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Tuesday, September 11, 2012


When I was a boy, the gold standard in choruses was the 360 member Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  This was, as the name suggests, the choir of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah, and it seemed to consist of every able-bodied non-tone-deaf Mormon within a one hundred mile radius of the Tabernacle.  Pictures of the choir [no television in those days] showed banks upon banks of sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses, standing on risers that seemed, like Jacob's Ladder, to ascend to the heavens.  Although the choir clearly equated numbers with musical power, it was a rather odd fact that as a musical group, they did not make that joyous a noise.  Rather, they produced a muddy, indistinct sound that seemed to be coming from a cathedral bedeviled by inconvenient echoes.

This odd contradiction between the sheer size of the choir and its rather mediocre musical power was a consequence of a simple fact about the generation of sound waves familiar to anyone who has ever sat in front of an old monitor watching a sine wave rise and fall across the screen.  Sound, of course, is generated by the agitation of the gas particles in the air.  It travels in a series of expansions and contractions that are nicely visualized by those old sine waves.  When you add a second sine wave to the first, it can either match the first perfectly, in which case the combination is augmented by the addition of the two magnitudes, or it can conflict with the first, in which case the interference of the two waves diminishes the combined sound.  The Mormon Tabernacle singers, numbered though they were in the hundreds, were not, if the truth be told, very good singers.  They did not all sing on key [or even, or so it seemed to me, in the same key], and their entrances and exits were ragged.  As a result, the sound waves generated by their vibrating uvulae interfered with one another, producing what I can only describe as a brown sound.

The truth of this observation was brought home to me powerfully one evening in the late 40's [I was still in high school] when I attended a concert at Town Hall in Manhattan by the newly formed Robert Shaw Chorale.  Shaw was a dynamic young conductor with radically new ideas about what a professional chorus ought to be.  When the Chorale came out on stage, I was astonished to see that there were no more than twenty or so of them.  I was sitting in the peanut gallery, of course, and I began to worry about whether I would be able to hear them.  The singers, all hand-picked professionals, did not group themselves into sections -- sopranos, altos, tenors, basses -- as was the universal practice at that time.  Instead, they lined up in several ranks man-woman-man-woman-man-woman.  What is more, instead of being bunched tightly together so that each one's left shoulder seemed welded to the next right shoulder,  they spaced themselves perhaps two or three feet from one another.  It was clear that Shaw had some very unorthodox ideas about choral singing.

When they opened their mouths to sing the first notes of the first composition, a blast of sound filled Town Hall, as audible to me near the back of the second balcony as it must have been to the toffs in the expensive seats in the orchestra section.  The reason for this astonishing power, of course, was that the singers were all perfectly in tune and perfectly synchronized with one another.  Their spacing, which succeeded brilliantly in blending the different voices, was made possible by the fact that it was not necessary to group all the sopranos near the one or two of their section who could be counted on to find the pitch at an entrance or pick up a conductor's cue.  Compare, if you will, the playing of  a fine string quartet with that of a mediocre orchestra.

These thoughts crossed my mind this morning as I reflected on the odd failure of Romney's super-pac multi-millions to achieve any measurable success in the campaign against president Obama.  Why, I wondered, were the vast sums of which Democrats were so fearful having so little impact on the race?  Then I thought about Shaw and the Tabernacle Choir, and I saw what might be an answer.

The Romney campaign, it occurred to me, is suffering from the advertising equivalent of the self-defeating interference of the sound waves issuing from choruses like the Tabernacle Choir.  The Romney campaign is producing what psychologists, reaching for the same analogy, call cognitive dissonance.  Since North Carolina is considered a "battleground state," our television viewing is repeatedly interrupted by political thirty second spot ads.  The Romney campaign started out pillorying Obama as Other, un-American, out of touch with American values, a Socialist [I wish!].  But that did not seem to have any negative impact on his poll numbers, which most strikingly revealed that Americans like the President, even when they disagree with him.  Apparently cautioned by this evidence that their efforts to make Americans fear and hate Obama were not working, the campaign did an almost complete about face.  Now, the ads feature a syrupy voice saying that although Obama is a nice guy, he is in over his head, and unable to deal with America's problems.  The effect of these two series of ads, I thought, is rather like the effect of having the altos in a chorus singing slightly off key or out of synch with one another.  The sound waves interfere with each other, producing a muddy sound of no great power.

The same result is produced by the campaign's constant shifts in its positions on such issues as "pre-existing conditions" in health care reform or a voucher system to replace Medicare.  Political junkies, like music mavens, might be able to disambiguate the conflicting messages conveyed by the Romney campaign's ads, but the general public, like the audience at a concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, just hears a blurred sound of no particular direction or distinction.

I think they would have had more success with a sharp, precise, clean message, however unfamiliar to the ear.  Better a good performance of Pierrot Lunaire than a blurred rendering of the Messiah. 



James Camien McGuiggan said...

Hey yeah, Pierrot Lunaire, great idea! That's my evening planned.

writenow said...

I loved that. The whole preface to the argument was a pleasure to read. And I suspect you're right. There is no distinct message coming from the Romney campaign. None at all. Anyway, beautiful way to say it!