Bruce Adolphe combined neuroscience and classical music in compositions at the Philbrook.
Bruce Adolphe, commonly recognized as the Piano Puzzler from American Public Media’s Performance Now, spoke at Philbrook on Friday, March 1 in partnership with the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities and the Tulsa Symphony. For this event, Adolphe spoke about his interest in the connectivity between music and memory through neuroscientific research that inspired a recent composition. After Adolphe explained these parallels, the Tulsa Symphony piano quintet performed the piece.
Adolphe started by telling the audience to close their eyes and imagine: “In the middle of the street, there’s a chair. And on top of that chair, there’s a car.” After allowing the audience paint this mental picture, Adolphe started to guess the details. He asked if the street was familiar, possibly one that they grew up on. About half of the audience had conjured a non-specific street. He asked the same of the car — could they name the make and model? Adolphe concluded that memory and imagination are inherently connected. The audience often couldn’t discern whether they had created an imaginary car or pulled it from somewhere in their memories.
This connection inspired Adolphe to write music that deals with memory and the act of remembering. He described one of his recent compositions, “Musics of Memory,” that was composed in honor of a friend who had developed Alzheimer’s. Each movement of the piece was meant to represent a different stage of memory, the first being the lived experience played by a solo piano. By the fourth movement, titled “Recollections,” the themes that had been introduced in the beginning were changed. Adolphe achieved a depiction of deteriorating memories through tonal shifts that maintained the same phrasing. The resulting themes were recognizable but also noticeably divergent.
In another composition, “Memories of a Possible Future,” Adolphe explores a more technical aspect of memory. Through partnership with the Brain and Creativity Institute and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, this composition for a piano quintet takes inspiration from technical phenomena associated with remembering like neurons firing and consciousness, describing “several metaphors for what goes on in the brain that you can hear in the music.”
While this is a unique way of framing his composition, most of the sounds that emerge were already principles of music theory that can be seen throughout the history of classical music. Adolphe describes that he is writing music like he normally would but “using techniques based on metaphors drawn from what we know about neuroscience.”
In “Memories of a Possible Future,” Adolphe adapts the idea of consciousness by having each instrument repeat the same theme immediately after one another. While this sounds like imitative counterpoint, it is informed by the metaphor instead of music theory. Similarly, the development section of most compositions is found in the middle and refers to the composer’s adjusting of the introductory material, moving it into different keys and changing the mood established at the beginning. While Adolphe’s piano quintet also has a development section, he uses the idea of development in a person’s life, a time of establishing identity and moving through uncertainty and conflict.
After the Tulsa Symphony’s piano quintet performed “Memories of a Possible Future” to showcase the examples Adolphe discussed, he moved on to examples of “Piano Puzzlers.” This segment on NPR features brief performances of small compositions by Adolphe that reimagine recognizable tunes in the style of classical composers. Listeners can call in and guess the two components of the Puzzlers. At Philbrook, audience members competed against each other to guess the works for prizes like tickets to an upcoming Tulsa Symphony concert or copies of Adolphe’s books. Adolphe created innovative combinations like Chopin with “London Bridge” and Brahms with “Eleanor Rigby.”
Adolphe’s lecture and compositions create a unique experience for the audience by drawing on memory to rethink the way we understand classical music. As his website outlines, Adolphe’s goal as a composer and performer is to “connect disparate ideas and disciplines and to build community by exploring diverse manifestations of human creativity.” By combining ideas like music and neuroscience that are generally not thought of together, Adolphe enables listeners to consider the interplay between imagination, music and memory.