Friday, September 13, 2013

Notre Dame Football: Tchaikovsky Edition

All right, fellow band nerds...this one's for you.

I decided to bust out my flute this morning (for the first time in forever), and I spent about an hour playing through random bits of music until I got to Tchaikovsky's "Marche Slave." Then I decided to give it up and listen to the full recording of "Marche Slave" while I puttered around the kitchen making breakfast. Amid what was possibly a hunger-induced delirium, it hit me: this is what football season feels like.

I'm not just talking about the obvious connection between classical music and college football game day. Snippets from "Ride of the Valkyries," "O Fortuna," the "Mars" theme from Holst's Planets suite, and the closing bars of the "1812 Overture" can be heard in college stadiums all across the country, alongside contemporary classics such as "Crazy Train," "Livin' on a Prayer," and the bass line from that one White Stripes song I can never remember the name of.

The power of music to unite--a country, a fan base, a disaffected generation of hippies, etc.--cannot be denied. It's always stirring, the moment when everyone rises to put their hands over their hearts and sing the national anthem before the game; we are all united as Americans and sports fans for one shining moment before we go back to acting like we all want to kill each other. Just as every country has a national anthem, every college team has a fight song.

Fight songs are meant to inspire, uplift, and remind us of our common bond as students, alumni, fans, and raving-lunatics-in-arms (except, of course, for the Michigan fight song, which as everyone knows is the audio equivalent of a hyena vomiting all over your child's crib). As a former band member, I can tell you that playing the fight song always felt more effective in a hostile away environment than it did at home--at least in terms of uniting the crowd. (Having four hundred screaming fans in wool uniforms standing directly behind one of the opposing team's endzones didn't hurt, either.) There were, of course, times when playing the fight song didn't seem to have any effect whatsoever on the team's morale; and after the 2007 season, there were certain pep songs I would have been glad to never play again (*cough*CELTICCHANT*cough*). But there were other times when playing the fight song felt downright giddy, almost euphoric--such as in the aftermath of the 2006 dramatic-comeback-game-in-the-rain vs. MSU.

But that wasn't what I thought of this morning while listening to "Marche Slave." Instead I thought, "Holy shit! This whole song is like a metaphor for how I feel during football season!!!"

It's not a perfect metaphor....

If you don't make a regular habit out of listening to classical music (and/or instrumental music in general), there's one very noticeable difference between classical stuff and the stuff you hear on the radio, and it's called dynamics. Pop music mostly wavers between FORTE and FORTISSIMO (aka the rockin-in-the-club strategy of BUY DRINKS! and BUY MORE DRINKS!!!). The quietest pop songs ever get is maybe a mezzo-forte. (You know, like if it's a ballad or something.)

Whereas if you put on a nice long piece of classical music, you'll probably start out thinking, "Oh man, that's really quiet--I better turn it up." And then two minutes later you'll be like, "Holy shit that's quite loud I guess I'll turn it down." But if there's a bigass crescendo going on, ten seconds later you'll be like, "HOLY SHIT THAT'S STILL TOO LOUD! I JUST TURNED IT DOWN! HOW DO THEY KEEP GETTING LOUDER?!?!"  (Because musicians are BAMFs, that's why--and don't you forget it.)

And so on.

Most college marching bands don't bother much with dynamics; when you're playing to a crowd of 80,000, anything less than forte is gonna get lost in the shuffle. (Unless, you know, you're one of those pretentious bands *cough*OhioState*cough* and you feel like playing really complex music nobody can hear.)

But there are dynamics in the stadium on game day, and it's something everyone notices--even the talking heads in the booth. (You know, when they're not distracted by the upcoming golf tournament or the latest Eminem single or whatever else it is they're being paid to sponsor instead of talking about the actual game.) The cheering thousands move through peaks and troughs of sound, like the great strains of a orchestra being conducted by the actions of the players on the field.  Like a sheet of music, the lines of the gridiron define the form and the limits into which the coaches can inscribe an infinite number of plays and combinations, drawing an infinite number of reactions from the crowd.

But it all uses the same notes, over and over again. The cry of victory. The groan of defeat. The great gasp of the almost-caught pass. The stone-dead silence of a crowd whose team has just been sacked and stripped and had the ball run back on them for a touchdown. The notes are drawn out of us almost without our consent; when the playing starts to hurt, we say, "I can't watch." But we do. We build up calluses and we move on.

There is always another game to be played.

"Marche Slave" = loss to Michigan = yoke of oppression

"Marche Slave" (also written as March Slav) is the French (and most common) title for Tchaikovsky's "Serbo-Russian March," which was commissioned by the Russian Musical Society in support of the Serbians during the Serbo-Turkish war (c.1876).

My interpretation of this piece of music has nothing to do that, in the same way that the Notre Dame Band playing the "1812 Overture" at the end of the 3rd quarter has nothing to do with Russian's defense of the motherland against Napoleon. As mentioned, this morning, my reaction to Marche Slave was more like, "Holy shit! This is how I feel during football games!"

I'm not saying I want "Marche Slave" to be piped into the stadium on game days. I'm just saying: if you were going to take my internal landscape following the loss to Michigan and interpret it as a piece of music ( you do...), it would kind of sound like this.

And now, fourteen paragraphs later, we get to the point.

