Part 1 of 3, this text is taken from a series of program notes prepared by Donald Swearingen to accompany his compositions We Elect To and Salvation at 1am, two 30-minute works commissioned for public radio’s New American Radio series, which aired on NPR in 1989 and 1991.

We Elect To is a radio opera featuring the voices of seven American presidents, from John F. Kennedy (1960) through George H. W. Bush (1988), along with that of vocal artist Pamela Z, who counterbalances their lofty words with the reality of newspaper headlines. This piece is about the highly charged and emotionally loaded phrases that our leaders employ and which, over the years, have acquired a life of their own. In We Elect To they are placed in a musical context, with the music integrated into the flow and rhythm of their words, and their pronouncements highlighted by varying musical styles and moods. Interwoven throughout the piece are continuing references to religious themes and familiar hymns. Commissioned by NEW AMERICAN RADIO.

Themes

I look for broad themes. I have watched so much TV that I think this is all I’m capable of grasping. The American party line, as subscribed to by all parties, dictates a number of imperatives. These must always be given lip service by any politician who counts himself lucky enough to become President. Among these are:

  • A Strong Defense Industry
  • Unlimited Availability of Resources for Development (see above)
  • A Strong Economy (see above)
  • Rampant Consumerism (see above)
  • The Moral Superiority of the American Way (see above)
  • Religious Rectitude (see above)

The net effect of the constant repetition of these themes is the creation of a frantic sense of Incompleteness, i.e. the need for salvation, which can only be provided by a charismatic leader. You don’t have to listen too long to our cultural icons (TV, the President, Elvis, …) until these one or more of these themes begin to emerge.

highly charged and emotionally loaded phrases…have acquired a life of their own.”

Methods

Composer: one who describes what will happen and when (more or less).

The audio segments for the seven presidents are each associated with a day of the week and a color, as announced by Pamela Z at the beginning of the segment. I have no idea where the associations came from—only that I have always thought of the days of the week as having a color:

  • Monday is green (John F. Kennedy)
  • Tuesday is orange (Lyndon B. Johnson)
  • Wednesday is yellow (Richard Nixon)
  • Thursday is grey (Gerald Ford)
  • Friday is blue (Jimmy Carter)
  • Saturday is white (Ronald Reagan)
  • Sunday is red (George H.W. Bush)

In both We Elect To and Salvation at 1am, I have employed a number of specific musical techniques. Among these are rhythmic and tonal imitation of the speaking voice and the use of Protestant hymns as musical contexts for the spoken rhythms. These hymns have echoed in (the recesses of ) my memory since childhood. I was attracted to music and this was the music I was first exposed to… well, you can’t have everything. In any event, these themes still have powerful emotional tie-ins for me. That, of course, is the secret of their power. But now we need to present them in a form that is as convoluted from its origin as is our adult perception from its childhood fantasies of Santa Claus and the Free Market.

I work with a computer as my primary editing and organizing tool. But I don’t really consider this to be anything special—it has become so commonplace that it hardly merits mention. But, in spite of this, the press and media still insist on using terms like computer whiz and computer nerd to describe anyone whose knowledge of computers exceeds that of the average twelve year old. I guess the press still relate to their computer terminals as typewriters. [note: written in 1989 on a Mac SE computer, a toy by today’s standards ]

Excerpt: Thursday is Grey

Gerald R. Ford