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The Playlist for Election 2008: From Wagner to Virgil Thomson

In general I’m opposed to the indiscriminate expansion of music into the public space at the expense of civic background noise or that increasingly elusive elixir, silence. Baseball games, walks in the park, lakeside picnics—all have been poisoned by the boom box, the car stereo, the wailing loudspeaker.

For the debates I make an exception. Never has a soundtrack been so badly needed.

Getting through the debates is like crossing a sonic desert: after dragging my bleached and battered ears across the wastes of the first contest between the presidential candidates, I crawled to my stereo and put on Beethoven’s bucolic Sixth Symphony: never were its green hills, garrulous birds, of cleansing thunder storm so refreshing.

Aside from providing the necessary balm to the parched rhetoric of McCain and Obama, music would prompt us how to feel as the candidates trot out their tired set-piece responses.

The most relevant application of music to the debates comes in the form of the leitmotiv, Richard Wagner’s grandiose scheme in which musical themes shadow individual actors and props in the drama and also signify overarching themes such as destiny, love, nature. Since Wagner’s innovations, the leitmotiv has become a commonplace of modern life, from the jingle to the political campaign song. The leitmotiv needs to be introduced into the debates, whose epic ninety minutes make the four-and-a-half hours of Götterdämmerung seem like a rapid fire sitcom.

It’s a parlor game anyone can play. Using whatever musical repertoire is at your disposal, pick out your favorite political themes and characters and attach to them a musical motive of your choice, and off you go: Presidential Debates Leitmotivs—the parlor game that’s sweeping the nation.

Resolved to come through the second presidential debate in better condition than I did the first encounter, I decided to spend the evening seated at my piano, armed with my leitmotivs. In the days before the debate, I began my musical preparations by leafing through Die Nationalhymnen der Erde (National Anthems of the World) published in 1958 in Stuttgart, Germany by the Institute for Foreign Relations. I quickly found the Pakistani national anthem. Composed by the Western-trained Ahmed Chagla, who died just before his music was adopted for the anthem in 1953, the music begins in classic 19th-century martial style, with a rising figure of sharp rhythmic profile.  It may be a post-colonial piece of music, but it still speaks the language of colonialism.

Fortuitously, the Pakistani anthem also shares its opening rhythm and melodic contour with Hail to the Chief. Who would have thought that the two form an almost indistinguishable pair?  The match is exquisitely Wagnerian. The Monomiac of Bayreuth’s leitmotivs gained much of their insidious power from their creepily organic interrelatedness.  Thus for example in the Ring cycle, Erda the Earth-Mother as a symbol of primordial wisdom is represented by a minor ascending figure, a horncall-like mixture of steps and leaps; the downfall of the gods is presaged by a theme that is the descending version of Erda’s leitmotiv. The famous upward-flying minor triad of the Valkyries’ theme is interlinked with many others motives, most closely perhaps with that for the thunder.

The musical affinity between the Pakistani national anthem and Hail to the Chief perfectly served perfect my purposes. Even better, the middle section of Chagla’s anthem shifts to the minor and makes use of some serpentine orientalist intervals, before returning to the triumphant major strains of the opening. The contrasting middle section is an oddly European characterization of a “real” Pakistani music, but perfect for the leitmotiv game.

When after more than an hour, Obama and McCain finally got round to Obama’s tough talk about bombing Pakistan, I was ready to grab a quick snatch of the opening bar of the country’s national anthem at the piano. I then moved seamlessly into Hail to the Chief when Obama recited the related bit of dialog: “When I am President …” Music clinched the connection in a way mere words could not. When Obama strutted around talking smack about “taking out bin Laden,” I played the snake-charmer music from the middle section of Pakistan’s anthem. Much to my satisfaction this interchange between the candidates went back and forth for some time providing ample opporunity for my stirring musical accompaniment.

With the aid of these leitmotivs, I could suddenly see heroic deeds in the stultifying rhetoric. The somber Town Hall I became magically ringed by white mountains, with bin Laden plotting in his hi-tech cave, and Obama strutting around the White House situation room in full bomber-pilot kit as daisy cutters rained down on the Hindu Kush.

For Obama’s spiel about his energy plan, putting America back to work building windmills and harvesting bio-diesel, I had placed Virgil Thomson’s score to the New Deal documentary “The Plow that Broke the Plains” on the piano’s music desk. What better reason to revive Thomson’s well-crafted musical naiveté, especially that of the Pastorale with its determined trumpets and intense strings, than for Obama’s New New Deal? With these strains wafting across my living room, I saw the nation united, the legions of tleaming white propellers spinning in proud defiance of the oncoming Dust Bowl .

For McCain’s music I generally adopted a more vernacular approach, drawing on the fine anthology assembled by Austin and Alta Fife, Cowboy and Western Songs. Each time McCain pointed his finger at Obama, I broke into The Old Chisholm Trail, its simplistic melody plodding along like the gimpy mule-driving senator from Arizona himself:

Oh come along boys, and listen to my tale,
I’ll tell you all my troubles on the ol’ campaign trail.

But whenever McCain intoned his “experience” chant, I covered that with Chopin’s Funeral March (Op. 35, no.2 ), Sarah Palin and Cindy McCain elbowing each other out of the way for pride of place in the cortege. Chopin’s dirge  provides a bit of Old World perspective on the self-styled maverick’s open-range kvetching.

Service to Country, Ear-Marks, Veterans, Tax-and-Spend Liberal, Ahmadinejad, General Petraeus, the Surge, Main Street and Wall Street: all received their leitmotivs, and were better for it.

I also provided some useful, if obvious, music for the long shots showing the candidates prowling around the floor of the amphitheater like estranged brothers-in-law trying to avoid each other at a family wedding reception. For this I turned to Erik Satie’s by-now-hackneyed Gymnopédie no. 1: almost miraculously, the contenders’ embarrassing dance was transformed into a poignant symbolist choreography. These interludes also recalled to the equally overused music I chose for the debaters’ entrance music: Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns, a piece which owes much to Satie.

In advance of the final debate I’ve already been digging around for new themes for the Weather Underground, FDR’s ghost, Missile Defense, Troopergate, and The Crash of 2008.

Never have the candidates been so much fun as then whey are forced to let music do the real communicating.

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 dgy2@cornell.edu

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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