Saturday, April 14, 2018

Suggestions d'anniversaire

I'm afraid "Happy Birthday" parodies are becoming a bit of a cottage industry for me. I've tried to resist because the tune has been parodied and variation-ed so often...but Facebook. When a birthday comes up, I like the idea of "saying" something unique. Incidentally, this means I often don't say anything on friends' birthdays which "bad job by me!" because I enjoy getting lots of birthday greetings, even when they're simple. Anyway, the more I work with this tune, the more suggestible I become.

So this week, when I saw that my college roommate (a fellow pianist) had a birthday, I did a quick mental run-through of music I associated with him (narrowly avoiding a diabolical suggestion*). When the slow movement of the Ravel concerto came to mind, I noodled away enough at the available keyboard to figure I could make something of this marriage.

First of all, there's nothing as perfectly exquisite as this movement. It features a lovely but subtle tension between a slow-waltz-like left hand with two groups of three 8ths per bar (intentionally obscured by the beaming) and a right hand melody which tends to organize more often in three. This provides lovely cross-rhythms that help the melody to float independently. Harmonically, the writing is full of low-impact dissonances, like between the right-hand A in m.2 and the left-hand G-sharp - dissonances spaced far apart and played softly enough to register more as poignant than sharp. And a quick turn to the minor iii in m.4 establishes the bittersweet tone.

Everything moves slowly, with plenty of tied notes across barlines and phrases of unpredictable length. Improvisatory, meditative...but also sensual and beautifully planned out. Ravel is known as one of the great orchestrators, but this opening piano solo (almost three minutes long) is my favorite part of this movement; the wind writing that follows is actually rather precarious from a tuning/balance perspective, although the long English horn solo [5:46 below] at the end of the movement, with piano filigree around, is worth waiting for. You can view the whole movement with score here.

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I think the idea of "playing with music" in the manipulating and re-composing sense is underrated as a mode of engaging a given work. (As opposed to the more popular modes of performing, listening, analyzing.) So what I've loved most about all my "Happy Birthday" parodies is the opportunity they provide to look inside something that's beautifully composed and sort of compose alongside it.

In this case, I had lots of tricky choices to make. I first toyed with simply layering the first phrase of "Happy Birthday" right on top of Ravel's melody, like so [recording is an ugly synth "performance"]:

...but even with the unexpected cadence in minor, this just sounded too bright and cheerful. The Ravel/Birthday balance was tipped too far to the right, so I ended up beginning more ambiguously with Ravel's opening phrase turning itself into a relative minor version of the opening birthday phrase. From then on, the other three birthday phrases arrive in in the "correct" key of E, stretched this way and that to fit over the original. It would be easy enough not to notice "Happy Birthday" at all. The left hand accompaniment and "alto" countermelodies are mostly from the original, though I make a cut to the end of Ravel's opening piano solo because it is so beautiful. Here's what I came up with:

And here are some of my other re-imaginings of this tune:

* ...  the birthday friend also used to dazzle with this insane bit of Prokofiev, and what began as a footnote here has turned into another quick discovery realization, here with the four tune phrases rattled off in quick succession.

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