Friday, January 23, 2009

Inaugural Music

I brought a real camera to the inauguration, but then managed to leave it at my mother-in-law's house--thus, this grainy iPhone snapshot is all I've got for the moment. Still, it gives an accurate representation of my inaugural experience: it was crowded, it was cold, and we were a long ways away from the action. Great to be there though.

I feel like I should give my two cents on the John Williams music. Alex Ross has a compendium of reactions, and here in the musicology blog world, the Dial M Crew liked it, while Elizabeth Morgan defends the musicians against claims of Milli Vanilli-ness, usefully pointing out that the quartet was actually playing for real, it just wasn't being amplified.

Myself, when it comes to the composition itself, I mostly agree with Anne Midgette, the (still newish, right?) critic at the Washington Post, who asks if the world really needs another Americana-esque arrangement of "Simple Gifts." (No. No it does not.) But as an eyewitness musicologist, I also want to point out that it failed rather badly as a live piece of music. Not John William's usual forte, of course, but it wouldn't have been hard to predict that the inaugural ceremony was going to be a gigantic noisy spectacle with millions of spectators, and therefore a soothing little long-lined chamber work, probably best heard in the intimacy of a small hall, might not be the ideal format. For those 1.8 million of us out on the Mall, it was hard enough to hear the speeches, let alone Yo-Yo Ma noodling along quietly. I'm all for quiet meditative moments, but as others have pointed out, this just became a moment for television broadcasters to talk over the music, and for those of us on the mall to stamp our feet against the frostbite.

I'm trying to think of what might have worked better. A big brassy symphonic piece? Well no, you already had the Marine Band doing plenty of that. Some energetic solo pieces? Aretha already provided that. So come to think of it--why did the Inaugural Committee feel it was necessary to have a classical music moment in the ceremony? I honestly can't figure it out. Once upon a time, that sort of gesture might have had a nationalist impulse, showing that the United States was capable of greatness in the Western Art tradition. But that kind of rhetoric isn't heard much these days, and I don't imagine that Obama (or rather Senator Feinstein, who was in charge of the ceremony) cares much about what Germans concertgoers think of us. And if she did, John Williams was a poor, poor choice.

So why this music at this moment? Any thoughts?


DHR said...

Yo-Yo Ma on NPR today said the bows had no rosin and the piano's keys were disconnected from striking the strings, so they weren't making any noise, so, arguably, weren't performing.

My suggestions for something better would be a jazz composition or Mark Mothersbaugh. There would have to be solos and improvisation, imho.

Dan B. said...

I liked the work. The Simple Gifts arrangement wasn't anything new, but I like the Air which preceeded it quite a bit. I guess I liked the warm simplicity of it cutting through the wintry excitement.

But I don't feel strongly enough about it to say much else. It was only four minutes, not enough time for grand themes, just enough time for a nice moment.

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