Trump: the amu­si­cal pres­i­dent

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Steven G. Kellman

The Mer­chant of Venice”: “The man that hath no mu­sic in him­self, Nor is not mov’d with con­corn of sweet sounds,

Is fit for trea­sons, strat­a­gems, and spoils; The mo­tions of his spirit are dull as night, And his af­fec­tions dark as Ere­bus: Let no such man be trusted.”

Some of the most mem­o­rable mo­ments of the JFK era came when the pres­i­dent, play­ing the role of pa­tron of the arts, in­vited ac­com­plished mu­si­cians — in­clud­ing Leonard Bern­stein, Pablo Casals and Isaac Stern — to per­form at the White House. Other pres­i­dents, of each party, con­tin­ued the tra­di­tion of show­cas­ing a wide va­ri­ety of mu­si­cal tal­ent. Jimmy Carter in­vited Vladimir Horowitz, Leon­tyne Price, Mtislav Rostropovi­ch and oth­ers for a tele­vised event that came to be called “In Per­for­mance at the White House.”

Benny Good­man, Ella Fitzger­ald and Bev­erly Sills per­formed for Ron­ald Rea­gan; Harry Con­nick Jr., Loretta Lynn and Johnny Mathis for Ge­orge H.W. Bush; Aretha Franklin, B.B. King and Linda Ron­stadt for Bill Clinton; James Brown, Lionel Hamp­ton and Itzhak Perl­man for Ge­orge W. Bush; and Ray Charles, Audra McDon­ald and James Tay­lor for Barack Obama.

The last in­stall­ment of PBS’s “In Per­for­mance at the White House” was broad­cast in 2016. It ap­pears that only the United States Ma­rine Corps Band per­forms at the White House un­der the cur­rent pres­i­dent.

Thomas Jef­fer­son called mu­sic “the fa­vorite pas­sion of my soul,” but Don­ald Trump has other pas­sions. His in­dif­fer­ence to mu­sic is not his prin­ci­pal flaw, but it is a dis­turb­ing one, po­ten­tially symp­to­matic of treach­ery, ac­cord­ing to Lorenzo in Shake­speare’s “

For all his other de­fects, Richard Nixon had mu­sic in him­self and ex­pressed it on the pi­ano and by com­pos­ing some­thing he called “Richard Nixon Pi­ano Con­certo #1.” Harry Tru­man also played the pi­ano, Mr. Clinton, the sax­o­phone; John Quincy Adams, the flute; and John Tyler and Woodrow Wil­son, the vi­o­lin. Can we ex­pect any­thing but dis­cord from a man who not only has no mu­sic in him­self but would deny it to oth­ers?

For three con­sec­u­tive years, Mr. Trump’s pro­posed bud­get has elim­i­nated any fund­ing at all for the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts, an agency that pro­vides cru­cial grants to or­ches­tras, choral en­sem­bles, song­writ­ers, jazz artists, cham­ber groups and folk mu­si­cians in ev­ery part of the United States. Congress has re­sponded to Mr. Trump’s at­tempts at elim­i­nat­ing the NEA by not just restor­ing its fund­ing but ac­tu­ally in­creas­ing its bud­get.

Each year, in a glam­orous tele­vised event, the Kennedy Cen­ter Hon­ors Awards are con­ferred for out­stand­ing life­time achieve­ments in the arts. Mr. Trump has bro­ken prece­dent by choos­ing not to at­tend dur­ing each year of his pres­i­dency, thereby avoid­ing the op­por­tu­nity to pay trib­ute to the mu­si­cal tal­ents of Glo­ria Este­fan, Philip Glass and Wayne Shorter, as well as lead­ing fig­ures in other arts. The one art form that in­ter­ests Mr. Trump is the art of the deal, though the book about it pub­lished un­der his by­line was ghost­writ­ten by some­one else. Its only ref­er­ence to mu­sic is hos­tile: “I punched my mu­sic teacher,” Mr. Trump re­calls, “be­cause I didn’t think he knew any­thing about mu­sic and I al­most got ex­pelled.”

Mr. Trump would seem to ex­hibit the symp­toms of mu­si­cal an­he­do­nia, an in­abil­ity to en­joy mu­sic, said to af­flict 3-5% of the pop­u­la­tion. How­ever, hu­man ma­nip­u­la­tion of pitch, rhythm, dy­nam­ics and tim­bre in or­der to pro­duce plea­sure can be traced to at least Pa­le­olithic times. Dis­cov­ery of the Divje Babe Flute in north­west­ern Slove­nia demon­strated that hu­mans have been con­struct­ing mu­si­cal in­stru­ments for at least 40,000 years. The hu­man voice was prob­a­bly singing long be­fore that.

Mu­sic has served the evo­lu­tion­ary goal of cre­at­ing so­cial bond­ing and en­forc­ing em­pa­thy. Only nar­cis­sists trapped within the soli­tary con­fine­ment of their own emo­tional dun­geons are in­ca­pable of feel­ing any­thing while lis­ten­ing to the late Beethoven quar­tets, Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” or “West Side Story.” Mem­ber­ship in a march­ing band, a rock group, a jazz en­sem­ble or a sym­phony or­ches­tra de­mands at­ten­tive­ness, dis­ci­pline and a will­ing­ness to sub­or­di­nate the in­di­vid­ual to the team. Those are all de­sir­able — if not es­sen­tial — qual­i­ties in an elected leader re­spon­si­ble for achiev­ing har­mony among di­verg­ing views and in­ter­ests. Wil­liam Con­greve’s fa­mous dic­tum, “Mu­sic has charms to soothe a sav­age breast,” does not nec­es­sar­ily mean that mu­sic is the only way to soothe a sav­age breast. Per­haps golf and tweet­ing can be as ef­fec­tive. But the con­tem­po­rary world is too per­ilous a place to risk the sav­agery of a leader with no taste for mu­sic.


Jazz leg­end Lionel Hamp­ton, right, per­forms with Pres­i­dent Bill Clinton on the sax­o­phone in the East Room of the White House dur­ing a cel­e­bra­tion in honor of Hamp­ton’s 90th birth­day on July 23, 1998.

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