Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard
Frequently when I travel outside of the United States I’m simultaneously thrilled and disheartened to discover great composers on paper currency: thrilled to see composers be such a significant part of the day to day life of everybody; disheartened at what the absence of American composers on American money implies…
The appearance of Sibelius on paper money in Finland, Villa Lobos in Brazil, or Clara Schumann (a woman composer to boot) in Germany (to cite just three examples), is not perfunctory. This seemingly mundane homage is an important metaphor for the cultural value placed on composers in these societies. In all of these countries, most people are aware of these composers and the important contributions they have made to the world.
Everyone here knows who George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are, as well we should. The ideals and accomplishments of these two men shaped our nation more than anything else. And while their appearance on our most widely used coins and bills is not the sole source of their fame among all Americans, it certainly helps public awareness that their images are reinforced every time we buy a newspaper or make a call from a pay phone. But do we really need daily reminders of Andrew Jackson, a man of questionable character, or Ulysses S. Grant, a man whose administration was plagued by corruption? Or, for that matter, Alexander Hamilton, who was never even elected President of the United States… Moreover, he died as the result of a duel with a sitting U.S. Vice President which was fought in part over a mistress who was married to neither, an event that makes today’s media-hyped indiscretions pale by comparison?
Why not put Charles Ives on the money? Or Duke Ellington? Or Amy Beach or Gershwin? How about putting John Cage on the standard form for a government-issued money order, which, after all, is a bill of indeterminate value? Would so doing make people more aware of the rich cultural legacy that American composers have bequeathed to the world?
At the least, there needs to be a greater musical awareness among the people who hold our elected offices. But there also needs to be a greater political awareness on the part of people who make and shape music in this country, the “unsilent minority,” to coin a phrase countering the so-called silent majority. As we enter the homestretch of another Presidential election campaign, we thought it would be valuable to look at the connections between American music and American politics.
We tried to get comments about American music from the Gore, Bush, Nader, Buchanan, and even Hagelin campaigns, but did not get a response from any of them. This is a sobering reminder of what the American new music community must still do in order to get our voices heard. So, instead we offer a cornucopia of music-related comments by the candidates mixed in with some comments of our own and ask you to decide who said what. We offer a HyperHistory of the political leanings of people in various roles in the music industry, from composers and performers to the people behind the scenes who make concert life happen on a daily basis. We’d like to know your views as well.
As our centerpiece, we tested the 42 men who have already held our nation’s highest office on their interest in and knowledge of music of any kind, and found revealing comments by all but 6 of them (one of the missing six was Andrew Jackson, by the way, and the only reference to music made by Grant was inadvertent). We’ve assembled these comments into a virtual fireside chat allowing for a serious yet sometimes amusing comparison of their views.
I often take solace in knowing that a string quartet is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, a really unusual maverick-type piece at that, scored for three violins and cello in unusual tuning and played solely on open strings. Of course Franklin, though an important father of our country, was never elected President of the United States. (Some folks at the time claimed he never got elected because he tinkered with the glass harmonica.) As a composer, though, I’m doubly thrilled that Franklin made it onto the highest bill currently in use, which is as it should be!