Milli-Vanilli or Yo-yo Ma?

Well, I suppose I should weigh in on the kerfluffle surrounding the performance of John Williams’ Air and Simple Gifts at Obama’s inauguration.

The first thing that I noticed when the quartet began playing was how loud it was. Then, I noticed that they had microphones. My next thought was, “It looks pretty windy out there, and the mics don’t seem to be picking up any of the wind noise! I wonder how the sound engineers managed that? Maybe they’re sheilded really well by the bullet-proof glass surrounding the entire stage…”

If you’re not up to speed, it was revealed after the ceremony that the quartet had recorded the work a day or two before-hand. That recording was pumped through the public address system while the performers wore earphones and played “live” along with the recording. In essence, they did a lip-synch.

The ceremony organizers released this information to the news outlets before the ceremony started, but none of them announced it. However, afterwards, some folks began to complain.

My thinking is that the performers made the right decision. There is no way the piano, the cello or violin could have been heard on that very windy, cold day. The clarinet might have popped through above the wind for people sitting 20-30 yards away, but other than that, no-one but those sitting within a few yards of the performers would have been able to hear.

While the performers made the right decision, the inauguration committee committed a huge gaffe, I think. Usually, the outrage associated with lip-synching is that there is a feeling of deception. Is milli-vanilli REALLY singing or is it someone else entirely? Well, there is no doubt that Yo-yo Ma, Itzak Perlman, Anthony McGill, and Montero are not the performers that they claim to be. In fact, they are universally viewed as some of the greatest musicians of our time. So, there is no deception about the “who” that is performing. That, in itself, muted some of the criticism in the mainstream press.

What the inauguration planners should have done is made sure that the networks announced that the players would be accompanying themselves on a recording, because the mics could not pick up enough of their sound due to the windy conditions. I think that simple acknowledgement and a quick explanation that the quartet was still actually playing would have washed away any controversy at all.

As usual, transparency would have been the best choice.

Williams’ composition was an odd one. Let me start by saying that I think Williams is a very gifted composer. His greatest talents lie in his deft ability to emulate styles and genres and to use them for his own ends–usually in service to the narrative of visual images (but not always). I think the real problem with Air and Simple Gifts is that the work was stuck in the middle of an incredibly important historical moment. A four-minute work for a mixed quartet was already missing the point before a single note was sounded. An artistic artifact for that moment needed to be either as big as the moment (probably impossible) or so poignant as to leap into the mind whenever one remembered the inauguration itself. Of course, the problem with meeting either of those goals is that the musical interlude was, also, a practical moment in time. Music in such a ceremony must always serve the ceremony rather than being ars gratia ars. That Williams decided to write a serious work that engaged with the moment in a tenuously philosophical way, was, in my opinion, a mistake. The music either had to be fully connected and engaged in the history of the moment, or it had to eschew it entirely to try to arrive at some other artistic impulse–all the while keeping in line with the fact that this is not a concert, but an inauguration that was dripping with historical import.

Easier said than done, though. Williams was in an impossible position to write a work worthy of such a moment. I honor him for his try. But, of course, how could one pass up the opportunity to write a work to be premiered by a quartet such as Ma, Perlman, Gillman, and Montero?

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