Friday, April 21, 2017

Creativity as its own reward

A few days ago, my sister posted some photos of azaleas on Facebook and noted that the azalea has historically been cheated in the poetry department, at least compared to the more easily rhymed rose. I suppose one could call azaleas by a more easily rhymed name (zales?) and they'd smell just as sweet, but she took up her own implied challenge and wrote a lovely little poem incorporating regalia, Australia, etc.

I find this kind of challenge irresistible, but to up the stakes, I decided to reply to her photo with some verse about the chrysanthemum. It took a little doing and some really lame and ultimately abandoned attempts to make something of "anthem hum"-ming, but eventually the following popped up:
I've fifty cents and offer up this handsome sum
to any who can versify chrysanthemum.
I think this little meta-couplet is pretty good (the trick being that "handsome sum" is a commonly used expression so that it flows naturally), and I hope you notice that writing it proved literally to be its own reward. I won the fifty cents! True, this is sort of the ultimate example of a closed economy. I've thought about this lately since I spend a lot of time doing little creative things that haven't necessarily paid off outside of my own little circular economy, but they're still rewarding!

So it is that, also a few days ago and also on Facebook, I saw that it was the birthday of my blogging pianist friend Erica Sipes. I'll admit I don't pass along Facebook birthday wishes as often as I should because I always feel the pressure to do something creative. But I'd noticed that Erica was Facebook-live broadcasting one of her Bach practice sessions, so the idea of putting "Happy Birthday" into a Bach context came to mind.

Of course, I knew without even searching that this is a challenge that's been taken up many times (including in this charming fugue), but I reached the point of no return when I thought about the C-sharp Major Fugue from Book II of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, a piece with which Erica and I have a shared history. She's the one who suggested that its bouncing staccato character and the rhythmic acceleration that happens over the course of the piece create an effect reminiscent of popcorn popping, which led me to create a fun program/animation:

The reason this new, self-imposed challenge was so instantly appealing is that I realized Bach's fugue subject begins with the same basic melodic shape as the famous birthday tune (which also goes up, back down, back up a bit further, then down a step):
So the terms of the challenge (or puzzle?) basically set themselves:
  • Write a short (it's just a Facebook birthday greeting, after all), playable, fugue-like snippet that mimics the structure of Bach's popcorn fugue, while re-orienting the pitches along the lines of "Happy Birthday."
There are many approaches I could have taken within these constraints. Notice that if I'd begun on the same bass-register C-sharp as Bach, I would have ended up with a subject in F-sharp Major instead of C-sharp because "Happy Birthday" begins on the 5th scale degree, whereas Bach's subject begins on the tonic. (Opening pitches would've been: C# - D# - C# - F# - E#.) As you can see below, I begin on G-sharp.

So, the puzzle solution I came up with has the bass present all the correct pitches of "Happy Birthday" (in C-sharp Major) in order (minus a few pitch repetitions), but with a different rhythmic profile that follows the character of Bach's fugue. Because the subject also ends up functioning as a bass line, and because the birthday rhythms are obscured, it would probably be easy to miss that it's even there - which pleases me.
The soprano fugue "answer" does pretty much the same thing (in the subdominant F-sharp Major*) through the third phrase of "Happy Birthday" before turning towards a sudden cadence, but again the tune could easily be missed here because our ears still hear this context as C-sharp Major. Note that, as with Bach's fugue, the entries of the theme are piled right on top of each other, with the third voice entering inverted and diverted towards the cadence almost right away. It's not really a full fugue or even a fughetta - more of a postcard fugue. It would make nice bumper music heading towards the commercial on some Baroque sitcom ("I Love Lully?").

Is this way too much to have said about a four-measure piece? Is this too short to be a piece? Is it more of a puzzle solution? Do I need to stop with the "Happy Birthday" homages already?

There was a time when, understanding much less about musical structure and style, I was stunned that people could re-house a familiar tune in what I assumed to be the ineffably inimitable character of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. Now I realize it's kind of a parlor trick, and though I don't really aspire to be a musical comedian in the mold of Victor Borge or Peter Schickele, I obviously love interacting with musical puns. Such a fun creative outlet. I think I'll pay myself another fifty cents...

* Having the answer in the subdominant instead of the dominant is a bit unusual, but it happened to work out well in a piece that needed to end quickly.

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