Image source: NPR.org
The millions of people that viewed on TV and online Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration may be surprised to learn that Yo Yo Ma and his quartet did not play live. They performed to a pre-recorded track. The argument for this maneuver is that the moment had to be perfect. The performance had to live up to the occasion and mistakes could not take place:
The producers of the event (and the musicians themselves) wanted and even needed the moment to be transporting. And they also surely knew that they were set up to fail: The instruments in the quartet weren’t designed to be played outside, let alone in freezing temperatures. The musicians wouldn’t be able to hear each other well, and the open air offers none of the support of fine concert halls, where the acoustics can help lift a melody and let it soar. So, on this special occasion, they opted for control. (They weren’t the only ones with a recording lined up if needed; the U.S. Marine Band also had a backup tape in case temperatures got too low.)
NPR intereviewed Yo Yo Ma, who was indifferent about the fact that he did not play live. He was quite comfortable with make-believe. The NPR correspondent did not question Yo Yo Ma’s performance for its artistic delivery. The discussion was more about the necessity for this type of simulacrum.
I wonder how far we have come since the days of Milli Vanilli, when the pop-duo saw an end to their careers because they lip-synced to pre-recorded tracks. It must be pointed out that Milli Vanilli did not actually sing at all, so in this sense Yo Yo Ma’s situation is quite different because, as he explained during the radio interview, the quartet had performed the composition the day before the Inaugural Ceremony. Regardless, the fact that, both, the New York Times as well as NPR appear to discuss Ma’s simulacrum with some comfort and amusement does expose the awareness by people and the media that recordings may be acceptable to use in special occasions. In the past, prior to the pervasiveness of recordings, rituals were bound to the immediacy of the moment. Now, rituals are bound to the ever more important perfect recording for posterity. It was more important in the name of history for the Inaugural to have a perfect performance, than to have a real performance.