Piano Puzzler 02/11/09

I mentioned this past summer that I'd just discovered the fantastic Piano Puzzler podcasts from American Public Radio's Performance Today, a program which isn't available in the Boston area. I realize there must be many fans of Bruce Adolphe's piano puzzles out there since the feature has been around for 6-7 years, but I haven't found them discussed much (or at all) in the 'ol blogosphere, which is too bad. Almost all of Adolphe's creations are nice jumping off points for discussions about composers' styles - and, more importantly, they're lots of fun. In fact, I've recently found that my nine-year-old daughter loves listening to them, even though she often knows neither the tune that's being hidden nor the compositional style in which it's hidden. (She did catch "Greensleeves" submerged in a fairly tricky context, which made me very proud.)

It's difficult to tell from the various online Piano Puzzler archives just how many of these miniatures Adolphe has written, but clearly there are many dozens at least, maybe more than a hundred, so it's not meant as any slight to him to say that some work better than others. They are almost always clever on some level, even if the results sometimes come out oddly, but every now and then one runs across something special. The podcast dated February 11 (it may be a rebroadcast; it's hard to tell) is my favorite to date. I figured out the composer almost right away (for reasons described after the jump), but I'll admit I wasn't able to ID the tune on the two run-throughs before it was revealed. It is exceptionally well-hidden.

I have other thoughts about the pairing, but perhaps you should listen first and see how you do. It's also available on iTunes, and probably elsewhere.

So, the Messiaen part I got pretty quickly because it borrows so heavily from the 5th movement of the Quartet for the End of Time. It's funny that the Messiaen centenary passed without me ever getting around to listening to this, but a little radio quiz pastiche reminded me that it is one of the purest, most perfect and heart-rending movements in all of music:

In fact, it's too bad that Bruce Adolphe couldn't have performed his arrangement with a cellist on hand for the "Hey Jude" part. As an extended piece, that could be really beautiful. It's often the case that Adolphe manages to hide tunes by throwing off the original harmonic context, but that often produces quirky results. Here, Messiaen's harmonies are perhaps more inviting for a wayward melody. It's also a good reminder of how sophisticated McCartney's tune is - it's not a shape that's easy to follow, since it jumps around quite a bit. (You'd think leaps would be easier to follow because they're distinctive, but at least for my ears, stepwise motion makes for a better trail of bread crumbs.) And, yes, there's something very satisfying about how Messiaen's cello and McCartney's voice each begin with that descending minor third, with no introduction to set them up.

Another nice connection is that the Messiaen piece, entitled Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus, is obviously about endlessness - and the Beatles' version of the song is one of the most apparently endless in the pop canon, with those 18+ repetitions of the chorus. Just imagine if the Adolphe arrangement went all the way through every iteration of "Na, na, na, na-na-na, na; na-na-na na; Hey Jude."

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