Last Wednesday, October 19, presidential candidates Donald J. Trump and Hillary R. Clinton faced off in the third and final debate leading up to the 2016 US presidential election. With absolutely no reasons remaining for viewers to continue to tune in to further coverage of this news media maelstrom, Stephen Colbert and his team at The Late Show came up with a brilliant solution. They invited an improvising string quartet to score the debate live, as it unfolded. And it was… incredible.
I’m going to share my thoughts on the techniques and themes employed by the PUBLIQuartet that night, but in case you missed this historic moment of live election coverage meeting face-to-face with live orchestrated string music, here it is in all its glory.
Let me remind you that this score was almost fully improvised! So I must first commend the PUBLIQuartet for their brilliant performance and for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for giving viewers (voters) the opportunity to take it in, in such a unique and striking context. I started watching the telecast with my attention focused solely on the musical material — how the group used specific motifs and techniques to evoke different emotions at different times — but came away with a more macro appreciation and critique of the performance as a whole. It is a refreshing treat to see such incredible technical players work so well together in a creative, improvisational context. Improvising is difficult and improvising in front of a national audience is even harder, so my hat goes all the way off to these four for doing it for nearly two hours!
For the most part, the quartet remained rooted in a distinctly American sonic world with some fiddly Appalachian-style, demonic barn-burners mixed with moments of slow, folkloric nostalgia. More than the actual music played, for me, the brilliance of this performance lay in its commentary on American politics as entertainment, our conditioning through popular entertainment to think in binary terms, and the power (and potential danger) of music and art in a political context.
From the get go, it was clear that this was not going to be an unbiased performance. The candidates were each given a theme, which recurred and reappeared in variations throughout the debate. For Clinton, the music presented was a slow, sorrowful passage: “The Tale of the Young Prince and Princess” from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a brilliant choice on so many levels. To start, there is the rather obvious connection between the title and Bill and Hillary. You might remember that during the Democratic National Convention in July, Bill retold the story of how he and Hillary met as young students.
And then, there is also the relevance of Russia — the role they have lately been playing both on the world stage and in this election. But even more simply, when we hear these lush pastoral, windswept harmonic swells, we think of the vast American plains and vast landscapes. At first, I thought the quartet was referencing a passage from one of Dvorak’s “American” pieces for string quartet. These passages underscored Hillary’s determination and exhaustion in this race, her humble beginnings in the middle of the country, and painted soft edges to what many perceive as a hard demeanor.
The theme assigned to Trump, on the other hand, was a manic version of the American traditional melody, “Yankee Doodle.” It amplified his clownishness, bullishness, and fear rhetoric, which in turn cultivated in me (a liberal viewer, like most of Colbert’s audience) the fear of all this foolishness resonating so strongly with such a sizable percentage of the country. Hillary’s own performance during this debate was not all soft, yet the quartet tended towards “plucking our heart strings,” so to speak, by design.
During Trump’s moments in the spotlight, the quartet leaned into dissonance and chaotic turmoil more often, and to my ears these sections sounded more truly improvised. I found this to be an appropriate parallel to the consistency of both candidates throughout the race. Contextually, the players seemed hyper sensitive to the perception that Trump mostly “improvises” his responses and reactions to the issues presented to him, compared to Hillary’s reputation of being tightly prepared to discuss current affairs and issues at length. Hillary’s musical score was therefore more dependent on preconceived melodic and harmonic cells.
The bias of the performance, playing to the expectations of a clearly liberal audience, somewhat bothered me, to be honest. And perhaps this speaks to a larger conversation surrounding the media coverage of this election, whereby it has felt almost impossible to have just that: a conversation.
I really don’t ever want to think about Donald Trump again, but I want to understand why he is resonating with so many Americans, rather than write his supporters off as racist, sexist, and hot-headed. I also want to understand why he acts the way he does. By making such clearly biased choices in how each candidate is underscored musically (and thus, emotionally), the quartet did effectively play into the binary of our political conversation. There are more complicated feelings brewing in our country and the world right now. I’m not sure how those ideas could have been expressed musically, but given how impossible it has been to deal with them verbally, I believe there is yet untapped potential in the powerful ambiguity of music to help us, as human beings, recognize how similar we are to each other rather than amplify our differences.
But to the quartet and Late Show’s credit… computer programmer and composer Hannah Davis might argue the performance was empirically spot on. Her custom-built software, TransProse, takes emotional cues from bodies of text and transposes them to music theoretically aligned with the same spectrum of emotions, based on tempo, key, octaves, and melody. Davis tested this emotionally-sensitive robot composer on the candidates’ linguistic cues from the last three debates and the result pretty much lines up with our public perception of each candidate.
Let’s hear the results from D3:
Highest Emotions (in order): trust, fear, anticipation, joy
Baseline Octave: 6
Key: C Major
Highest Emotions (in order): anger, trust, fear, anticipation
Baseline Octave: 4
Key: C Minor
So with that, let’s look at the PUBLIQuartet’s employment of musical techniques and motifs, and how they executed this feat of reactionary live scoring so attentively!
“Yankee Doodle” (written by Richard Schuckberg) acted as Trump’s leitmotif throughout the night. Clinton’s theme was a variation on “The Tale of the Young Prince and Princess” from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.
Other snippets of American traditional song that popped out included a riff on “You are My Sunshine,” “America the Beautiful,” “Pomp and Circumstance” at the end, and of course the entrance march riff on the US national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Trills and tremolo, bowed tremolo in particular, play a prominent roll here, especially at the beginning. They are a pretty ideal device in this context as they allow the players to sneak in after moments of silence, subtly provide tension under the speech, and swell up for moments of pause in speech and back down for moments when one candidate, the host, both candidates, or all three are speaking simultaneously.
I find moments of harmonic noodling particularly delightful. The players bounce around nodes creating natural and artificial harmonics that give a whimsical lightness to the debate and again create a sense of American nostalgia. The music harkens back to a time when America was not necessarily “great,” but rather newly independent and represented to the world a hopeful potential.
Portamento is used in several different ways. There is a nice moment, starting around 25:30, of group portamento, up and down the necks of the instruments with the intervals between each slide shortening and the volume and energy increasing until “Yankee Doodle” returns. This builds tension while pushing the momentum forward and is tons of fun to watch. In the fiddle-like bluegrass moments the violin uses a lot of portamento and slippery embellishments. There’s also a wonderful heavy, slow, scratchy slide technique that keeps coming back especially throughout the Trump moments.
What was your favorite part of the live score? Share your thoughts in the comments below!