101 Star Spangled Banners
"e pluribus unum"
- out of many, one (motto of the United States)
In the early 1980's, I was very involved with what may be called experimental music. I have maintained that interest but with not nearly the same single mindedness. I've been doing other things. Through The Art Guys, I continued to experiment with sound and music, but only sporadically. Lately, however, I've revisited sound as something to think about, and I have reclaimed, reinvestigated, and resurrected incubated ideas and recordings.
A few years ago, I made a notation in my journal called "101 Star Spangled Banners," the idea of which was to record and combine 101 versions of the Star Spangled Banner into a single track. Like most of my ideas, I shelved it for a rainy day. We've been getting a lot of rain lately.
The concept of "101 Star Spangled Banners" has its roots in an older work entitled "Top Forty." That work dates from 1983 and consists of the top forty pop songs of the day combined into a single track.
[Top Forty, original notes, 1983]
That was a tedious and difficult work to accomplish as it required the better part of a Saturday just accumulating the raw material. In those days, the radio personality and host, Casey Kasem, presented a nationally syndicated radio show called "American Top 40" that played the top 40 pop songs of the week as judged by Billboard magazine. The songs were played in descending order, from number 40 to number 1, and were sometimes accompanied with banter about the song, or perhaps the singer or band. So for one Saturday, I hunkered down in the video studio at UH where I worked and recorded forty pop songs straight off the radio. But that was just the beginning. Working with two stereo reel to reel tape recorders in a back and forth method, I spent many more hours combining and reducing those 40 songs into a single track. It didn't take long for it to sound like a foggy, dense cacophony. It wasn't pleasant sounding at all, and, combined with my fatigue from the boredom from listening and recording those songs over and over again, I lost interest in it as soon as I finished. In the end I wasn't convinced of the idea. It wasn't completely satisfying aurally or conceptually. I never presented it anywhere, and as with many other early experiments of mine, due to naive carelessness, "Top Forty" has been lost to time. Recently, I've reconsidered its importance, and perhaps, its relevance. Thus "101 Star Spangled Banners."
There is an obvious formal relationship between "Top Forty" and "101 Star Spangled Banners," but the two works come from somewhat different premises. "Top Forty" was related to my interest in time savings, much like a similar work called "Compressed Merle Haggard." "101 Star Spangled Banners," however, comes from thinking about the song itself and how it is experienced, or rather, over-experienced. It's played ceremoniously for everything from sports events to dedication ceremonies to political rallies and more, and it seems especially prevalent since 9/11. These days, there are too many "heroes" and too much misguided patriotism for my taste. Perhaps I'm cynical. Perhaps I view too many NBA games. Regardless, I have felt unnecessarily saturated with the song, so much so that it has become almost meaningless. So, in my typical wrongheaded way, I thought once again, "Anything worth doing is worth over-doing."
The interesting thing about "101 Star Spangled Banners," for me, and why it may be better (perhaps) than "Top Forty," is that it focuses on only one song. Although people often take great liberties with the Star Spangled Banner, it is still the same tune, more or less. And the lyrics are always the same. The range of interpretation has its own built in limited parameters, despite the tendency of some to stretch it. So there is more of a focus to "101 Star Spangled Banners," if not simplicity, compared to "Top Forty." Then there's the overtly implied politicism and potential perceived message, although there is none intended. My friend and early mentor, the artist Bill Dunlap, used to speak about how some things are "charged," as if they were infused with some inherent, collectively understood, mystical meaning. Maybe. I cataloged this concept, even if I never fully became a convert. It has its applications. Certainly The Star Spangled Banner is not just any song. People don't stand up and place their hands over their hearts whenever they hear Michael Jackson's "Beat It." (Well, mostly.) The Star Spangled Banner does have meaning. Of course. It's sacred. So as a source material for an experiment in layered multiplicity, it's an interesting one to select.
As luck and convenience and technology and the internet would have it, it was relatively easy to find 101 versions of the Star Spangled Banner. It may be found almost anywhere, ad infinitum/ad nauseam. For example, if one cared to, one may listen to the Star Spangled Banner over and over again for ten continuous hours as presented by the "The10HourMan." And there is at least one website dedicated to the song. GodBlessAmerica.org has a website dedicated to the Star Spangled Banner and boasts that "there are 1,304 performances of our National Anthem hosted." Here, one will discover the "National Anthem Girl," Janine Strange, who, strangely enough, seems to have dedicated her life to the Star Spangled Banner. She has performed the Star Spangled Banner in all 50 states! This website, that was once "proudly supported by the National Anthem Project until it was abandoned" (alas), is where I captured most of the versions used for "101 Star Spangled Banners."
The Star Spangled Banner is short. Generally speaking, if it is performed at a reasonable tempo, the single verse version only lasts about one minute and twenty seconds, give or take ten seconds. Although there seems to exist more sung versions of the Star Spangled Banner than instrumental, for the sake of equal representation, "101 Star Spangled Banners" is divided (almost) evenly. It consists of 50 vocal versions and 51 instrumental versions. "101 Star Spangled Banners" contains orchestras, marching bands, brass bands, different kinds of solo instruments, famous singers, unknown talents, historical recordings and more. Each of the individual renditions of the Star Spangled Banners in "101 Star Spangled Banners" is a different length, and because of that, the piece slowly trails off with fewer and fewer tracks, becoming more and more discernible as it approaches the end. One will note that it is the sung versions that endure the longest, as the interpreters seem to take every advantage to demonstrate their "chops." It is said that quantity has a quality all its own, but not every quantity has the same quality.
Thank you for listening, and God bless America.
101 Star Spangled Banners
1958, encaustic on canvas
(77.8 × 115.6 × 11.7 cm)
collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art
A Living Thing: Flag Exchange
American flags (50)
August 13, 2017
"20 Star Spangled Banners" and other works featured on
Open Journal, KPFT 90.1 FM radio, August 11, 2017