FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Debate in Search of a Soundtrack

by DAVID YEARSLEY

The importance of music can only be truly gauged by its absence. A bride walking down the aisle in silence is an act that thunders more loudly than a hundred trumpets and timpani. Likewise, watching the first presidential debate on YouTube’s election hub introduced by the vacuous third-string junior varsity ABC news team literally twittering their way through the pre-game hype, was like entering an oxygenless chamber and quickly realizing that the only escape from the dire lack of sustaining content was to wait for the mercy of the big sleep—or at least take comfort in the hope that one might be able to enjoy an evening of slumber on the sofa. Staying up for this snoozefest was more difficult than remaining awake for a reading of Goodnight Moon after drinking a couple of valium-laced whiskeys.

Where was the opening snap of the snare drum to remind us of the disciplined rhetorical skills about to be required of, and demonstrated by, the great statesmen now striding to the garishly veneered particleboard podiums? Where was the free-range, Coplandesque concerto evoking the vast American spaces the candidates had ceaselessly traversed during their campaigns in order to meet the people of this great land?  Where was the stentorian march marking the earnestness of the occasion, and encouraging us—against all the evidence—to believe that this election, like all before it, is the most important in American history?  Where was the trumpet fanfare reminding us of America’s imperial reach and responsibility in keeping the world safe for democracy?

We know that these debates are thoroughly staged: third-party candidates are excluded; the questions are vetted by the respective candidates’ advisors; the harmless duels are set up by the bogus Commission on Presidential Debates headed exclusively by Republicans and Democratic fixers, with a token Kennedy (Caroline) made to grace the penthouse organizing party in a transparent attempt to lend a kind of regal legitimacy to the show.

If the debates are going to be staged, then stage them: give us a soundtrack that might somehow lend the soporific event at least the illusion of relevance and provide some dramatic interest. Remaining vaguely attentive for this dreary spectacle without the necessary music is asking way too much of those average Americans incessantly invoked by Obama and Romney over the grinding 90 minutes of the debate.

The organizers anticipated 60 million viewers, though I can’t imagine that number was reached, and if it was, that even half who tuned in stayed the dreary course.  Even so, the broader viewing public is vast compared to the miniscule audience in the University of Denver auditorium, an audience only dimly and occasionally seen at Jim Lehrer’s back. The event was one for the screen, ranging in size from home-cinema mainsails to palm-held postage-stamps. Maybe a few luckless souls even streamed the debate on prototype Google glasses, thereby testing a potential form of torture for Guantanamo terror suspects.

Since the debates are in essence a screened phenomenon we expect and deserve a soundtrack. Few movies are without them, since so few filmmakers dare to let action and dialogue speak for themselves.  Consider for example, the Dardenne brothers, two-time winners of the Palme d’Or at Cannes; they are exceptional in their general refusal to add a musical soundtrack to their films. Their most recent movie of 2011, The Kid with a Bike, is a rare counterexample in which the filmmakers introduce music that hovers somewhere far beyond the world of the film; this music seems to represent the emotional needs of the twelve-year-old protagonist, abandoned by his father. It is probably no coincidence that this film is also the Dardennes most optimistic.

In their other work, most unforgettably The Child of 2005 (one of the Dardennes’ Palme d’Or-winning films), the absence of music amplifies the relentless on-screen realism; they dispense no sonic salve that might ease the discomfort of viewers watching helplessly as the course pursued by characters leads to a black fate—the sale of the baby; its harrowing retrieval; and the break-up of the low-life nuclear family, just reunited against terrible odds, when the father is shipped off to prison for his crimes. To be sure, many great films are made great, at least in part, by their soundtracks: think of Bernhard Hermann’s scores for Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Welles’ Citizen Kane. More generally, however, Hollywood’s heavy reliance on the emotional manipulations music is capable of masks the poor quality of many of the movie industry’s creations. Without a soundtrack, such productions threaten to engender boredom, indifference, puzzlement—or a combination of all three. Such is the frequent result when image and action assault us without the covering fire of musical sound.

And so it was with the Wednesday’s Denver debate: the numbingly repetitive slogans and auto-responses unalloyed by music tended to focus the mind on the reality of the rhetorical situation and how devoid of substance it really was. Without the spooky diminished chords from Bach’s Toccata in D Minor (preferably in the Stokowski arrangement for orchestra made famous in Disney’s Fantasia of 1940) we could not be made to take seriously the candidates’ Sword-of-Damocles pronouncements on and prescriptions for the federal deficit. We could have used some of the Barber Adagio (think Oliver Stone’s Platoon) or maybe just Onward Christian Soldiers when Romney repeatedly said he wouldn’t cut the military budget. The obvious—and necessary—musical cue for Obama when, as expected, he boasted of his execution of Osama bin Laden was Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (as in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now). The former Massachusetts Governor’s read-my-lips-no-new-tax-cuts refrain needed the galloping optimism and resolve of the Credo from Mozart’s Mass in C minor.

