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Clearing the Air about John Williams’ Simple Gift (part 2)

Picking up from part 1, which is mostly an analysis of “Air and Simple Gifts,” the composition John Williams wrote for Obama’s inauguration (it was all a single post until I saw how long it’d turned out)…

The negative reactions that I’ve come across tend to work the premise that we should have gotten a more original, ambitious, challenging, and/or grand work of art. To some extent this is a matter of taste and not worth arguing over. But it seems to me that there are unexamined assumptions behind that “should,” and those I’m inclined to question.

  • The first critics to get my attention were commenters on The Edge of the American West. Here are some fragments from ninjaphilosopher, Ahistoricality, and a few others.

    I know it was cheesy and basically just an arrangement of the Copland, but I thought it was both nice and appropriate.

    [In response:] I think the Copland is basically just an arrangement of “Simple Gifts”.

    [T]his wasn’t Williams coincidentally deciding that “Simple Gifts” is the Quintessential American Melody, but Williams deciding to arrange a riff on Copland’s Quintessential American Symphony for that meticulously multiethnic quartet. There wasn’t an original thought anywhere in the piece, in conception or execution.

    I believe the announcer credited everyone involved with that performance except for Copland.

    I’m dubious as to whether or not John Williams has ever had an original musical idea. Don’t get me wrong, I think his movie music is fun and dramatic, but original? I don’t think so. A better idea would have been to pare down the original chamber version of the theme and variations, and not have Williams in the picture at all.

    [I]t would have been more appropriate to admit up front that it was a Copland schtick, rather than calling it a John Williams piece.

    Williams’ debt is undeniable, of course. Any chamber-music setting of “Simple Gifts” will call Copland to mind. Bring the tune in with a solo clarinet and it’s like a neon sign—C O P L A N D. Aside from the overall concept, the moments that strike me as especially Coplandesque are the wind-whistling-across-the-prairie spareness of the opening chords and solo violin and the crystalline brilliance of the tutti finale to “Simple Gifts” (explained and charted in part 1). But somehow the idea that Williams’ composition is derivative turns into the idea that it’s really Copland’s music. It’s not. As far as I can tell, anyway, Williams didn’t lift any passages out of anyone else’s music.

    I don’t think that the melody of the Air owes much of anything to Copland. I don’t think he wrote melodies like that, though I don’t have all of his work at my fingertips, so I could be wrong. But the Air on its own—and even more the Air in relation to the variations, which is the essence of the composition—is unquestionably an original musical construct.

  • One thing that’s clear from Terry Teachout’s blog post is that he was not at all in sync with the celebratory mood on inauguration day. I know the feeling all too well from some other presidential elections that I’d rather not think about too much. With that in mind, it’s probably not fair to take too seriously his suggestion that what Perlman and Ma should really have played is Appalachian Spring. Copland’s composition needs at least a chamber orchestra, first of all, and it’s about 25 minutes long. It uses the full stretch of time to great effect—with the gorgeous crepuscular meditations at the beginning and end, it’s like a dawn to dusk experience. To carve four or five minutes out of the middle and arrange it for that “meticulously multiethnic quartet” would have been sad. I can’t imagine that Teachout would have approved of such a thing.

  • The New Yorker’s Russell Platt describes the piece as “a touching little tribute to Copland’s ‘Appalachian Spring’” from “America’s best second-rate composer.” That’s about right if you consider Williams’ composition to be the setting of “Simple Gifts” and nothing else. But if you thought that you’d be wrong.

  • Anne Midgett, writing for the Washington Post, thought “the music seemed awfully austere for an event that calls for at least some measure of celebration,” and apparently she would have preferred “a stirring film-score-type theme proclaiming a new beginning for Barack Obama.” Obama had a different plan, it seems, and all I can say is that I’m glad Midgett wasn’t in charge of the music.

  • On the LA Times blog, Mark Swed marvels that “so momentous an occasion… would be signaled by classical musicians playing on the Capitol veranda.”

