Will you indulge me with a few more weeks of music that includes the banjo? I have been listening to an interview that Krista Tippett conducted with Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn in November 2016. Many parts of their conversation are worthy jumping-off points for my random musings, and for developing an interesting musical playlist.
A palindrome is a word, phrase, or in this case, a musical line that is the same when said or played from front to back or back to front. Palindromes in music are wonderful puzzles – some more successful than others! As with all puzzles of this type, the success of the solution depends, in large part, on its elegance. Great creative work is often inspired by seemingly insurmountable boundaries. For a piece of music to be a successful palindrome, it must not only meet the technical criteria, but it has to sound good as well. There should be a tune, harmony, and counterpoint (rhythmic structure) that makes sense.
During the interview, Fleck talked about the wide variety of work that the Flecktones created, in particular, a song called “UFO TOFU,” which is a palindrome in both name and loose musical structure. It’s difficult to tell, just by listening, that this has palindrome characteristics … we’ll have to have his word for it!
Bach took on this challenge in a slightly different way with his “Crab Cannon.” In this form, two sections of music are the same when one is read forward and the other backward, but they need each other for the pattern to be revealed. There are a number of interesting visualizations of how this form works on YouTube. Maybe you could listen first, and then watch, to see if you hear it differently.
The third example of this kind of puzzle music is an work (erroneously) attributed to Mozart, called “Table Music.” In this music, the score is written to be read right-side up and up-side down at the same time: two instrumentalists sitting across from each other at a table can both play from the same sheet of music. They play the same notes, but in the reverse order.
The 12-tone composers of the early 20th century took this idea to its “logical” conclusion, with the strictest attention to the puzzle of the palindrome. Alban Berg’s opera Lulu uses this technique in the second movement, and yet creates a very listenable piece of music.
Finally, I cannot resist adding a song with a palindrome name by a band with a palindrome name. Can you guess what the band and the song might be?
Palindrome, Crab Cannon and Table Music each call us to both see and hear music differently. Being able to see the puzzle first helps me to be able to hear the distinct parts. But seeing is not enough, because the way that the individual parts sound, when they fit together, is the ultimate test. Notes on the page are preparation, not the music. Music happens in the making. Look for the puzzles. Make good, interesting, music this week!