Air/Simple Gifts

Jonathan Bellman

A quick couple of observations about John Williams's Air/Simple Gifts piece for Obama's inauguration.  I really enjoyed the piece; the folk tune is unimprovable, and Williams has the kind of command of his craft that means he can execute a project like this brilliantly.   Americana: short, pretty, folk-derived, with the kind of independent-lined quirky euphony that is a major part of our national art-music language, and may safely and conveniently be taken as a metaphor for American something-or-other, with my blessing. It was beautiful, and beautifully played.  

One write-up said the ensemble was "out of central casting," which isn't far wrong: clarinettist Anthony Gill (Black guy), cellist Yo-Yo Ma (Asian guy), pianist Gabriela Montero (Latina), violinist Itzkhak Perlman (differently-abled Jewish White guy—a threefer!).  They sounded wonderful, in what must have been cold and miserable conditions to play.

So: did anyone else mark that the ensemble—Clarinet, Violin, Cello, Piano–is Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time ensemble?  That point struck me immediately, as soon as they started playing, and I can't help wondering if there's some symbolism there: end of time?  No, Olivier, on this side of the Atlantic we're just getting started.  Cheers!  And Let Freedom Ring.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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10 Responses to Air/Simple Gifts

  1. David Bratman says:

    Alex Ross noted the congruence with Messiaen’s ensemble back when the announcement was first made. I later mentioned it to a friend who responded that Williams’s piece should have been titled Quatuor pour la fin du Bush.

  2. Brian H. says:

    In the NY Times piece on Gill that ran earlier this week it said Ma met Gill eight years ago when they were playing the Quartet for the End of Time together in Japan. “[Mr. Ma] noted that the group consisted of the same instrumentation as the Messiaen piece. The Williams work, however, “will be more like ‘Quartet for the Next Four Minutes,’” he said.”
    I agree that the piece worked beautifully for the occasion but felt the slow, meandering intro was not the best for “the venue” and probably lost most of the audience right away (2 million people outdoors, I would have opened with more of a punch).

  3. David Cavlovic says:

    But with all due respect, Williams is no Messiaen.

  4. Phil Ford says:

    I was listening to this on internet radio, so the visual aspect was lost on me. Actually, the slow quiet introduction worked very well in this audio-only setting (for me, at least) — it sounded like a frail sweet voice in danger of being carried away on the wind that was battering the microphone. When the “Simple Gifts” part began it seemed as if that voice was gaining in strength and assurance — a rather nice musical metaphor for the moment. It was at this point that the radio announcers decided to treat a musical interlude as dead air and started talking, thus ruining the effect. Funny, they didn’t talk over Rick Warren’s invocation.

  5. rootlesscosmo says:

    The Hindemith Clarinet Quartet (1938) uses the same instrumentation and is a good piece, but I guess if we weren’t going to get Messiaen we definitely weren’t going to get Hindemith.

  6. David says:

    I suspect the performance we heard was recorded, though I do not think it diminishes the event at all. A real outdoor performance in that weather would have been dicey, at best. I noted some inconsistencies between the music heard and some of Yo-yo Ma’s bowing, as well as a lack of dynamic difference the closer and farther away performers were from their mics. I could be completely wrong and either way I bear no ill-will over it.
    My sentiment, of course, is in contrast to the full-court press against Williams I am reading across the arts web. Messiaen or Hindemith would have been a perfectly delightful message to artists––”trot out your strongest stuff, folks, and we’ll celebrate and/or pay you for it”––but the wrong message for the millions watching (the “unwashed,” to use a phrase I seem to hear a lot in music-academic circles). Obama has branded himself as the most accessible president in history, or at least a case-in-point on the accessibility of power in America, but the music of high modernists send the opposite message. It is surprising to hear the historiography and hermeneutics of a former era––even one that is now ancient history to a sitting president!––trotted out by “Experts” as the normative arts philosophy of America. It should be no surprise to us that the music was accessible: such an assessment is an effective interpretive framework for the entire Obama message until now, to say nothing of the Coplandesque “common man” tropes.
    But perhaps I am biased by the fact that, as the musicians were playing, I received a text message from my “unwashed” but appreciative father that said, simply: “Beautiful!” Not that I did or did not agree with him, but I think it is an audience response worth unpacking as significant and meaningful, not rejected out of hand.
    Tying both of my points together, we should not be surprised that an inauguration was so highly constructed. The pre-recorded music (if it was indeed so) was an attempt to control the aesthetic message sent. Otherwise, we might have had the musical equivalent of the bungled oath. It is also worth asking, then, for whom was the Williams piece played: America’s artists or a state ceremony’s audience?

  7. Lisa Hirsch says:

    I dislike “Simple Gifts” (and Copland in Americana mode) and stopped listening when the piece got to that point.

  8. D.L. MacLaughlan-Dumes says:

    The quartet did not play it live; they mimed it:

  9. Jonathan says:

    I just read that, D. They ended up miming because of the cold, which is reasonable enough. What was it, fifteen degrees Fahrenheit or something?

  10. D.L. MacLaughlan-Dumes says:

    It was about 25 degrees during the performance, cold enough to warrant extra precautions, certainly.

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