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My Turn: Taking liberties with the national anthem? Why not?

‘A work of art is the harmony of all its parts, put together so perfectly that nothing may be added or taken away without diminishing it.” I found this quote from Renaissance jack-of-all-trades Leon Battista Alberti rather ironic when I read it in Andrew Laurie Stangel’s letter bemoaning the liberties that musicians take with our national anthem (“My aching ears,” Monitor, April 10).

I wonder if Stangel would find contentment in Renaissance music had he actually lived during that period.

Renowned musicologist Imogene Horsley’s research reveals that improvisation was an important aspect of Renaissance music.

She writes of how – in both instrumental and vocal performances – compositions were not always performed as written but were usually “made elegant and ornate with the addition of florid embellishments.” Horsley goes even further, to suggest that “vocal and instrumental virtuosity were based upon skill in improvisation.”

Improvisation has been called “composition in real-time” and continues to be an important aspect of many musical styles, from jazz to bluegrass, blues to rock. It requires a different skill set than, say, being a good sight-reader. Yet it is no less a skill in the musician’s tool kit.

Stangel might be disappointed if he could travel back in time to a Renaissance concert hall and hear all the “personal musical twists and curly-Qs” those Renaissance musicians employed. Travis Tritt, Whitney Houston, Jimi Hendrix, et al, are merely carrying on a Renaissance tradition in their renditions of the national anthem.

Granted, not everyone likes performers who take liberties with The Star Spangled Banner. I witnessed this firsthand during the past winter sports season.

I have a talented guitarist in my pep band who does a killer version of the national anthem. It is not a direct copy of the Hendrix version, despite the fact that it is performed on a distorted electric guitar. It has fewer “whammy bar” pyrotechnics and more lightning fast arpeggios and scale runs in between the phrases of Englishman John Stafford Smith’s melody. (Yes, the composer of our national anthem was a Brit!)

Nevertheless, I received a smattering of stern looks and a couple questioning emails from audience members who did not appreciate my student’s version of our anthem. I thanked these fans for their comments but tried to explain that the young musician is very much proud of his country, and his enthusiastic rendition is fueled by this pride – not any anti-American sentiment.

Professional musicians are individuals, with their own individual musical backgrounds and styles. They come from different walks of life with different experiences and they are what keeps music – even supposedly “dead” music like Western Art music – vibrant, refreshing and alive. After all, when you see people from all walks of life having the freedom to express themselves in their own unique way, aren’t you witnessing what America is all about?

(Dan Williams of Concord teaches instrumental music at John Stark Regional High School in Weare.)

Legacy Comments3

Unity and diversity are diametrically opposed concepts. Both are good in proportion. Our country has added more diversity to its culture than I believe any other on the planet over the last hundred years. That said, if any culture develops more diversity than it has unifying concepts-the society disintegrates almost always replaced by society where unity is demanded. Unifying principles are important individuals and critical to the integrity of our society. Unifying symbols like flags and anthems are very important people and they should be. They are the glue that holds society together. I don’t know where to draw the line between individual expression and an artist being culturally insensitive by an offending others and denigrating the unifying symbols they hold dear. “Self-expression” is never limitless because it always bumps up to the perimeter of someone else’s beliefs. I’m sure your students can pursue self-expression in all manners of ways short of treading on our cultures desperately needed unifying symbols.

But sir, or madam, I must inquire . . . have you heard the student's rendition of the National Anthem? If you have not, then how can you form a judgement as to whether or not it "treads on one of our culture's unifying symbols?" I've received lots of positive feedback since this letter was published - from people who HAVE heard the student's version. If you HAVE heard it and still feel it "treads" on our National Anthem, then I guess we can agree to disagree. But how can you dismiss it outright without hearing it first?

Great letter Dan !!!!!

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