Not something that happens
But the way something happens
-- Charles Ives,
Essays Before a Sonata

Friday, March 6, 2009

The disappearing composer at the Obama Inauguration

The performance of Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait at the Obama Inaugural Celebration (We Are One) in January of this year has created plenty of buzz on the web and elsewhere. Much of the conversation has centered on the symbolic links between Obama, Franklin Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln to which this performance has contributed. Depending on your politics, you may or may not find this symbolism convincing: the more cynical side of me says that it covers over the possibility that Obama may actually govern to the right of Eisenhower and Nixon.

But I'd like to focus attention on something not explicitly political. I didn't get to see the HBO feed of the Obama Inaugural Celebration on the Sunday before the inauguration, but the AMS-L listserv later carried a discussion provoked by this concert. While those of us who grew up within the Western art music tradition find it second nature to talk about the composer as the central figure of musical creativity, the culture at large prefers to talk about performers. One can trace this tendency back to 1960s-era popular musicians (the Beatles, Bob Dylan), who established the ideal that popular musicians should be both performers and composers (singer-songwriters), or further back to the beginnings of recorded jazz in the 1910s and 1920s, where the recorded performance and the composition are often one and the same. In short, over time the very act of composition has become hard to talk about in isolation from other activities.

(One can make a contrast with film, where filmmakers and film historians usually speak of the director as the source of creativity, while fans may be more likely to care about the contribution of the actors. Yet while actor-directors do exist, film seems to have resisted the merging of these roles; film is still made within a highly specialized division of labor more reminiscent of Tin Pan Alley than of post-Beatles pop music.)

Consider, then, the Obama Inaugural Celebration. Among the numerous songs by rock performers (Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, U2), folk (Pete Seeger), country (Garth Brooks), and soul/R&B (Stevie Wonder, Usher, Beyoncé), appeared two selections composed by Aaron Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man and A Lincoln Portrait. Here is a clip of the performance of the latter, featuring Tom Hanks as narrator:

Now view this clip on YouTube's site. Notice that the blurb reads, "Tom Hanks honored Abraham Lincoln in his speech at the We Are One Inaugural Concert" and that the supplied list of keywords does not mention Aaron Copland at all. If you actually watch the video, Copland is identified as the composer of the work in the graphics, but you will not find this video by putting "Aaron Copland" in the search box at YouTube. The composer has disappeared. Apparently the uploader of this video was under the impression that Tom Hanks had written a speech to recite over background music. It never occurred to him or her that Hanks was performing an existing musical composition with a part for a narrator.

Admittedly, this work is somewhat of a special case in the repertory of orchestral music, and a musical novice could be forgiven for not imagining that there are works out there for narrator and orchestra. Also, there is a long tradition of performances of A Lincoln Portrait with celebrity narrators (including Obama himself in this 2005 performance in Chicago) and such celebrities will inevitably steal the spotlight from a dead composer. Still, the fact that no recognition at all is given to the composer, even one as acclaimed as Aaron Copland, demonstrates well that the cultural presuppositions of many Americans are different from those of the so-called "classical music" world.

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