Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Democrats Could Use a Composition Lesson

[Update, 28 August: The third night of the convention was actually pretty good; the material and the performers were consistently better, and the composition much improved, with a bit more visual counterpoint and the Clintons effectively playing a resolvable dissonance in the harmonic rhythm of the evening. The discipline of the Obama campaign with regard to visual imagery is quite remarkable, btw, whether it's the Gotham-fonted posters with Bauhaus-style graphics or the ability to suddenly flood the hall with placards, standards and banners that are timed perfectly to support the message or messenger of the moment; they're cleverly color-coded as well. The network coverage remains, however, poorly composed, and each turn from the podium to the dreaded "panel of experts" is a welcome prod to return to my own composing.]

Why is the Democratic Party Convention so hard to watch? Despite my total sympathy for the project of changing regimes in Washington, try-as-I-might to watch the convention, whether on C-SPAN or CNN, even as background noise to an insomniac composer's busy work, I had to give up. The organizers had failed to create an engaging stream of television and I believe that this failure is due to some basic compositional errors.

Yes, compositional, as in music. Because music is, first, a temporal art and skill in music is skill in filling time in a way that commands, or at least, provokes, attention. There are a few basic strategies for doing this: trying to sustain a long line which, a narrative, with very economical distribution of material, or, alternatively, making sharp tactical cuts between material before anyone is aware they might be bored. In either case, the whole is shaped so that all times the listener is waiting for more, with both local global high points in interest or tension.

To be fair, the managers of the convention have some problems with their material, in that the convention is really a done deal with little dramatic tension to offer. Hillary Clinton's speech already done and no surprises due in the traditional roll call vote. Further there is the problem of trying to make a show that functions simultaneously in two formats, one on the floor of a large convention hall, where the audience is captive but obviously so restless with lack of sport or spectacle, that letting a Zamboni out onto the convention floor between major speeches would have been more effective than the canned music, campaign and videos, and the awful "up close and personal" video bios. I'd really rather have some substantial power point presentations on policy than that stuff. Worse, however, is the network TV coverage, in which, absent a compelling narrative on stage in the hall, the individual news teams have substituted the narrative of "who's the next talking head?" in the broadcast booth. I'd prefer a Zamboni there, too.

(The famous 1968 Democratic convention, for all its faults as politics, was terrific television, and the networks then used the contrapuntal possibilities of activity outside and in the hall itself, between the podium, the delegations, and the booths, to best advantage. The coverage also had compelling pacing, able to sustain attention long into the night, the result, however unintentional, of striking long-scale harmonic rhythm. The 1972 convention, in which candidate McGovern's speech was delayed until the wee hours of the morning, was an example of harmonic rhythm gone far wrong, with the little tension left at that point insufficient to command an audienceand the effect on McGovern's campaign was negative).

So the bad news for the Democrats is that their composition skills look bad; the good news is that the Republicans, who have had no tension in a convention in memory, are usually much worse.

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