Tag: 9/11

Commemoration Music: Narrating 9/11

Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet in 2009, separately from their 9/11 memorial program discussed in my previous post. Now one of the best-known post-9/11 works, it was not initially intended as such at all. The original request was for “a piece using pre-recorded voices,” following up on the idea behind Reich’s Different Trains, which the quartet had commissioned in 1988. The idea of using recordings from 9/11 only came to the composer several months later.[1] In its use of speech and concrete sounds to create melodies, harmony, and rhythm, it is similar to Different Trains. (In addition to Reich’s familiar speech melody technique, in WTC 9/11 the beep-beep-beep of a phone left off the hook provides both the tempo and an underlying harmonic pedal for the work’s first movement.) The structure of WTC 9/11 also resembles another Reich piece based on documentary material, the video opera Three Tales.

Different Trains, Three Tales, and WTC 9/11 all contain a two-part structure that moves from representation (of a traumatic event or events) to reflection, with an additional third part at either the beginning or the end. In the case of Different Trains, the trauma of the Holocaust represented in the second movement is prefigured in the first and reflected on in the third. In Three Tales, two traumatic events are represented: the explosion of the Hindenburg and the removal of indigenous inhabitants from Bikini Atoll. “Dolly,” the third part, considers the phenomena of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, using them as an opportunity to reflect on the merits and risks of technological advancement as described in the first two parts.

WTC 9/11 begins immediately with representation: after the beeping phone, the first recorded sounds heard are the voices of NORAD air traffic controllers tracking American Airlines Flight 11. They are joined by recordings from the New York City Fire Department and, in the second movement, testimonies from witnesses and survivors of the attacks. In contrast to Different Trains’ structure, now it is the third movement rather than first that extends the representation–reflection dyad, the third movement here evoking the realm of the spiritual with chants from the Psalms and the Torah, as well as the voices of two Jewish women who helped sit vigil (shmira) over the bodies of the Twin Towers’ dead until they could be identified and buried.

Robert Fink has shown how the repetitions and cyclical structures of minimalist and post-minimalist music resemble those of commercial television.[2] This is even more true of 24-hour news broadcasting, in which a finite amount of actual footage and information must fill long periods of air time: on September 11 itself, news channels even resorted to looping what little footage they had to make it fill the large amount of time the event’s importance seemed to demand.

Reich follows this pattern of repetition, sequencing, and flow, but applies a heavy editorial hand to his sources and their setting to construct an unambiguous emotional and affective narrative.

In WTC 9/11, Reich follows this pattern of repetition, sequencing, and flow, but applies a heavy editorial hand to his sources and their setting to construct an unambiguous emotional and affective narrative. This is especially clear in the first movement. The chosen samples broadly narrate the events that took place on September 11, 2001: planes hijacked, towers hit, emergency services scrambled, towers fall. This sequence is now extremely familiar, but in his chosen samples and his translation of them into music, Reich adds several layers of musical intensification: the retelling of the events themselves runs in parallel with a movement from speech to noise, an increase in harmonic dissonance, and an increase in rhythmic complexity. Each of these heightens the psychological and physical tension of the music, taking it into increasingly uncomfortable sonic territory. Two more narratorial devices further heighten this tension: the words themselves become increasingly panicked and personalized (from “It came from Boston” to “I can’t breathe”), and there is a steady shift of viewpoint from the air traffic controllers remotely observing the aircrafts’ movements to individuals trapped in the rubble of the towers.

All of this narrative exposition sets up movements two and three, in which the emotional aftermath is explored. In turning themselves to matters of shock, grief, understanding, and commemoration, these movements occupy similar territory to many 9/11 memorial works, including some of those I have discussed in this series of posts. What is unusual about Reich’s piece is that its emotional territory is given such a clear frame through the first movement’s recounting of events. For his One Sweet Morning (2010), commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to mark the tenth anniversary of the attacks (and written only a year after Reich’s piece), John Corigliano resolved to avoid any possibility of specific recollection, which might conflict with the recollections of his listeners. “So many in the audience of this piece will have images of the frightful day itself … burned into their retinas … How could I instruct the audience to ignore their own memories?”[3] WTC 9/11 contains no such ambiguity: its signs and their meanings are clear; its control of affect is complete.

