Trump: The Musical

A Duke music student has translated Donald Trump's voice into music

A Duke music graduate student has turned Donald Trump speeches into a composition that
A Duke music graduate student has turned Donald Trump speeches into a composition that "sounds like the ominous tones of a horror movie soundtrack." Art by Jon Fuller

In Donald Trump, a Duke doctoral student has found his musical muse.

For months now, Eren Gumrukcuoglu has been feeding audio clips of the Republican presidential nominee’s speeches into a software program that translates vocal sounds into music notes and frequencies.

The final product pairs the music translation with the original audio clip. Gumrukcuoglu, who is studying composition in his pursuit of a Ph.D. in music, is about halfway through what he expects to be about a 10-minute composition designed to air with a live septet accompaniment.

He’s calling it ‘Bigly,’ an ode to the rarely used adverb Trump has re-introduced to the lexicon in recent weeks.

“This guy is so direct,” says Gumrukcuoglu, who is from Turkey. “There’s no nuance. So I went with ‘Bigly.’ I wanted the simplest title that would really represent this guy.”

This isn’t a Top-40 music venture built with catchy musical hooks. But it makes a tonal point by mimicking Trump’s inflections, mumbles and moments of emphasis. When he makes an emphatic point -- like calling someone ‘disgusting!’ -- the music has a staccato, dramatic, loud moment. When his voice dips back down to a monotone, as it often does, the music follows suit. 

The end result sounds like the ominous tones of a horror movie soundtrack intertwined with the snappy, upbeat tempos of a Saturday morning cartoon.

And the music patterns Trump’s love of tangents as well, Gumrukcuoglu says.

“His speech is kind of schizophrenic,” he says. “The mood of the music changes, the harmony changes, from chord to chord. That will definitely be reflected in the music.”

Gumrukcuoglu doesn’t consider himself overtly political, but his disdain for Trump is easy to glean. He is alarmed by much of the nominee’s authoritarian rhetoric, a distrust he comes by honestly.

Raised in Istanbul, Gumrukcuoglu has watched closely as his country’s president, Tayyip Erdogan, morphed over the last 13 years from a relatively centrist leader to a more authoritarian ruler who has pushed to expand his office’s powers. His government has faced charges of electoral fraud, human rights violations and crackdowns on the press and social media.

“Trump is doing just as crazy, if not crazier, things as Erdogan,” Gumrukcuoglu says. “These are very similar people, though it’s funny because Erdogan comes from an imam school -- an Islamic school -- and Trump comes from [business school.] But the way they see the world is the same, the way they divide with hatred is the same.”

The Trump composition is Gumrukcuoglu’s second project involving a political figure. He based his first on Erdogan’s voice, a piece he called “Ordinary Things.” It was performed last year by the Deviant Septet, a professional music ensemble Gumrukcuoglu worked with while the band members were in residency at Duke.

Now he’s pondering who his next political subject should be.

“I wonder how the North Korean dictator talks,” he says. “That might be interesting.”