend Wesley. He said he'd been told that some scale passages he'd written into a work-in-progress were just noodling. I [wittily] suggested, "Make them octatonic scales....and then it'll be octatonic noodling." He replied: "They are octatonic."

At that moment, impressed by my obvious psychic insight, I heard unbidden the mellifluous lilt of Frasier's Daphne Moon saying, "I'm a bit psychic." The phrase came to me much as one might hear a musical theme conjured up by a memory. To be fair, this catchphrase, which really doesn't function as a catchphrase on the show, probably had taken on a thematic quality in my brain because of a podcast I'd been listening to about Frasier.

I can't really recommend the Talk Salad and Scrambled Eggs podcast, hosted by indie film director Kevin Smith and Matt Mira, unless you enjoy hearing two people spend 80% of their Frasier podcast talking crassly about Star Trek, The Terminator, Comic-Con, and just about anything else while laughing interminably at their own jokes. However, from early on, Smith took to imitating Daphne's Manchesterian "I'm a bit psychic" like so:

And thus, these distinctively delivered syllables had clearly come to function as a leitmotif which was awoken instantly the first time I felt a bit psychic! I quickly tossed together a little loop of the line as a message response to Wesley, then later toyed around with it a bit more until I'd come to this:

Turns out this is the second time on my blog in which I've turned an English actress's speech into song, though Emily Watson is so understated here that the syllables don't quite take flight. (The teacup percussion is awesome, though.)

Finally, just to be complete, I remembered while playing around with the psychic bit that I'd once done something similar with the plaintive words of my then 2-year old daughter back when she needed her beloved blanket. That 2-year old is now 18, so although I don't remember much about creating it, I must've found the bass loop in whatever cheap, turn-of-the-century music software I had at the time:

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