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Listener 4267, German Serial Composition: A Setter’s Blog by Quinapalus

Posted by Listen With Others on 30 November 2013

German Serial Composition happened in what for me counts as a rush.

Signal processing—the maths behind the operation of mobile ’phones, digital television and other such staples of modern existence—is part of my day job, and it was while working on a project that I was reminded of the surprising story of Ms Lamarr and her part in the invention of spread-spectrum communications. I didn’t know all the details offhand, but they were quickly filled in with a scour of the web and a read of the original patent (which you can download and see for yourself—it is fascinating). I’m told she has also featured on QI.

Could I make an acceptable puzzle out of this material? The theme was risky. There was a good chance that the vetters would find the subject matter either too dull and technical on the one hand or too racy on the other; after all, Ms Lamarr was responsible for the first mainstream film depiction of, shall we say, ecstasy, which did become part of the final puzzle. On the other hand, my previous puzzle, Elm, had a distinctly mathematical flavour and seemed to be quite well received. (Ecstasy, however, did not feature.)

So I was not sure whether the effort of writing the puzzle would pay off. The books I had found said that Ms Lamarr was born on 9 November 1913—was her hundredth anniversary a Saturday? I resolved that, if so, I would go ahead and try to write the puzzle; if not, I would throw the idea in the bin. (Since I wrote the puzzle it has become apparent that contrary to many on-line and printed sources her birth year may in fact have been 1914 and that on the publication date she would have turned 99. My plan is to pretend I knew all along and was hinting at it in the clue to 46a.)

That left about two months to design the puzzle and write the clues to meet the vetters’ deadlines. As I said, a rush.

The vetters prefer that thematic material be accessible to non-web-enabled solvers. Surely Halliwell’s would confirm her real name and her films, and Britannica her technical contribution, I thought naïvely? No. Halliwell’s is a shadow of what it once was, and I should have known that Britannica doesn’t deign to cover such dull topics as engineering in any depth. Fortunately a rootle in my local public library turned up the excellent The Film Encyclopedia: The Complete Guide to Film and the Film Industry by Ephraim Katz and Ronald Dean Nolen, which had all the information needed; and there was also a copy in the nearest Waterstones. I hoped my research would be enough to appease the vetters, and it was.

I went through a few variations of the puzzle before settling on one which might give solvers the sensation of decrypting a message that had been ‘spread’ using a prearranged sequence of frequencies. Experimenting with various configurations of the secret message and running test fills I managed to find one that admitted a symmetrical bar pattern and gave sufficiently interesting answers to clue.

Solvers didn’t need to know that the tune given was indeed a German serial composition (the idea also being that a composition of ‘G serial’ is Algiers, Lamarr’s first US film) but I hoped that some might get sidetracked into trying to find its source. It’s the upper voice of the subject from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mantra, for two pianos, some electronic equipment and other instruments. Similar forces, and in particular synchronised player pianos, were deployed in composer George Antheil’s controversial Ballet Mécanique, and, in turn, the idea of two synchronised player pianos running through the same prearranged sequence of notes inspired Antheil and Lamarr’s subsequent invention.

Luckily the Stockhausen tune could be written in such a way that solvers didn’t need to know the rules about the persistence or otherwise of accidentals or their force across octaves. In fact, pretty much everything solvers needed to know about musical notation is in Chambers somewhere or other, and so, as one solver put it, even a tone-deaf cod would have a reasonable chance of decrypting the hidden message.

I’d like to extend my gratitude to those who test-solved the puzzle, to the vetters for their refinements and courtesy, to John Green for his tireless devotion to the cause, and to all who sent their comments. I value them greatly.

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