Olympic Music

In ancient Greece trumpet playing was an Olympic event. Herodorus of Megas had the winnings lips and lung power: beginning in 396 BCE, he won the trumpet laurels ten consecutive times.

Those were fair weather games. I don’t know if Herorodus did his thing in the nude as was the sometime habit of the ancients, a practice partially emulated by the nearly naked Tongan flag bearer, Pita Taufatofua

(http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-02-10/winter-olympics:-tongan-flag-bearer-pita-taufatofua-entrance/9418056) at the Pyeongchang opening ceremony.

Regardless of how his lower body was or wasn’t clad, Herodorus would have had a tough time in Korea this February freeing his lips from the freezing copper of his salpinx.


With the reanimation of the Olympics in 1896 century ago music was denied its rightful place as sport. At the end of the nineteenth century, the most prestigious mode of musical expression—presented in concert halls often architecturally inspired by Greek temples—was the symphony. Frequently bullied by conductors more obsessive and megalomaniacal than any modern coach, the orchestra was itself a team of a hundred or more men. Although it sometimes fought with the legacy of the composer (especially when that composer was Beethoven), this squad did not compete against an opposing side, but instead had as its goal climbing the snowy summits of Art.  Neither musical nor alpine mountaineering is an Olympic event.

The agonistic impulses of music were shunted off to fiddling jamborees, international piano competitions, jazz cutting contests, shouting matches or their bel canto cousins, high C duels of three or more tenors—a kind of snowboard cross of the opera stage.

Though we are now deprived of Herodorus-like sonic feats in Olympic stadiums, there is nonetheless an abundance of music in the modern games, even in the arctic climes of the Korean mountains.

With an unwitting nod to the Greek trumpeter, the spectacle of the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang last Friday began with generic brass fanfares followed by lush Romantic strings. Both gestures feed into the ideology of nationalism that fueled the Olympic revival and keep this mash-up of patriotism and consumerism going in ever more grandiose fashion. Nationalist ideology is nowhere clearer this time around than in the participation of Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR); these men and women have been cleared for competition, but deprived of their national team colors, their flag, and, most crippling of all, their anthem.

With the Doomsday clock two minutes and thirty seconds from midnight it took a surreal level of detachment—fueled by copious amounts booze—not to be scared shitless by the vast display of fireworks that began the opening ceremony.

Given that the tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been crucial in pushing atomic time ever closer towards oblivion, one could have thought the fiery beginning marked not the beginning of the games but the end of the world.  The brass barrage that quickly followed as the five cute Korean kids embarked on their fairy tale journey across history and their ancient and modern culture felt like a relief: these conventional sonic armaments at least signaled that there was still some chance of collective survival, especially for those watching the show from half a world away.

These European musical flourishes of symphony orchestra and military band were garnished with exoticizing pentatonic arabesques piped by Korean flutes whose melodies wafted up no so much like alluring incense but defensive flak.  Hundreds of drummers pounding out their frightening tattoos formed shifting arrays more unified—and far more fearsome—than the joint North-South Korean hockey team. Given these visions of mass coordination, not to say coercion, one wondered on which side of the DMZ an evil dictatorship held sway.

The prestige of classical music was presented in the person of operatic soprano Sumi Hwang, currently in the ensemble of the Bonn Opera in Germany. She knocked out the Olympic Anthem, which according to dictates of the governing committee, must be sung in either English and Greek. Polyglot divas fear no linguistic moguls, hairpin turns, or gusts from the wings. She did it in Greek.

A warmly-clothed children’s choir sang the South Korean National Anthem as their wintery flag was hoisted for the world’s contemplation: was it the white flag of truce or a final prayer before the darkness. The kids sang perfectly, like little robots: their devotion was devastating.

In between these “traditional” set-piece there were eruptions of K-Pop, and world pop, and many of other pops. Pop trumps pomp. The biggy-sized genres of nineteenth-century romanticism were relieved by the latest product that would appeal to a broader, younger audience.

For all the athletes’ smiles, the mass spectacle and its music were bone-chilling, sonically conveying the cold temperatures all around the world.

This is the first year that figure skaters were allowed to have vocal music with lyrics to accompany them. If the nineteenth century was the great age of national anthems, it was, not coincidentally, the heyday of the symphony—of absolute music unsullied by words, the often gothic stories told with the dancer’s bodies buttressed by the symphonic soundtrack emanating from the orchestra pit at their feet. Tchaikovsky music—especially a frozen-over Swan Lake—was the long the dominant figure in figure-skating music.

But the sport has at last made the decisive break from its balletic past in a bid to engage that same “younger generation.”

Thus we were treated to the bizarre collision of China’s skating pair of Wenjing Sui and Cong Han doing their short program to a K. D.  Lang cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” What was the object of their thanks? Likely, the scarily unrelenting control and support of the PRC Olympic program.

For the free skating program, the Chinese couple went, unexpectedly perhaps, with a wordless Star Wars medley that fed fantasies of a Lea and Luke romance on ice—never mind that these Hollywood strains conjured thoughts of an evil empire, albeit one made right in the eyes of the world by its capitalistic credentials. One couldn’t help wonder if the Chinese pair’s decision to go with John William’s wordless orchestral firepower might have cost them gold.

For all their romanticism, these textless tunes made for low-temperature stuff compared to the canned voice of love. Again and again for the skaters, the words were what made the pathos overflow its athletic banks—melting Olympic ice and many a septueganarian’s heart.

In enlisting the power of sung words the skating become even more embarrassing than the opening ceremony. It was enough to make even a brute blush.

In contrast to these public outpourings of recorded music, the chilled-out snowboarders retreat into their own enclosed world. As they twist and turn and flip and soar, they are being urged on by private soundtracks piped directly into their ears. Women’s half-pipe gold medalist Chloe Kim dissembled about her musical choices, vaguely alluding to Lady Gaga and Britney Spears. Before dropping onto the course Kim does is not check her bindings or adjust her goggles. Like her snowboarding colleagues, she fine-tunes the volume on her earbuds.

Eventually Kim’s euphoric amnesia cleared and she confirmed to ESPN that, for her record-breaking victory lap  she chose “MotorSport” by that trio polymorphous monikers: Migos, Cardi B and Nicki Minaj. Heard in synchrony with Kim’s acrobatics, the relaxed yet emphatic beat of this massively over-produced track seems automatically to map onto the takeoffs, tricks, and landings of the seventeen-year-old Korean-American phenom. What would the acrobatics look like if these boarders listening to Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique instead of, say, 21 Savage’s “Bank Account” —a “musical” form of sexual harassment that is a favorite of slope style gold medalist Jamie Anderson.

All the musical firepower unleashed in these cosmopolitan-corporate rituals—from Korean fable to love-on-ice medleys—will not pound or pull the snowboarders and their generation into compliance. Even before the end comes, the kids just want to be left alone. Even if they are listening to whatever everyone else is listening to, they want to do it inside their own heads when the lights go out one last time.

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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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