Obama became President during one of the most preposterous musical events in history. It’s not that the music itself was terrible. One expects mediocrity at massed spectacles of this sort. It was the idea that was so utterly implausible: open air chamber music for a million people.
Because control of the red button must be passed from one presidential finger to the next with precise timing, Obama took over at exactly noon, as puzzled politicians arrayed on Capitol Hill and a restless populace extending down the Mall endured four-minutes of superstar classical musicians—Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Itzhak Perlman on violin, Gabriella Montero on piano, and Anthony McGill on clarinet—performing Hollywood titan John Williams’ new composition/arrangment, “Air and Simple Gifts.” When the surreal four minutes were finally over, Obama was President even before taking the oath of office.
Or more exactly put, the quartet seemed to be playing. As was disclosed to the public only after the event, the musicians were only going through the motions of music-making, forced, they claimed, into making a recording of the piece at the Marine Barracks in Washington and then playing along as the canned music blared out over the loudspeakers at the Inauguration. The oldest excuse in the book for any musician is to blame temperamental instruments or the performer’s own body: broken strings for violinists, a head cold for singers. How could anyone have ever believed that an outdoor performance was possible in January?
To be sure, the cold temperatures and extremely dry air threatened the instruments even as the conditions constricted the movement of the agile fingers of the musicians. Only the pianist, Ms. Monter, wore gloves with cut-off fingers. It was a fine sartorial touch for the Venezuelan from tropical climes, though Hugo Chavez was doubtless cursing her for contributing her musical talent and glamour to this vast kitsch festival to the glorification of the Yankee devils.
Perlman claimed that the circumstances warranted the deception: “This occasion’s got to be perfect. You can’t have any slip-ups.” But is it not unnerving to America that the moment of Obama’s ascendancy was accompanied by false musical pretences? Unlike Mlli-Vanilli and Luciano Pavarotti, the inaugural quartet and the networks made no secret of their theatrical reenactment, they there were careful not to give away the secret beforehand. In any case, the bogus rhetoric of accountability and honesty just won’t do. Simply because you don’t hide the fact you’re cheating, doesn’t change the fact that you’re doing just that—cheating. An ebullient performer, even when he’s really playing, Yo-Yo Ma did seem overly demonstrative in his movements and impressively detached from the score, as if the music had become part of him. I commented on this to a friend I was watching the show with. I must have known something was up.
Perlman’s frail logic would spell an immediate end to live performance. It reminds me of the benefits proffered by the manufacturer’s Yahama Clavinova digital piano. You can play a piece on these keyboards and the thing remembers what you did. It’s a more sophisticated, though philosophically equivalent, version of the way old piano rolls captured the performances of Scott Joplin and his generation. Yahama’s advertisements promise an end to stage fright for the youngster at his or her group piano recital: simply record your piece beforehand, then at the recital take a seat at the Clavinova and relax as your flawless performance ensues. Mom, dad, grandma and grandpa, and above all, little Amy don’t have to confront the dread and joy of the real any longer.
But more bizarre than the synchronized ruse itself was the programming of the piece in first place. One can guess how the idea gathered strength, even in the face of all common sense. Obama claims Bach’s suites for solo cello as among his top five musical favorites. Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of these suites is the most popular, though not the best. That honor belongs for the time being to Anner Bylsma, even over such 20th-century luminaries as Pablo Casals. (It is to Obama’s eternal credit that he even knows that the Bach cellos suites exist and that their searching melancholy and powerful projection of musical kinesthesis warrant a place on the Presidential play-list.)
Given the liberal love affair with Hollywood, the summoning of John Williams’ was an all-too-obvious choice. His film scores have made him the planet’s most famous composer. One of his scores, that to Mel Gibson’s laughably overblown Revolutionary War pic The Patriot, boomed out over Grant Park for Obama’s victory speech. That scarily ecstatic music, owing so much to the sonorities of Christian Praise, was a bad omen for what is to come musically and politically in the next four years. A resounding echo of its overheated musical rhetoric rang out over the Mall as the musical mimes did their convincing best on Tuesday.
What remained for the organizers of this chamber music for the masses was to calibrate the ethnicity of the quartet, and this they did with great skill: the Hispanic pianist, the Israeli-American violinist, and the African-American McGill. Where was Joe the Fiddler? There was apparently no room for the ethnically denatured in this group, though John Williams perhaps fulfilled that statistic in the quota, even though he was behind the scenes. Anyway, Joe was glad to be drinking a beer at the tavern rather than contributing to in this charade. As soon as the Obama’s fab four started their show, you can be sure Joe, gifted with a fine sense of irony, got up from his bar stool and put a couple quarters in the jukebox and chose that Bush favorite still played at Texas Ranger’s Rangers, “Centerfield” by John Fogerty: “Oh, put me in coach, I’m ready to play today.”
Never has the incongruity between context and musical genre been greater than at noon on Tuesday. Chamber music is just that, music for the chamber, for a salon, a room; it was invented for intimate gatherings of amateurs and connoisseurs. Chamber music is already stretched beyond the limits of plausibility in a 2,000-seat concert hall. That is the problem with elitism: it is too expensive. For a string quartet to make sufficient money it must play for more people. Chamber music is not only about musical sound, but about the smile, the glance, the gesture, the perspiration, the creak of the chair. To have chamber music for millions is like singing underwater: it’s not that the music gets drowned out. It just drowns. Amplification, with or without miming musicians, only amplifies the absurdity of the context.
It would be a mistake to dismiss this inaugural music as merely misplaced and to condemn the duplicity of its Potemkin performance. There was a message here for those few who had the resolve to listen. The meandering counterpoint of the introductory Air evoked the disparate aspirations of the individuals that make up the polyphonic fabric of American society: the violin and cello and then piano held to their distinct lines, pursuing their own agendas, threatening even to break apart in dissension. However full of potential, the music seemed unable to find itself. Then the Shaker hymn, imprinted indelibly in the catalog of Americana by Aaron Copland in his Appalachian Spring, pierced the cold air: the amorphous music found its direction, its purpose. A black man plays the noble tune of Simple Gifts on his clarinet. The quartet listens and is convinced, follows, and is rapturously united at the climax of the piece.
Obama has called the tune. How can we not but let the melody lead us to a shining, harmonious future?
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org