Friday, May 18, 2012

Graduation music blues

I should have named this post "Graduation music blows."

I used to like Elgar's marches. In fact, I liked them quite a bit. Now I not only detest them, I dread them. Here is why.

Graduation is almost upon us and I shudder. I know I will hear "Pomp and Circumstance" quite a few times. It will be terrible. An electric organ, maybe a trumpet; probably not. Dreadful speakers blasting an over-amplified signal at the helpless faculty only a few yards away, louder than a siren, louder than a 747 at take-off, so loud that the trustees' false teeth and implanted knees rattle, louder than the sound of Armageddon so that the most distant rows of attendees will hear what is alleged to be a musical tradition. Pitches will wobble, tempi will  vary like the appearance of buboes in the plague, rhythm will be dashed, ictus will be lost, terribly lost, and those cursed listeners will be bent under the weight of a horror that seems to have come from a banshee's wail, not a musical instrument.

Why is  "Pomp and Circumstance" - actually, it is the first of the "Pomp and Circumstance Military Marches", Op. 39 - played every fucking year? Well, if you believe Wikipedia - a source cited repeatedly by 99.47% of our senior class - then it was that notorious pig-fucker Sanford who did it.

 It was first played at such a ceremony on 28 June 1905, at Yale University, where the Professor of Music Samuel Sanford had invited his friend Elgar to attend commencement and receive an honorary Doctorate of Music. Elgar accepted, and Sanford made certain he was the star of the proceedings, engaging the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, the College Choir, the Glee Club, the music faculty members, and New York musicians to perform two parts from Elgar's oratorio The Light of Life and, as the graduates and officials marched out, "Pomp and Circumstance" March No. 1. Elgar repaid the compliment by dedicating the Introduction and Allegro to Sanford later that year. The tune soon became de rigueur at American graduations, used primarily as a processional at the opening of the ceremony (although it is still used now only as a recessional at Yale).

In Italy it is known as a liturgical song called "Santa Chiesa di Dio" (transl. Holy Church of God).

In my church - the Church of Too Much Religion When I Was Young - it is known as a liturgical song called "Holy Mary Mother of God, Here It Comes the Fuck Again."

I am not jaded. Most of Elgar's music retains its charms for me. I still have a deep love of the cello concerto. The violin concerto is thrilling. "Enigma" can still move me to tears. And I was very fortunate to have been able to sing in a performance of "The Music Makers" with the Beijing International Festival Chorus. It was a wonderful experience. But any love I had for the marches has been ground under the coarse heel of the boot of graduation.

Why must we ruin a fine piece of classical music with such dreadful performances? Aside from that fuck Sanford's rather self-serving interests in getting Elgar to Yale's graduation, there was no reason to wreck a perfectly fine ceremony with the commotion surrounding the performance of the piece. We have suffered long enough. Let us find a new tradition. I suggest that we use popular music from the decades of the attendees.

Every decade offers music that will not only remind the audience of their own precious youth, it will stir that odd mixing of hope and fear at graduation, anticipation blended with regret.

For the most ancient of the audience, why not play something from the 1930's such as  Leadbelly's "The Bourgeois Blues"? [ "The home of the Brave / The land of the Free / I don't wanna be mistreated by no bourgeoisie."]

From the 1940's, of course we could get the entire audience to sing the forgotten verses of "This Land Is Your Land" ["In the squares of the city / In the shadow of a steeple / By the relief office, I'd seen my people. / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, / Is this land made for you and me?"]

From the 1950's, one would HAVE to choose "Get A Job", by The Silhouettes, mostly because of the compelling lyrics. ["Yip, yip, yip, yip /  mum, mum, mum, mum / get a job"]

From the 1960's, how could one go wrong with Country Joe and the Fish's "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag", with lyrics that still resonate with contemporary meaning?  ["Come on Wall Street, don't be slow /  Why man, this is war au-go-go / There's plenty good money to be made /  By supplying the Army with the tools of its trade,...]

From the 1970's, we could use Gil Scott Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"; it would certainly stimulate serious political discussion! ["The revolution will not be televised / The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox / In 4 parts without commercial interruptions. / The revolution will not show you pictures of / Nixon blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John Mitchell, General Abrams and  / Spiro Agnew to eat hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary. / The revolution will not be televised."]

From the 1980's, I would be very tempted to use  Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." [Down in the shadow of the penitentiary / Out by the gas fires of the refinery / I'm ten years burning down the road /  Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go." I am torn between that and The Ramones "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)", because of its explicit anti-Reaganism. ["Bonzo goes to bitburg then goes out for a cup of tea / As I watched it on TV somehow it really bothered me / Drank in all the bars in town for an extended foreign policy / Pick up the pieces / My brain is hanging upside down / I need something to slow me down"].

From the 1990's, Jack Off Jill's "Horrible" might inject the right amount of pessimism into the ceremony. ["Horrible / Now everything's horrible / Horrible"]

From the 2000's, Neil Young's "Let's Impeach the President" would stir an entire generation! ["Let's impeach the President for lying / And misleading our country into war / Abusing all the power that we gave him / And shipping all our money out the door"]

From the contemporary decade, there are fewer choices - this is a generational issue - but the film "Ted Is Real" does offer up "The Thunder Buddy Song" as a possibility. ["Fuck you, thunder! / You can suck my dick"]

As you see, the use of contemporary music would lay poor Elgar's soul to rest, provide ample basis for extended social discourse, and deliver a stirring and finely tuned message to the graduates. Let's ditch the pomp, find better circumstances, and save the classical  music performances for a better audience.