I’m back in Maryland for a few days to attend a family member’s high school graduation. It’s a time for celebration—one chapter of a life ending, another beginning, etc.—but the graduation ceremony itself is sure to be anything but celebratory. The atmosphere of forced solemnity will be enhanced, I’m sure, by Elgar’s commencement chestnut Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, which Wikipedia tells me was first performed at a U.S. graduation when Elgar picked up an honorary doctorate at Yale. What I want to know is, where are the honorary doctorates for Mauricio Kagel, Tom DeLio, and Alvin Lucier? I’d love to see bright young people crossing the stage to the looped strains of La Monte Young’s The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer. On second thought, it might not need to be looped.
These are extreme examples, but it’s not hard to come up with music, older or never, that would be cooler than Pomp and Circumstance for graduation ceremonies and just as palatable. It’s not an ideal venue for discursive music, of course, but choosing special processional music would be a great way for a school to assert its uniqueness and set itself apart from its academic and athletic rivals. Commissioning special processional music would be an even better way—and a great community outreach opportunity in the bargain.
It’s hard to be passionate about Pomp and Circumstance; it’s impossible, really, to feel any ownership of such a worn, utilitarian staple. Graduating students should have a piece that really belongs to them, something that fulfills Pomp and Circumstance‘s social function but is as one-of-a-kind as the kids receiving their diplomas. And getting a local to work on such a piece would be much less hassle than bringing in a figure like Elgar—I bet these composers wouldn’t even demand an honorary GED.