War Is Just a Racket (2008)
When pianist Sarah Cahill asked me for an anti-war piece for an entire concert of such works, composer Brian McLaren had just alerted me to a wonderful 1933 speech by General Smedley Butler, called War Is Just a Racket. Butler (pictured) was a popular general who, in 1933, was approached by a bunch of plutocrats (including apparently Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of presidents) who wanted to stage a quiet coup, reducing FDR to a figurehead and setting up a government friendlier to Hitler and Mussolini. It was an attempt at a fascist takeover, and they thought with Butler on their side, the army would play along. Butler feigned interest for awhile, but after he'd gotten enough information, he marched straight to Congress and turned the bastards in. Apparently FDR agreed not to jail them all if they'd stand out of the way of the New Deal - and that's what it took to get the New Deal through.
The text is a speech Butler gave in retirement detailing his disillusionment with the purposes for which the U.S. overnment uses its armed forces. I've come to think that political music is really only effective with text, and Sarah wanted a solo piece. So I borrowed the device that Christian Wolff used in his 1971 Accompaniments for Frederic Rzewski, whereby the pianist speaks the text at a normal pace, and chords associated with certain syllables are played along with the words, in a speech-determined rhythm. (My theater piece Custer and Sitting Bull was also indebted to Accompaniments, which seems to remain a pretty well-known work, even though Christian later disavowed its Maoist politics. As allergic as I am to all things military, this is the second time I've set to music words by a general.)
A note on the music: violence is not part of my music, so in order to suggest war I deliberately and postmodernly drew on a generic early-20th-century American dissonant language common to Ives, Copland, Schuman, Bernstein, and others. People often say it sounds like Ives, perhaps because they know I'm an Ives scholar, but the references to Copland are more explicit and deliberate. The ending uses a jazz scale (minor, with a raised fourth) that some people associate with Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So," but a perusal of the score will turn up no note-sequences quoting that song; even the scale differs from Gershwin's. There is something about this piece which makes some listeners focus more on whom it sounds like than on what it is and what it says.
MP3 recording by Sarah Cahill, 8:11
Selected performances (all by Sarah Cahill until otherwise noted):
World premiere: March 12, 2009, Merkin Hall, New York City
April 26, 2009, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago
May 8, 2009, Wayward Performance Series, Chapel Performance Space, Seattle
July 31, 2009, Old First Church, 1751 Sacramento Street, San Francisco.Ê
October 18, 2009, Mill Valley Film Festival
December 1, 2009, the Empire Arts Center, sponsored by the North Dakota Museum of Art, Human Rights Symposium
January 30, 2010, San Francisco Conservatory of Music
War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses. I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we'll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag. I wouldn't go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket. There isn't a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its "finger men" to point out enemies, its "muscle men" to destroy enemies, its "brain men" to plan war preparations, and a "Big Boss" Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism. It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service. I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested. During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
- Kyle Gann
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