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So, lately I'm enjoying the soundtrack to Hamilton, the hip-hop musical. One of the things I've found interesting about it is that while the style is coming from a lot of African-American genres which have developed in the last century or so, the instrumentation is largely much older.

There's classical strings, piano, guitar, voice (rap, spoken, sung, beat box), some fife, a harpsichord and more problematically, the drum kit. There's no record scratching, sampling, synthesizers, electronic effects, bass guitar.

I don't know if it's intentional, but it does appear that, in terms of the technology used, the musical could have been peformed in the 1700's, when it was set. I realise that the genres it draws from hadn't developed in the same way, but it seems all the instruments were in use.

The drum kit seems more modern, but the kinds of drums seem to have been in use, perhaps the hi-hat effects could be achieved with some creative use of hand-held cymbals.

I've thought about this a bit, but I'm not sure.

So the question is this; Alexander Hamilton died in the year 1804. If the score for the musical was sent back in time to that year could it, theoretically, be performed?

If not, what would have to change about the score?

If so, how would it differ from the sounds we're hearing now?

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    For one, I imagine there would be a lot more of a constant (rather loud) vocal volume and the fast raps might have to be scrapped... rapping loudly and projecting over a large live music ensemble is incredibly hard without some artificial amplification (microphones, etc). Same with the dynamics in the vocals - you couldn't feasibly have such contrast in vocal volume within the same song without potentially being drowned out. It certainly is an interesting thought experiment though! Jun 7, 2018 at 12:23
  • @JamesWhiteley It's an interesting point. I suppose the standard answer is that the band would have to play more quietly, and that it would be performed to smaller audiences. Chamber rap orchestra?
    – AJFaraday
    Jun 7, 2018 at 12:29
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    I'm confused. My recollection is that Hamilton's soundtrack is full of synths, bass guitar, sound effects, etc. Unless you have a different recording to the one I remember?
    – endorph
    Jun 7, 2018 at 12:29
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    There's no record scratching, sampling, synthesizers, electronic effects, bass guitar.” False. Check out “Ten Duel Commandments” for some obvious examples. There’s bass guitar on almost every track. There are also a lot of samples and prerec. Jun 7, 2018 at 12:57

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I don't think instrumentation is the real challenge here. First, let's suppose that we send back a piano score. Usually a musical starts with a piano score because that's how it's composed and most vocal rehearsals and auditions will be performed with just a piano. I suspect Hamilton may have had some prerecorded music for some auditions or rehearsals, but perhaps not if clapping, snapping, stamping, etc. were used for mostly percussions sections of the score.

Even though we've sent back a piano score, pianos were different then (let's assume we're talking about the year 1800 or so). There were probably a few pianos in the Colonies at the time, but they were likely built in Europe and shipped over at great expense, and were almost certainly not the most advanced examples. That means they would be much quieter than the modern piano and have a smaller range of notes. A lot of the low bass notes just wouldn't be playable, and the dynamic range would be very disappointing to modern ears - but we can only guess at whether Hamilton rendered much more quietly would be a flop or not for that reason.

Finally, the real challenge would likely be that much of the music would confuse musicians of the time - at least at first. After working on it for a while, some people probably hate it and consider it unplayable or unsingable, others might be excited by it's bold "new" musical concepts, and still others might just give up in frustration.

If we compare the Bach and Mozart piano works that would have been popular at the time with a Hamilton piano score, one thing we would see right aware is that by comparison, Hamilton is quite minimalist, more than Beethoven's 5th, which was a bit controversial at its debut. Even the numbers that aren't extremely sparse, such as "You'll Be Back", would likely seem dull and repetitive in comparison with other piano music of the time. Also, "You'll Be Back" is played and notated with 1/8th note (quaver) swing, which I'm not aware of being a concept 200 years ago. Either it would have to be rewritten with the swing notated (and that would sure frustrate musicians of 1800) or it would be played without swing. That said, removing the swing might make it a lot more palatable to the pianist and singers of 1800 - and pretty dry to us.

One number that I think would survive the test of (reverse) time is "Dear Theodosia", which has a piano/keyboard part that would work on almost any keyboard instrument and is similar to the popular music of the time. Also, the lyrics, if adjusted slightly to handle the changes in the language, would likely be just as poignant. One major lyrical challenge would be adjusting the idiom "you'll blow us all away".

Other numbers might get anyone willing and able to perform it into serious social or even legal trouble. I don't know what would happen to someone busting out with:

Brrrap! Brrrrap! I am Hercules Mulligan

Up in it, lovin' it, yes heard your mother said "come again!"

Lock up your daughters and horses, of course

It's hard to have intercourse over four sets of corsets.

Suspicion of demon possession wouldn't be too surprising, IMHO.

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  • Good analysis, Todd! I'm pretty sure baudy and/or insulting humour is nothing new, tho. I'm not sure what the standards were like on the American stage at the 1800 mark, but music hall was definitely a thing in the UK. Baudy humour, lascivious dancing and heavy-drinking establishments would definitely be around in the early 1800's this side of the Atlantic.
    – AJFaraday
    Jun 7, 2018 at 13:43
  • @AJFaraday Hard to say, since there were likely many things said out loud that were not written down. Good point that there might be more of an audience for Hamilton in something like a saloon (or whatever the equivalent was in 1800). The Colonies did have a puritanical streak, which continues, diminished, to this day. I think finding the right colonial audience would be critical in terms of getting applause rather than arrested. Jun 7, 2018 at 13:45
  • For reference, here's some political satire from the 1800's theswamp.media/the-best-political-cartoons-from-the-1800s Although a few of those did end in legal action...
    – AJFaraday
    Jun 7, 2018 at 13:47
  • @AJFaraday I can't find anything sexual in those cartoons, so we can still be concerned about any Hercules Mulligan quoters in the 19th century. Jun 7, 2018 at 14:10

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