If you've never listened to Marche Slave, you can do so here:

 Or you can just take my word for it and interpret the song based upon my comments below.

Marche Slave begins in B-minor, which as everyone knows is the key you write in when you want to sound oppressed. It's slow, like a funeral march, and its downward-slipping melody skips around the orchestra in a somber refrain until everybody in the audience feels deep within their souls that We Are Being Oppressed (By Michigan)--And This Is Not Okay. But it is not the sound of true despair, or true defeat; it turns to the lyrical, almost poetic march of those who refuse to let their notes ring atonal, even in the face of skunkbear-scented defeat. Then, at about the 1:27 mark, you get the first rebuttal. The spark of rebellion. The rallying of the troops--the refusal to accept defeat. And there, at the 2:16 mark, comes the rage, the fury, the frustration--and the angry f***ing piccolo who cannot believe her defense--our defense--the f**ing just went to a national championship defense--gave up 41 points and 96 rushing yards to some punk quarterback from Michigan who isn't even Denard Robinson. I mean, come on. You have GOT to be kidding me. I CAN'T GO THROUGH ANOTHER FOUR YEARS OF THIS.

Oh, wait. Except we won't have to. Because we're not playing Michigan anymore after next year.

But in the meantime, back to our regularly scheduled oppression

It's been a long while since we've been in the frustrating position of playing catch-up all game long against a team that we are, genuinely, pretty evenly-matched with. But Michigan wrested control from us early, and--like any true oppressor--they never gave up the high ground. There were times when the Irish drew even; times when it even seemed as though we might surge forth to victory, as we did in so many last-second comebacks last year.

But we couldn't throw off the yoke this time.

Every ghost of a worry that plagued us during the Temple game came back to haunt us this game: two drives sputtered because we couldn't establish a running game early on; our defense looked porous against a mobile quarterback; we let Michigan score on 4 out of 4 trips to the red zone; our offense has not yet produced a consistent deep threat at receiver; Tommy continues to underwhelm while scrambling; and yes--the Reesus threw another turnover. We lost two of our possessions on interceptions and two on failed 4th-down conversions. The only marked improvement in scoring this week was Kyle Brindza's return to place-kicker; he made 3 of 3 field goals, two from 40+ yards.

I don't mean to be entirely bleak, of course. We did score on six of our possessions; Rees threw for over 300 yards and 2 TDs, spreading the ball out fairly evenly between Jones, Niklas, and Daniels; and once we got something going on the ground, Amir Carlisle and George Atkinson III each averaged over 5 ypc.

But any game in which you score 30 points and do not win is not a stellar defensive effort--and that, more than anything, is worth an angry Serbo-Russian ballad. Our offense is improving, but they're not good enough yet to win on their own volition. We need our defense to be the anchor, and they just aren't anchored yet. Maybe they're in the process of untying knots before the anchor can be lowered--but dang it, I wish they'd hurry up.

If you look at the defensive stats, there are some things there to be pleased about. We had eight tackles for loss, 3 pass break-ups, 3 QB hurries, 1 sack, and 1 extremely badass interception courtesy of Stephon Tuitt. But all of that amounts to bloody nothing when your opponent puts up 41 points on you. Also it doesn't help when you have a specious pass interference call against your defense on a key drive late in the game...but never mind that; what's done is done.

I also think this is something of a testament to the leadership we had on defense last year; the bend-but-don't-break mentality really only works if you're committed to not breaking in the red zone, and we don't seem to have that right now. There's no point lamenting players lost, but I do hope that as the season goes on, our team finds a way to reincarnate what made us so clutch last year. Because sometimes it isn't about the opponent. Sometimes it's just about going out there and acting like you're the baddest mother on the field--even if you're not.

And now on to zen mode.

So perfect regular-season this year. Despite the initial fiery rage, I think I'm going to be okay with that. Not only because I have no choice, but also because it allows us to fade into the background and do what we do best: be the underdog.

Of course it makes no sense for Notre Dame to be the underdog, really. We're still ranked; we're still good; more likely than not, we're going to make it to a good bowl game. And honestly, now that the monkey's off our back about making it to the national championship game, that's all I want us to do: I want us to go to a good bowl game, and I want us to beat a freaking ranked opponent. No more of this "Notre Dame being overmatched in the postseason" BS. I want us to figure out how to take a three-week break from the season, come back, and WIN. Then--and only then--can we talk about winning another national championship.

In the meantime...let us skip to 3:22 in Marche Slave and contemplate how the rest of the season might go. Let's contemplate playing Purdue, shall we? I am not saying this will be a game without peril. We only beat Purdue by 3 points last year. I'm just saying I think we can count on our guys being focused and a little angry after all of that thundering oppression in the Big House. It's going to be a hard fight against the Boilermakers (lots of angry brass, blaring trumpets, that sort of thing)--but yes, I expect us to emerge victorious without inducing any heart attacks.

Not until we face MSU at home next week do I expect we'll hit something like the 4:32 mark of Marche Slave and have some serious, blood-pressure raising anxiety. And as for the Oklahoma game the week after that? All bets are off.

But if you listen all the way to the end of the song--it builds. It gets better. It becomes more intense. More electrifying. More satisfying.

And I assure you, fellow Irish fans, it ends in triumph.


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