    We have reason to believe we have an arts president. So now, let’s get to business. Williams’ four-minute quartet struck an apt tone of seriousness and celebration. It was Americana through and through. Politics were served by a violinist born in Israel, a cellist of Chinese heritage born in Paris, a pianist from Venezuela and an African American clarinetist from Chicago. None is a stuffy classical player but likes to collaborate widely. That’s all to the good. But …

    Frankly, the Williams quartet was a bit hokey. For Obama to be an arts president he will have to think higher and even further out of the box. If he really wants change, he will have to have the courage to listen to artists who can’t be controlled, whose vision is greater than his and his handlers. We need artists not merely to sing our achievements but to communicate new ideas and to spread our voice through the land and the world. Obama must mobilize the arts to help him change the mood of our nation and raise our energy.

    I like the trick of declaring Obama an “arts president” in one paragraph and then in the next paragraph criticizing him for his shortcomings as such. Apparently his first order of business should have been to go out and find his Shostakovich.

    Now if I’d had anything to say about the music commissioned for the occasion, I would have turned first thing to just the category of artists Swed is promoting. I would love it if we’d ended up with a piece that had the uncompromising personality of George Crumb’s Black Angels or the cerebral brilliance of Elliott Carter’s Anaphora. Or, if those two greybeards are too old school for a Change president, then maybe some distinctive 21st-century brilliance from Radiohead. If the point was to highlight a significant American artist, there were an awful lot of people in line in front of Williams. But was that the point? I don’t think that it’s a foregone conclusion that it was, and I’m inclined to think that it wasn’t. A bit of high-concept, well-crafted movie music may well have served the day better than any number of highly original masterpieces. It’s unhelpful, in any case, to start out by sorting the artistic world into uncompromising visionaries on one side and on the other patsies controllable by the president (and his “handlers”—that was a nice touch).

The most informative review I found is from Anthony Tommasini, writing in a New York Times blog:

Mr. Williams came through with a stylish and appealing four-minute work, “Air and Simple Gifts.” In high-minded contemporary-music circles Mr. Williams, the most successful film music composer in history, has endured much condescension for his work in Hollywood. But the best of his film scores are skillfully, artfully and even subtly composed. And he is a comprehensive musician who knows how to write for all orchestral instruments.

He got the mood right, I thought, in this contemplative occasional piece. President Obama, it turns out, has a fondness for the music of Aaron Copland. So Mr. Williams fashioned a work that evokes the melancholic, calmly affirming, harmonically open-hearted world of Copland.

Alex Ross brought his usual clarifying touch to the occasion (and I picked up most of these other critics’ reactions from his links).

Indeed, it’s no Quartet for the End of Time [(the WWII masterpiece by Olivier Messiaen for the same four instruments)]. But I liked several things about the work and its place in the ceremony. 1) The quiet, almost bittersweet ending—a welcome change from the grimly bombastic Williams film music that marred Obama’s victory speech in November. 2) The gesture of homage toward Aaron Copland, whose Lincoln Portrait was pulled from an Eisenhower inauguration event in 1953 at the insistence of a Red-baiting congressman. 3) The look of delight on the face of the president…. 4) I liked most of all the diverse picture of the classical world that the performers presented: an Israeli-born violinist, a Chinese-American cellist, a Venezuelan-born pianist, and an African-American clarinetist from the South Side of Chicago.

I’m with him on all four counts. But for me there was more to the visual aspect than the appealing diversity. The body language of classical chamber musicians is especially rich in signals of interdependence. In musical styles that settle into a steady groove, the body language tends to convey immersion and emotion (here’s a couple of wonderful examples). There’s an element of self-expression in all music making, and a social aspect and a degree of coordination in any ensemble playing. But classical music is especially intricate in its entrances and exits, its tempo changes, and its shifts from one texture to another. I especially enjoyed Yo-Yo Ma’s expressiveness as he looked and leaned left and right, and looked forward with a different kind of awareness than I’d expect at an ordinary gig. It was a good day to see four people thriving on interdependence.

[I was just googling and came across a post on aworks with a slew of critical reactions, mostly on the snarky side with respect to the composer.]

[Tonight I ran across a much more personal reaction on zunguzungu. It’s fine reminder of the limits of analysis—what you get out of a piece of music depends on what you bring to it, or, as he says, “We’re all responding in our own ways right now.” The back story is lovely, too.]

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What with the bungled oath and all, Stephen Colbert officially welcomes our 44th president, the man who happened to be on the TV screen at noon on January 20th, Yo-Yo Ma!