View from afar

I’m a little surprised at how much blog and press coverage there has been of that little John Williams piece played at Obama’s inauguration. This was the first inauguration ceremony I watched in any length on TV and, as a Brit, I’d just assumed that something like this happened every time, just part of the general pomp. But, as I sift through the various responses this morning, Anthony Tommasini’s strikes me as capturing a general mood:

Classical singers have performed for inaugurations in recent decades. But to have a new instrumental piece played was most unusual, something that should gratify classical music lovers.

Why, exactly? We have ears, and we’re supposed to be a discerning bunch. Are we so easily fobbed off by some star names (hey – wasn’t that guy in The West Wing?) and a little bit of public recognition that the quality of the music doesn’t matter?

Who knows what Perlman, Yo Yo et al were doing up there, but the most likely explanation is prestige. Obama (or more likely his handlers) wanted a bit of high arts sheen to the proceedings. What’s a little bit surprising to me is how many commentators seem to have bought this so easily. Let’s look past the ‘whoo! classical music at the inauguration!’ bit: this was a new piece commissioned from John Williams, a composer who has become hugely wealthy and very well known by writing conventional scores (with a team of helpers) for big budget films that don’t rock the boat. This was not a new administration of aesthetes stamping its colourful mark on the next four years. This was a lacklustre choice drafted by a mid-level staffer, and Mark Swed is absolutely right to call Obama on this (although I don’t see how his list of alternatives moves us much further on, to be honest). If people are serious about improving the status of classical and contemporary music in America, they need to be a bit less willing to settle for such crumbs.

Some are happy with the nod to Copland in Williams’s piece. It might have looked like harking back to a bygone age (but, sadly, the same has to be said of a fading Aretha Franklin) but wouldn’t we all have preferred been some actual Copland?

4 thoughts on “View from afar

  1. We would not have preferred some actual Copland, no.

    You imply that the symbolism of a brand new piece written by a living American and played by genuine classical music superstars is vacuous. (And, seriously, you think Perlman and Ma need MORE prestige at this point in their careers?) But this symbolism is important! And if we’d had a piece by a dead person played by faceless unrecognizable performers, THAT symbolism would have mattered too. You think a performance of actual Copland would have somehow been LESS lackluster a decision? Less safe and expected?

    You don’t like the style (neither, particularly do I), but that does not make this particular work “crumbs.” John Williams’s previous scores and the realities of the Hollywood film music industry does not make this particular work “crumbs” either. If you have a insight in the quality or appropriateness of the composition, then articulate it. Nothing that you wrote here gives any evidence that you even listened to it.

    Sorry to get personal at the end there! You know I love you!

  2. Greg, I think he’s saying that Ma & co. were there to confer prestige, not to receive.

    Ditto John Williams, I’d say—I think it was important to the organizers that they pick a composer whose name and style could be recognized by a good chunk of the audience.

    On the one hand, that’s too bad. It would’ve been nice if they had picked some composer who could have used the laurels—hasn’t Williams been trotted out for every American Olympics in history?—instead of choosing a celebrity to cast some starlight off the new administration.

    On the other hand, the notion that commissioning any new piece of music (or really any work of “high” art) could be a good way to score some political points is pretty alien to American public life in recent decades, especially the the past eight. This really is a big deal, and I think it worked out well. Maybe next term the performance of a new piece will be taken for granted, and they can afford to be a bit more adventurous. (Terry Riley in 2013!!)

    I mean—at least they didn’t pick James Horner.

  3. Greg – Dan’s right, I meant prestige for the administration, not the players (who are doing fine). Sorry that wasn’t as clear as it might have been.

    No, Copland may not have been a less expected decision (although that perhaps depends on what piece of Copland), but it would surely have been musically a little more substantial – and these days, risking a bit of substance is the less safe option. Of course, I’d have preferred some Lucier, but that’s never gonna happen … I do stand by my general point, however, that a brand new piece written by a living American and played by genuine classical music superstars is not automatically non-vacuous.

    Fair call on not being specific about the piece. Listening again, it’s nicely paced, fits the four-minute remit well, and squeezes both joy and contemplation into that space. It does what is asked of it very nicely. But it doesn’t ruffle any feathers: the shape is pretty much exactly as you’d expect, the tune is well-known and never taken anywhere that 100 other composers couldn’t have thought of, the emotional arc is too obvious, and the transitional bits between variations are really anonymous. There’s nothing here that sounds “John Williams-y” to me (putting aside the fact that in this case it’s hard to say what that composer’s voice is), it’s just neutral, aural polyfilla. I think the TV commentators who talked over it on some channels probably felt the same way too, at least instinctively.

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