The White House is playing Hunger Games with its presidential turkeys

It's traditional for the US president to pardon a turkey every year before Christmas - and this year, the people are being given a vote on which one to save.

Barack Obama's presidency is having a rough time as the scandal rolls on, caused pretty much entirely by some terrible IT project management. So, considering that, you'd think the White House would have all of its developers working day and night on fixing the website of the president's flagship policy.

You would not expect to see something like this:

But wait, you haven't seen the fight cards yet!

That, right there, is the White House turning the bizarre tradition of the president "pardoning" a turkey every year just before Thanksgiving into the Hunger Games. Or, for older readers, it's a "two men enter, one man leaves"-type scenario. With more gobbling - and they've even recorded both turkeys gobbling in case you need to take that information into consideration when making a judgement.

Truman was the first president to be presented with a turkey, but it was George H W Bush who made it a permanent tradition with his first turkey in 1989. The theory is that the pardoned bird will be allowed to live a happy, carefree life at Mount Vernon, a sprawling estate that was once George Washington's and which now belongs to the nation.

In practice, turkeys - what with being bred to be raised fast and killed as soon as they reach a decent weight - rarely live beyond four years. Every turkey Obama has pardoned so far, including the one he pardoned last year, has already died, according to ABC. A reporter visited Mount Vernon (EDIT: Kidwell Farm in Virginia) in 2001 and asked a farmer there how happy the turkeys which had been sent there were:

“We usually just find ‘em and they’re dead,” the farmer told him, before explaining that the birds are bred for eating and not retirement.

“Their flesh has grown so fast, and their heart and their bones and their other organs can’t catch up,” he explained.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Obama in 2009, clearly enjoying this tradition. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State