Ithaca, New York — Another Memorial Day has come and gone in Ithaca’s ramshackle nineteenth-century civic graveyard that sprawls over some twenty hillside acres between the flats of downtown and the campus of Cornell University on the bluffs above. Once a grand landscape park that housed the dead beneath neo-classical crypts and mighty obelisks, the cemetery is now a neglected oasis for mischief-makers and dog-walkers: many monuments have toppled over; the facades of the city fathers’ imposing vaults are ruined.
Until the Memorial Day weekend the American flag that flew from a cheap aluminum pole above the Civil War memorial had been upside down for months, inverted by some pranksters, probably those who smoke the devil weed amongst the dead. The venerable and much larger wooden mast crowned by a cooper ball with magnificent green patina was wrecked by a windstorm a couple of years ago and, fittingly, still lays where it fell along the flank of the monument. The newer aluminum pole also had a darkness-activated LED light at the top so that, out of respect for its colors, the stars-and-strips would be duly illuminated at night. But the same pranksters made off with that saucer of illumination when they hung Old Glory by her heels.
Within a week I expect to see the flag upside-down again.
As always the recently concluded solemnities honoring American veterans culminated with the blowing of Taps. Or maybe I should say, the faking of it.
For several years now this elegiac arpeggio has been delivered not by a human musician but by someone holding something called a Ceremonial Bugle to his lips. The melody is activated from a hidden speaker simply with the press of a button. There are no jittery nerves at the graveside of the soldier, known or unknown. This techno-bugler never fails. Never will one hear the plaintive crack of a high note emanating from this failsafe technology, unless one makes a recording with a touch of textured authenticity. Nothing is so easy to simulate as human error.
The instrument is a fair enough visual facsimile of the original, though the silver finish looks a bit cheap to me as it glints in the morning sunlight slanting through the oaks. The loop of the tubing also appears rather too big, as does the bell of the horn, since this is where the conical insert is tucked. It is as if the designer had to make the bugle just slightly bigger not simply to make room for its technological payload, but so as to convince onlookers that it is real: larger than life means more lifelike.
According to the product website the ersatz-bugle is born of a musical corollary to the laws of supply and demand. There are now some 500 active military buglers in the armed forces, but there are nearly 2,000 military funerals a day. Enter the ceremonial bugle: “With the bugler shortage in mind, Congress passed a law that went into effect in January 2000 and allows a recorded version of Taps using audio equipment if a live horn player is not available.”
This response to declining brass ranks offers a “dignified alternative” to the real thing, but will only be used, the manufacturer is quick to point out, when “a live bugler is not available.” At least when the last bugler dies, there’ll be someone with his finger on the button to launch the final respects.
The purveyors of the Ceremonial Bugle claim it is a much classier approach than bringing out a boom box, even if the Potemkin brass “isn’t meant to fool anyone,” as one American Legionnaire quoted on the website puts it. Thus the Ceremonial Buglers stroll blithely down the increasingly sharp knife-edge separating the facsimile from real McCoy.
More and more of the major musical rites of American life are pre-recorded and mimed by the “performers” before the throngs in stadiums or on the National Mall, from Beyoncé at the Super Bowl to Yo-Yo Ma at the Presidential Inauguration. Increasingly, the fake has become the real thing.
Yet you might think that death and remembrance call for a modicum of truth and that certain rituals are worth preserving and should be immune from the market. But if Congress underfunds those forces charged with mounting the final dignities for a soldier, then resourceful contractors will answer the call. In this case it was S & D Consulting that filled the breech, expert as this gang is in “building strategic partnerships with the private, public, and non-profit sectors.”
One partner who has cocked an ear in the direction of the Ceremonial Bugle is the Pentagon.
In 2011 the U. S. Navy, for example, spent $35,250 on ceremonial bugles. Only a year later the disbursed $25,900 for the upgrade insert. Why so quick to buy the upgrade, obtained at two-thirds the dollar amount laid out for the trumpets themselves? The product website explains that the new two-inch speaker with matching silver finish promises “improved sound quality.” In addition, there’s a USB 2.0 port for additional calls.
As of last year the military had in service more than 16,000 digital bugles, gleaming weapons of smart musical warfare whose piercing sound threatens—or so I imagined on Memorial Day—to topple the surrounding monuments of the dead as if it were the trumpet of Apocalypse.
The appalling treatment—indeed lack of treatment—given U. S. veterans now extends to their burial. 2012 saw federal funding cut by 25% for the New York State’s Military Forces Honor Guard. Such retrenchments have been a boon for the Ceremonial Bugle.
The Ithacan trumpeter stands back from the assembled vets in the shade of the trees, and one familiar with the Ceremonial Bugle might think that he’s trying to hide the real source of the music he seems to make. The first time I listened to his “performance” a few years ago, he beckoned me over afterwards and showed me the digital innards of his horn, as if he were eager to admit to someone that it had not been his playing, and that he wouldn’t dare to pretend to muster the skill and effort of Taps. Now the digital tribute all seems an accepted, indeed a rather unremarkable, aspect of the ritual.
The Ceremonial Bugle’s website confirms that demand remains robust for the gleaming, glitch-free horn: it is out of stock until Monday.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com.)