If we turn back to Erika Doss’s categorization of monuments vs memorials described in my opening post,[4] we can see that WTC 9/11 occupies an unclear position in relation to that schema. The spiritual and emotional spaces opened up in its second and third movements are contemplative and memorial-like; they also focus on forms of private response, through the testimonies given in movement two and the vigils of movement three. However, the first movement unavoidably colors our response to the later two, so strongly does it determine the work’s emotional palette. This side of the work is more monument than memorial. There are aspects of heroism—the voices of the firefighters, for example. Its realistic presentation is more traditional, too. Most significant to this interpretation of the work are its overt emotional management, through the devices described above, and its shaping of a single historical narrative.

On this analysis at least, Reich’s musical language in WTC 9/11 represents an inversion of Michael Kimmelman’s diagnosis that minimalism (within public art) is the aesthetic best equipped to convey emotional ambiguity and flexibility. By drawing on the vocabulary of 24-hour broadcast news and using gradual processes to support a particular narrative drive, WTC 9/11 creates a sort of minimalist realism rather than an abstract space for contemplation. These tendencies have long been latent in Reich’s music and aren’t necessarily features of all minimal or post-minimal musical commemorations, but the case of WTC 9/11 suggests that musical responses to 9/11 can differ greatly from those in the visual arts. The success that WTC 9/11 has enjoyed suggests also that there remains a desire—in music at least—to seek stabilities and certainties within a musical and memorial landscape that can often prioritize transience, impermanence, and fluidity.

1. http://www.kronosquartet.org/projects/detail/steve_reich_new_work.

2. Robert Fink, “Going with the Flow: Minimalism as Cultural Practice in the USA since 1945,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music, ed. Keith Potter, Kyle Gann, and Pwyll ap Siôn (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013), pp. 201–18.

3. John Corigliano, program note for One Sweet Morning (2010), www.johncorigliano.com/index.php?p=item2&sub=cat&item=120.

4. See also Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 2010).

The Odyssey of 2001

The horrific events of September 11 are what most people are likely to remember from 2001, but many other things happened during those twelve months that irrevocably changed the world as well. In November of that year, the People’s Republic of China was finally admitted into the World Trade Organization. In April, the former and last president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, finally surrendered to Serbian police and was transferred to the Hague to be tried for war crimes—which, perhaps more than any other single event in the 20-year war that led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia, symbolized one of the most significant geopolitical shifts in Europe since the end of World War Two. (It is only trumped by the dissolution of the Soviet Union.) And in February, the Taliban began destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan—at the time a marginalized event which, with hindsight, was perhaps the clearest sign that extremism had reached a new level that was a danger to the whole world. Also in April of that year, the Netherlands became the first country where same-sex couples could legally marry (although two same-sex marriages performed in Ontario in January of that year, which were initially denied registration, were subsequently upheld in a June 2003 court challenge). Plus Wikipedia went online, Microsoft launched Windows XP (less than two weeks later the US Justice Department abandoned their attempt to break up Microsoft), and Apple introduced the iPod.

Amanda MacBlane

Wherever we went in 2001, Amanda MacBlane was always behind the camera.

Looking back at that cataclysmic year for its musical significance, admittedly, seems somewhat trivial, and contemplating where NewMusicBox fit in to that musical significance runs the risk of navel gazing.  But all I can say to that is music is ultimately what kept us going when the events of 9/11 unfolded in New York City. Something didn’t seem right before I headed out to the office that morning.  The radio I had on at home to check the weather suddenly went dead. As I walked toward the office, throngs of people were walking up 6th Avenue and I saw a huge fire at the World Trade Center which was clearly in view—it was a cloudless day. When I got online, I checked news and heard reports of a plane crashing into WTC. It was awful, but I continued working on something NewMusicBox-related. We were, as always, on deadline.  But then the second plane hit. We were offline. Molly Sheridan and our then-production coordinator Amanda MacBlane arrived at the office, and we tried to tune into whatever radio station had news. Then a strange silence descended on the city that was supposed to never sleep. At the time I lived four blocks away from the office, so I went home and took anyone at work with me who was afraid to go anywhere else.  Other people in our office braved walking home, venturing across bridges to outer boroughs in order to do so. The subways system had been shut down at that point. Soon all entrances in and out of New York City would be closed off as well.  There was so much to do, yet there was nothing to do. The following day is one of the strangest I have ever lived through. No one I knew went to work.  Weather-wise it was another lovely day. I remember walking through Riverside Park and seeing tons of people walking about like it was a summer weekend. But it wasn’t. The energy was tense. It was surreal. The next day we all went back to work and tried to think past it. As soon as we were able to get back online, we published a special September 11 edition of NewMusicBox which included first-hand accounts from people in our community who were based near Ground Zero like Stephen Vitiello, who had been a composer-in-residence at the World Trade Center, and La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela.
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And the new music community responded to these horrific events by doing what it does best, it went on creating and performing new music. A ton of new repertoire now exists that was created as a direct artistic response to this tragedy. One of those works, John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls, which received its world premiere by the New York Philharmonic on the one-year anniversary of that fateful day, went on to win the next Pulitzer Prize for Music (the first work by a composer who had composed minimalist music ever to do so).
But I also have some unconditionally positive memories from that year, like the first Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute (which hopefully will come back now that the strike is finally over, but who knows) and Pierre Jalbert becoming the first American composer to win the Masterprize competition. (Remember Masterprize?) I still tell people about my chat with the youngest composer ever to get the full interview treatment on NewMusicBox as well as the day I tried to explain hip-hop to Milton Babbitt. In what hindsight reveals to be a harbinger of things to come, I also remember when the first big name composer put all his scores online for free. And then there was the just plain weird stuff like the Tristan Foison plagiarism scandal which some folks were still thinking about a year later.

Molly Sheridan

One of the rare photos of Molly Sheridan (photo by Richard Kessler).

But I have an additional very positive NewMusicBox reminiscence from 2001 that for me at least trumps all of the more unpleasant memories.  I remember reading a fabulous article in Symphony Magazine that was about taking three indie-rockers to attend concerts by a symphony orchestra and describing what their reactions were. The article persuasively argued that, though it was quite a culture clash, it should not have been and that the orchestra needs to find a way to reach and serve this community. It struck a chord, so I sought out the author of the article—Molly Sheridan (then a member of the staff at Symphony)—and had lunch with her. That was on May 23, 2001. Slightly over a week later, on Friday June 1, I asked her to join me on the editorial team of NewMusicBox. She wanted the weekend to think about it, but instead I asked her to accompany me to an all-American new music concert that members of the St. Luke’s Chamber Orchestra were giving the following day. It was part of St. Luke’s “Second Helpings” series at the DIA Arts Center; this program featured music by Elizabeth Brown, Mario Davidovsky, Julia Wolfe, and Tan Dun—quite a mix. It was a fabulous concert. I remember introducing her to all the composers at the reception afterwards.  How could she say no to this gig?  She didn’t, and now 13 years have gone by. Yeah, she went off to Nepal at some point (that’s a story for another time), but she came back and is still with us. It’s been an extraordinary odyssey.

“Music can do things words can never do,” remarked Leon Botstein in the days following September 11, 2001. Few reading these pages would disagree with that statement, and yet we continue to read and write about our music, our careers, and the challenges we face. Perhaps it is precisely these challenges, both internal and external, that intensify our need to keep the conversation on NewMusicBox alive.

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