Musical cues were more crucial still in the evening’s most excruciatingly maudlin moments. Never was Henry Mancini’s theme from Love Story more called for than when the candidates hugged their wives at the opening of the broadcast.  It’s true that the Love Story theme is minor-keyed and tragic in a saccharine sort of way, but therefore all the more suited to the circumstance, since the men are heading immediately into a mortal war of words against one another. The cringe-making anniversary wishes sent by beaming Obama down to his front-row wife cried out for There Will Never Be Another You as done by Dexter Gordon in his magisterial reading of the song on his 1967 album Body and Soul. That hip touch would have struck the right pose for the supposedly cool President. On the other end of the evening, we would have welcomed the jangling Appalachian guitars and soaring trumpet of the theme from The Waltons when the Romney generations thronged the stage after the flaccid words of the closing statements echoed limply into their own oblivion.

But the most important musical segment would have been the commemoration of fallen Jim Lehrer. Set in a deeply-lined face that resembled a heavily gerrymandered electoral map, Lehrer’s gentle brown eyes, already large, grew to unprecedented circumferences of disbelief at the moment he was crushed under the treads of the twin tanks Obama and Romney. As the corpse of his journalistic career was carried from behind his semi-circular anchor’s desk, I imagined the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Not that Lehrer had ever made for even half of a hero, but given the utter lack of courage and ideas on Wednesday night in Denver the tiresome ritual of the debate could have only been saved by recourse to sublime kitsch, the banal elevated to the entertaining by means of fabulous exaggeration. For now, however, the monotone of American politics will have to be relieved purely by the self-preserving instincts of the individual musical imagination.

DAVID YEARSLEY s a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
November 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Thank an Anti-War Veteran
Andrew Levine
What’s Wrong With Bible Thumpers Nowadays?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The CIA’s House of Horrors: the Abominable Dr. Gottlieb
Wendy Wolfson – Ken Levy
Why We Need to Take Animal Cruelty Much More Seriously
Mike Whitney
Brennan and Clapper: Elder Statesmen or Serial Fabricators?
David Rosen
Of Sex Abusers and Sex Offenders
Ryan LaMothe
A Christian Nation?
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Finger on the Button: Why No President Should Have the Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons
W. T. Whitney
A Bizarre US Pretext for Military Intrusion in South America
Deepak Tripathi
Sex, Lies and Incompetence: Britain’s Ruling Establishment in Crisis 
Howard Lisnoff
Who You’re Likely to Meet (and Not Meet) on a College Campus Today
Roy Morrison
Trump’s Excellent Asian Adventure
John W. Whitehead
Financial Tyranny
Ted Rall
How Society Makes Victimhood a No-Win Proposition
Jim Goodman
Stop Pretending the Estate Tax has Anything to do With Family Farmers
Thomas Klikauer
The Populism of Germany’s New Nazis
Murray Dobbin
Is Trudeau Ready for a Middle East war?
Jeiddy Martínez Armas
Firearm Democracy
Jill Richardson
Washington’s War on Poor Grad Students
Ralph Nader
The Rule of Power Over the Rule of Law
Justin O'Hagan
Capitalism Equals Peace?
Matthew Stevenson
Into Africa: From the Red Sea to Nairobi
Geoff Dutton
The Company We Sadly Keep
Evan Jones
The Censorship of Jacques Sapir, French Dissident
Linn Washington Jr.
Meek Moment Triggers Demands for Justice Reform
Gerry Brown
TPP, Indo Pacific, QUAD: What’s Next to Contain China’s Rise?
Robert Fisk
The Exile of Saad Hariri
Romana Rubeo - Ramzy Baroud
Anti-BDS Laws and Pro-Israeli Parliament: Zionist Hasbara is Winning in Italy
Robert J. Burrowes
Why are Police in the USA so Terrified?
Chuck Collins
Stop Talking About ‘Winners and Losers’ From Corporate Tax Cuts
Ron Jacobs
Private Property Does Not Equal Freedom
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Mass Shootings, Male Toxicity and their Roots in Agriculture
Binoy Kampmark
The Fordist Academic
Frank Scott
Weapons of Mass Distraction Get More Destructive
Missy Comley Beattie
Big Dick Diplomacy
Michael Doliner
Democracy, Real Life Acting and the Movies
Dan Bacher
Jerry Brown tells indigenous protesters in Bonn, ‘Let’s put you in the ground’
Winslow Myers
The Madness of Deterrence
Cesar Chelala
A Kiss is Not a Kiss: Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children
Jimmy Centeno
Garcia Meets Guayasamin: A De-Colonial Experience
Stephen Martin
When Boot Becomes Bot: Surplus Population and The Human Face.
Martin Billheimer
Homer’s Iliad, la primera nota roja
Louis Proyect
Once There Were Strong Men
Charles R. Larson
Review: Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones
David Yearsley
Academics Take Flight
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail