Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Sophomore Philip Decker never quite looks you in the eye while speaking. He’s clothed impeccably in shades of blue: dark jacket, light dress shirt, dark tie, and he’s always scanning his surroundings, only turning occasionally to face me. His favorite brands are John Varvatos, Hugo Boss, and Hart Schaffner Marx; his speaking is passionate and vivid. “Not too flashy, professional, heavy duty,” he describes his wardrobe. “Not there for show.” Decker never sits still.
Or perhaps he’s simply unable to. He’s very opinionated when the topic interests him and shares his thoughts openly when prompted. “Music really is the purest expression of artistic truth,” Decker tells me one day. “Literature is a cup from which you drink. Music is a waterfall that washes over you.”
Decker has never studied music formally, yet he hums the first movement theme of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth easily when it comes up in conversation. Bruckner’s Third is terrible, he advises me. Try the Fourth. He rebukes me immediately when I say that I am not particularly fond of much of Beethoven’s œuvre; “Beethoven was a genius,” he corrects me. Have I heard his Missa solemnis? No, I admit. Decker loves all forms of music; individual composers and compositions, however, are a different story.
Asked subjectively, Decker’s favorite era is late nineteenth-century Romanticism. “The music is so unashamedly about truth, finding out what it means to be human, attaining the sublime,” he explained. “People in earlier and later periods grapple with these questions, but in the Romantic period they really unlocked something I can’t describe.”
“Especially Beethoven,” he adds.
Decker’s fascination with music is profound. He’s especially interested in the relationship between music and politics. “Music can be used as a validation of the state,” Decker explained. “It’s a tool of state power, whether for the kingly courts, the Nazis, or the Communists.” In fact, authoritarian control over the production of music was so strong that the entire Romantic movement was well focused on its liberation.
“These composers were the pop stars of the nineteenth century,” Decker reminds me nostalgically.
He relates to me one instance of the relationship between the two disparate fields: Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich in the 1941-44 Siege of Leningrad, which his maternal grandfather happened to live through. It’s surprising how close events we regard as past history are to us, I note; Decker agrees.
Shostakovich composed his 7th Symphony “Leningrad” as Germans settled around the grand city of four million residents. Soon, starvation became rife and even reports of cannibalism were rumored, Decker recounts. By the end of siege, roughly only one million remained, the rest either starving or smuggled out of the city. Shostakovich was one of those smuggled.
The score of Shostakovich’s completed symphony was later sneaked back into the city, where the surviving, malnourished artists of their Radio Symphony played it to the equally starving residents of Leningrad. “There’s a myth that a German officer, upon hearing this symphony, said that they would never conquer this city,” Decker says. It is a story of heroism and epic triumph.
“How is it that when this symphony was played to the starving people of Leningrad, how did it convince them to go on?” he asked me.
Decker grew up hearing the story of his grandfather. “Every year I would hear about it during Thanksgiving and Christmas,” he tells me. “It really gave me a sense of how precarious my own existence was. My grandfather could easily have died with the Nazis laying siege to the city.”
“This really brought out in me a fascination with history and particularly with its countless implications and countless possibilities,” Decker says.
Decker’s mother taught university-level mathematics in St. Petersburg during the Gorbachev era when she met his father, an American business professor on exchange in Russia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, they moved to the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio, where his father taught. Decker was born there.
They moved again to Huntington, Long Island to accommodate his father’s new position at NYIT. It was in Huntington that his father first introduced him to classical music at the age of eight, starting with Beethoven’s Triple Concerto in C Major and Brahms’s Double Concerto in A. It was also there that Decker attended private elementary and middle schools, and it was there in third grade where he put on his first suit. It was to become his dress code up through high school, and the fundamental of his wardrobe today.
“The Great Gatsby is real,” Decker says with a smile. “I saw many Gatsbys. […] I had all this interesting insight seeing how this aristocracy behaves.”
“Now, I am not a Tom or a Daisy,” he clarifies. “I am a Nick Carraway. I was an outsider from the Midwest, I was born in Ohio, who came into Long Island society just like Nick Carraway. I had the interesting position of being accepted but not being really part of the inner circle. […] There’s a politics of wealth. We were not wealthy by any stretch compared to the people we were with.”
“I had a phase when I was younger where I was fascinated with nineteenth and eighteenth century clothing,” Decker recollects. “I used to know what kind of cravates nobles would wear, what kind of bow ties, what kind of frock coats, what the cuts were.”
“I forgot most of the details,” Decker admits, “but I was so fascinated with these things I got an interest in what kind of environments the people who were living there were in.”
He also inherited a hobby from his parents of collecting old books. His Northport home was chock full of thousands of them, some several centuries old. “My oldest is a history of Wales in the United Kingdom. It’s from 1697. It’s a wonderfully old book,” he says about the first book added to his collection. “I found it in a very old, dusty bookstore a long time ago.”
Decker applied and was accepted to Phillips Exeter Academy, a highly selective private boarding school in New Hampshire, which he attended from 9th to 12th grade. It was also around this time that his family moved to their current residence in Northport. By sheer coincidence, his academic advisor happened to be not only the school principal, but also the husband of state governor and conservative Democrat Maggie Hassan. He recalls being invited to their home for dinner and having policy discussions with them. Exeter was where Decker first dived into the field of American politics.
He has been a conservative, Northern Republican pragmatic for as long as he can remember. “Anti-segregation, pro-civil rights; keep the tone down, keep the religion out of it,” Decker explains.
“The number one thing people need is calm,” Decker says. “Things work better if you work in the system… We do believe in fixing problems, but change is dangerous. Tradition exists because it works.”
But is Decker interested in pursuing politics? “Absolutely not,” he replies immediately, shaking his head. “It’s something to watch, not something to do.”
Decker’s milieu allowed him to witness the presidential election of 2012 in a swing state as part of the Republican Club (he would become president of it during his senior year). He’s had conversations with Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. “It’s easy to get wrapped up in politics,” he tells me. “Capitalism is a beautiful system with too much glitter.”
Habit is one of two reasons Decker is still accoutered in his suit at Swarthmore. The other ties in with his personal beliefs. “There’s a very thin veneer in society of civility,” he explains. Decker believes in addressing professors formally and the concept of school uniforms. “Civility is fragile. There’s a lot of savagery that is bubbling underneath.”
“The only things that can keep it beneath are calm and order,” he continues. “Swarthmore is a good campus, but I wish [the students] were less quick to lash out.” Decker’s suit is a double act of civility and respect.
He brings up the topic of Donald Trump (“Note that I’m not a supporter of him,” he tells me). Decker asks: Isn’t Trump representative of the society we live in? Isn’t he a product of his time? How is he any more unpleasant, any more totalitarian than the extreme edges of this campus? Than the students who burst into a board meeting three years ago and interrupted a formal discussion of divestment policy?
Is he bothered by Swarthmore’s liberal agenda? Phillips Exeter Academy was even more liberal, Decker says, laughing. “I’m not going to impose my opinion on others.”
Decker is always laughing. He’s taken to mimicking Trump’s style (We have a big campus. Wonderful people. Beautiful campus. Everyone loves me.), and he’s unexpectedly lighthearted. “If you can’t be able to laugh at yourself, you can’t go anywhere,” Decker says.
Decker is well aware of his reputation at Swarthmore. He was an opinions columnist on The Phoenix during his first year and published a number of highly controversial pieces; to these he attributes much of his notoriety. He was recently asked to present at a campus panel on trigger warnings. Although he agreed to attend, Decker suspects it was simply to give the impression of having a token conservative on board. Even more recently, a YikYak post inquired what “suit guy” would wear to the Yule Ball. “The burden of a conservative agenda,” one response read.
Has Decker changed his political stance since arriving at Swarthmore? “It’s made me more conservative,” he answers.
Decker is pursuing a History major with a focus on Eastern Europe. Having submitted his sophomore plan, he no longer has as much free time as before. In New York, he used to visit the city every weekend to view artworks. He went to the Metropolitan, Frick, and Guggenheim galleries with friends.
His favorite artist is Max Ernst, a 20th century surrealist; his favorite work is Ernst’s Barbarians (1937). “A spirit of movement [in 20th century art] you do not find in any other period… It’s about speed and violence, about portraying the whole sort of movement on canvas,” Decker explains.
Decker doesn’t visit Philadelphia from Swarthmore quite as often. “No time,” he says. He’s been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and to the Orchestra on a number of occasions. He’d like to see the orchestra again later this month.
“Great orchestra. Definitely worthy of being part of the Big Five,” Decker tells me. “But it was definitely best under Eugene Ormandy.”
Featured Image courtesy of Vishnu Gupta ’18/The Daily Gazette
Update 2/12: Minor corrections