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8 July 2017 | Draft

Sonification of Twitter Leadership at the G20

A surprising musical opportunity for Donald Trump to sound a new note

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Written on the occasion of the G20 Summit (Hamburg, July 2017)


Commentators are noting the deliberate choice of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as celebratory entertainment on the occasion of the G20 Summit (Bryony Jones, Why Merkel chose 'Ode to Joy' for G20 concert, CNN, 7 July 2017). The Ode to Joy has long been accepted as the Anthem of Europe by the Council of Europe and by the European Union. As noted in that commentary, the Ninth Symphony has been variously used in support of quite diverse political agendas.

Press coverage of the planned event was in many cases made under a title starting G20 Leaders to Enjoy Performance of Beethoven's.... This phrasing could be considered a curious provocation with the implication that G20 leaders were expected or required to enjoy a performance beyond any reasonable criticism -- considered by many as one of the greatest compositions in the western musical canon. This recalls the use of the Ode to Joy as a celebration of values in a religious context, suggesting the need for G20 leaders to "sing from the same hymn sheet" -- a questionable metaphor in a multipolar society.

As a metaphor, imposition of the experience can be understood otherwise in that it was Beethoven's final complete symphony, composed when he was almost totally deaf. Those protesting the Summit in the streets of Hamburg would readily ascribe to the "deafness" of the G20 leaders (Arrests and injuries as Hamburg gripped by mass anti-G20 protests, The Guardian, 7 July 2017). The inability of world leaders to "hear" the water cannons deployed against the demonstrators, echoes anecdotal accounts of Beethoven's inability to hear cannonfire during his composition of music in which cannons were incorporated.

The questionable cognitive framework of the Ode to Joy, as the Anthem of Europe and of western culture, invites critical challenge in this period of crisis, as argued separately (Reversing the Anthem of Europe to Signal Distress: transcending crises of governance via reverse music and reverse speech? 2016). What in particular can it be claimed to enable in terms of the new thinking which is arguably now required -- especially given the degree of violence of the protests on the occasion of the G20 event?

It is however known that Donald Trump. representing a minority perspective at the G20 gathering, has previously declared himself to have little taste for such classical music. Trump is also known to have a remakably short attention span, as was highlighted with respect to an earlier NATO Summit (Greg Price: NATO Plans for Donald Trump's Short Attention Span, NewsWeek, 15 May 2017; Boer Deng: Donald Trump has four-minute attention span, Nato briefed, The Times, 18 May 2017). It might be appropriately claimed that many are similarly impatient with the patterns of discourse characteristic of gatherings such as the G20 and by their leaders in national contexts -- again unfortunately exemplified by the Ode to Joy.

It may well be imagined that, in order to relieve the tedium of the concert, Donald Trump might have engaged in an activity he much prefers, namely tweeting. This now offers the opportunity of a musical riposte to the choice of Angela Merkel -- through the musical metaphor implied by the tweeting process as the much-appreciated "language of the birds" with its mythical antecedents (Re-Emergence of the Language of the Birds through Twitter? 2010).

The notes which follow indicate the credibility of this possibilty to which Donald Trump could easily choose to give support. As a "new sound", this modality which would tend to be far more widely appreciated than the conventional choice of an ancient piece of music reinforcing patterns of thinking of the past -- arguably less appropriate to the challenges of governance purportedly confronted by the G20. Ironically, as a primary characteristic of a natural ecosystem, the tweeting of birds offers a more appropriate metaphor of the complex patterns of relationships which governance of the environment is obliged to recognize -- an issue on which Trump is a focus for criticism. Sonification of the "twitterscape", enabled by Donald Trump, would constitute a memorable reframing of governance discourse -- an appropriate counterpoint to the Ode to Joy.

Sonification of tweets as a political innovation

Experimental sonification of tweets has already been variously explored:

The last paper introduces a system that transforms message streams from Twitter in real-time into a soundscape that allows the listener to perceive characteristics of Twitter messages such as their density, origin, impact, or how topics change over time. Tweetscapes allow the listener to be in touch with the social platform/medium Twitter and to understand its dynamics. Sound examples are provided. The system is already used to provide content for radio broadcasts.

Other experiments have focused on the sonification of Trump's declarations:

Any tweeting by Trump during the G20 event, and the concert experience to which he was exposed, might be used to exemplify the possibility of sonification to reframe the approach to political discourse. Related implications have been separately argued (A Singable Earth Charter, EU Constitution or Global Ethic? 2006). More speculatively, even more could be made of the current role of Donald Trump as the "black sheep" of the international community -- or far worse. In operatic terms, rather than being subjected to the Ode to Joy, Trump might have resonated to a far higher degree with Richard Wagner's treatment of Loki in Germanic mythology, as separately explored (Identity in question via Trump: Narcissus vs Loki?, 2017). His rejection of the climate deal recalls Loki's role in setting fire to the Valhalla of the gods through the Götterdämmerung. In such a sense there is aesthetic coherence to recognition of the G20 as a secular "20-God pantheon" replicating the archetypal functions of the gods of yore -- with the G8 grouping gods of higher order.

In exemplifying the surreal ambiguity characteristic of the Zeitgeist, a more appropriate comparison might however be made with a blackbird -- given Trump's unusual tweeting capacity. This invites reflection in the light of the much-studied haiku-like poem by Wallace Stevens (Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, 1917), previously explored as a way of reframing a gathering of the G8 Group, as the core of the G20 (Anticipating When Blackbirds Sing Chinese: conversion from tweets to songbites to ensure integrity of communication, 2014). The poem has been an inspiration to many for rethinking the "ways of looking", notably serving as an inspiration for Umberto Eco (Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt, New York Review of Books, 22 June 1995). The latter followed the author's quest for an appropriate language for "The Making of Europe", informed by insights from the mythical "language of the birds" (The Search for the Perfect Language, 1993).

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