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  • Daniel Elder

I have been dreading the United States presidential election this year. Months of divisive campaigning have primed citizens to distrust their ideological opponents. It is becoming so much more than a difference of vision; it is an insistence on moral superiority. My greatest fear is the backside of that coin—that half the nation, in political defeat, is to be morally condemned. Stripping an opponent of his humanity is the easiest way to justify attacking him, and in the past months I've seen far too much violence take place beneath banners of morality as if they are an excuse. I sense a critical challenge ahead: We the People must be willing to extend our olive branches at just a time when that is hardest to do. This campaign season was brutal for Americans; our most desperate fears were harnessed and channeled for political gain. Only by reaching out to each other can we undo that damage to our collective soul.


I use the word "Purple" in my title above as a reference to blending Blues (Liberals) and Reds (Conservatives). Personally I strive towards the ideal of every person having more Purple in their hearts. I don't refer to the political centrist; I mean the ability to comprehend and respect multiple ways of seeing the world. To me it is the type of diversity that is most vital yet least mentioned.



In my recent chamber oratorio Absalom I write on this theme with a different set of colors: Blue and Gray. This is an oft-used reference to the uniform colors of (respectively) the Union and Confederacy in the 19th century American Civil War. I included this historical reference in the larger work to warn my audiences of the danger of political polarization. It functions as an anachronistic parallel to the main narrative of Absalom's rebellion against his father, King David, directly following my dramatization of their devastating clash at the Battle of Ephraim (excerpt below). Note here that David's foreshadowed words of grief overlay the narrative text.


The Battle of Ephraim (from Absalom):


For both the Israelites and the Americans, their follies resulted in indiscriminate grief. "Blue and Gray" describes two neighbors who have become enemies, falling on either side of the knife edge and into completely opposing factions. It begins with a recitative in which each neighbor muses on his divergent pathway. The recitative text is included below. In their near-identical speech one may observe how similar these experiences really are. Only in the middle of their texts, at their maximum and total separation, do these words diverge. Yet even here they are distant reflections of one another, taking on the colors of the industrial north and the agricultural south. The American Civil War was fought over a variety of issues, but this excerpt is not about any of them. It is about politics itself and the dissolution of brotherhood. Note in the text below the aggressive mirrored stances, plus the suggested outline of the Confederate battle flag (diagonal edges forming an "x") as a symbol of separatism:


All recitative texts in Absalom are spoken rather than sung. The two characters speak entirely unaccompanied here. Their parallel utterances gradually grow more separated with each line spoken, making each sentence increasingly harder to comprehend, and showing how even shared emotions can become unrecognizable. The unaccompanied texture is broken only by three violent chords in the piano outlining the middle, climactic lines; these three chords foreshadow the later piano accompaniment of the lines "No more God / forgive us for / we know now what we do..." in the final movement "365." A fourth and final chord softens in transition at the end.


Recitative of two neighbors (from Absalom):


"Blue and Gray" follows the recitative as a choral lament. It is a breathless survey of the destruction borne of these clashing ideologies. In its stunted lines are hidden numerous important symbolisms, deceptive in their brevity.


In its musical setting these clipped utterances evoke soft pacing over a silenced battlefield, the line "Blue and gray" repeatedly sung as if passing between rows of slain enemies who were once neighbors. Within the chord of every sung word there is a moving voice, ensuring an inescapable pairing of consonance and dissonance.


"Blue and Gray" (from Absalom):


Following this elegy is a brief piano meditation. There are only two voices here in an extremely simple duet. They are two spirits, slain in combat but freed in death. Their two-note motives are echoes of the recurring moving voice in "Blue and Gray." The spirits rise from the ground, search for one another, and, joining once again, dance together into the infinite. Their carefree lines mask the painful irony that through their slaughter have they once again found their kinship.


Piano meditation on two spirits (from Absalom):



I composed "Absalom" in 2018 as a desperate attempt to reach across an ever-widening divide among my peers. Barely two years later my greatest fears explored throughout this oratorio are coming true—the mob mentality of cancel culture, the tyranny of runaway ideologies, the grief of lost kinship—and divisive politics is amplifying their progression. Around the world Conservatives and Liberals are increasingly hating one another—and even more dangerously, misunderstanding one another.


I once set a Biblical proverb compelling us to see ourselves in the hearts of others. That has remained a vital mission throughout my life. Please, fellow makers of music, don't vilify one another (in electoral victory or defeat). There is no end, even in today's well-intentioned ideologies, that justifies stripping your neighbor of his humanity.


Be Purple with me,

Daniel

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