Olympic Jam Sessions

Music was arguably more crucial at the ancient Olympic games than at the globalized modern ones, where it not only buttresses big ritualistic moments—the opening ceremonies, the doling out of medals—but insinuates itself into the damnedest moments of the competition.

The main difference between the games of antiquity and those of modernity—not that I can claim to have time-travelled to the 4th and 5th centuries BCE—is the tone. In contrast to what one might imagine for the solemnities of the ancients, the musical cues and quirks in Rio owe more to the sitcom and Hollywood movie cue, than to the spirit of earnest devotion to the gods and the human form that held sway back when the athletes did their thing in the nude, instead of trussed up in corporate logos and throbbing with bling.

At the volleyball matches both indoors and on the sands of Copacabana beach every time a call is challenged by one of the teams, John Williams’ Imperial March from Star Wars—the leitmotiv of Darth Vader—comes blaring out of the loudspeakers.

In the good old days of the Cold War, when the Olympics were a lot more fun, Williams’ march stood on the cinema screen for the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union; now the bullying tune can do equally viable service for the doped-up bad guys from the Russian Federation, which lost to the Freedom Loving NATO-loyal Dutch last night in the Bronze medal match without winning a game. Perhaps the Russian duo of Krasilnikov and Semenov was put off by the mocking soundtrack. What are the possible meanings of this unlikely Challenge Music? Maybe it tells us never to trust the human officials for sports (or anything else for that matter): the former are Darth Vader wannabes wearing not black but the bright colors provided by Chinese sportswear behemoth 361˚? Or does it bring to mind the invisible world of technological surveillance in which even the ball can’t get away with a harmless flirtation with the line in the sand? The possibilities of conspiratorial interpretation are endless.

At the start of the sprints a portentously swelling chord evokes the Sunrise opening of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra in the same key of C Major. The denuded slopes of the Strauss are now awash with kitschy run-off after a century of overgrazing, no culprit greater than that big cinematic beef, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Rio crowd-quieter and scene-setter music taps into the same sound-of-the-cosmos-in-formation—running being the most elemental of survival skills: flee or be eaten. Here, too, a range of meanings is possible, my favorite being: Vaderian corporate forces rule the games—and everything else—and we all better run like hell to get away from them.

The relationship between Romantic model (Strauss’s Zarathustra) and its modern semiotic distillate (the Starter’s Chord) is paralleled by that between the fake heroism of the background music that precedes the playing of the national anthems. I suspect a computer program rather than an actual human came up with this supra-patriotic porridge: funnel all the world’s national hymns—themselves kitschy revenants of a bygone age when nationalism was less a front for corporate cash—into the software saucepan and boil for a long, long time.

Jamaican Robert Lightbourne’s masterful mimickry of the arch-colonial style of Sir Edward Elgar has been on full display in the 1962 national hymn he wrote for his island nation. Lightbourne’s anthem has been heard repeatedly as the country continues to dominate the sprints. As the athletes mount the podium a mushy version of striving nationalist Romanticism wafts through the track-and-field venue. After the anthem of the winner’s country has been played, the mushy mood-music returns to accompany the athletes as they take the slow walk of triumph around the stadium.

In contrast to these trite and tedious canned cues, music at the original Olympics back on the Peloponnese was clear and forceful in its meaning. One of its duties was to spur on the athletes during the events. Thus the long jump was accompanied by clarion calls that were thought to propel the competitors to greater heights and distances. Now the run-up to this event is done without such a sonic boost, and even without pre-recorded ditties from the mega-corps who clothe the athletes, although the jumpers sometimes get the crowds clapping (what there are of them—the Havelange Stadium an embarrassment of empty blue seats even at the most thrilling events, which finish past midnight local time).

Music was held to be so vital to the ancient games that the discipline achieved competitive status from 396 BCE on: the salpinx (trumpet) that provided ritual support and definition for the proceedings became itself a competitive apparatus.  At the 96th games in 396 BCE, a local trumpeter from the town of Elis near Olympia won the first contest, the winner decided for the power and clarity of his playing. Surely the hometown crowd influenced the judges’ decision.

The greatest of all the Olympian trumpeters, though, was Herodorus from Megara in distant Attica, much closer to Athens. He won the salpinx laurels in ten consecutive Olympics from 328 to 292BCE. Writing some five hundred years later in the Deipnosophists (The Banquet of the Learned), the Hellenistic-Egyptian Athenæus described the musician as an impressive physical specimen enjoying a daunting caloric regimen:

“Herodorus, the Megaran trumpeter, was a man of three cubits and a half in height [just over six feet] … he had great strength in his chest, and he could eat six chœnixes [the mid-nineteenth-century British translator, C. D. Yonge, set the range of this measure between a pint-and-a-half and four pints — either way a considerable quantity] of bread and twenty liters of meat, of whatever sort was provided for him; he could drink two choeus of wine; he could play on two trumpets at once; and it was his habit to sleep on only a lion’s skin.”

The result of this training program for the legendary Olympic musical laureate was simply this: “When playing on the trumpet he made a vast noise.”

Athenæaus reports not only that “[Herodorus] gained the prize in all the games ten times” but also that the trumpeter was a major asset on the battle field:

“When Demetrius the son of Antignus, was besieging Argos, and when his troops could not bring the helepolis [a moveable siege tower] against the walls on account of its weight, he, giving the signal with his two trumpets at once, by the great volume of sound which he poured forth instigated the soldiers to move forward the engine with great zeal and earnestness.”

Doubtless Herodorus’s girth and gusto had been inflated in the retrospect of the intervening half millennium. But the description is nonetheless worthy of a musical champion.

Athenæus does not report on the great Olympian musician’s attire or whether he had to play naked at games. Following directly on his account of Herodorus, Athenæus moves on to the exploits of a female trumpeter “Aglais, the daughter of Megacles played a processional piece of music [wearing] a head-dress of false hair, and a crest upon her head … And she, too, could eat twelve liters of meat and four chœnixes of bread, and drink a choeus of wine, at one sitting.” This is a festive diet worthy of an Eastern European hammer thrower and as powerful a defense of music as sport as you’re likely to read.

Nowadays there is no shortage of musical contests, nor, for that matter, of all-you-can-eat buffets. Many who follow musical competitions claim that, from the Van Cliburn in Fort Worth to the Tchaikovsky in Moscow, these events often reward technical achievement rather than the more indistinct merits of artistic interpretation. I say let’s channel the Olympic spirit of antiquity and recognize musical might and speed.

Invite Herodorus’s modern-day epigones out onto the stadium in lycra body suits to blast horns for Bolt and Orsippus, that ancient runner, also from Megara who, at the games of 720 BCE, cannily let his girdle slip off not only to display his bod, but more importantly so that he could run unencumbered on to glory.

Today’s Olympian musicians could be measured not according to dubious aesthetic metrics but with the accuracy of modern technology, the decibel level counted down to the second decimal place. Then there’d be the speed events on violin, piano, guitar—from Chopin Études (already a kind of sporting event) to heavy metal springs. World records could be set.

The thrill of simultaneous competition would boost both musicians and sprinters, ratings and ticket sales. And think of the sound of that power trio and the euphoria of the crowd, as the gold medalist musician invites silver and bronze onto the top step of the podium for an Olympic Power Trio jam session that’ll knock the world’s socks and ears off—and Darth Vader’s helmet, too.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com