Tag: memorial

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).

Commemoration Music: Working Out What’s Going On

Speculating in 2002 on what a memorial at the former World Trade Center might look like, The New York Times’s architecture critic Michael Kimmelman took a guess. “A memorial, as part of a mixed-use project, will in some way turn out to look Minimalist, Minimalism, of all improbable art movements of the last 50 years, having become the unofficial language of memorial art. What used to be men on horses with thrusting swords has morphed more or less into plain walls and boxes.”[1] And his prediction has proved largely correct: Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s Reflecting Absence is part of a mixed-use project (a memorial park and museum), with a minimalist aesthetic.

There is no real equivalent in music to the mixed-use space of public art, but the aesthetic of minimalism has been evident in musical memorials to 9/11 as well. Although an accidental tribute, perhaps the most well-known example is William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops. Created a few months before September 2001 (and based on tapes recorded much earlier than this, in the early 1980s), Basinski’s recording of slowed-down Muzak, looped onto tape and then played back as the magnetic coating of the tapes (and the sounds it stored) began to disintegrate, seemed to capture perfectly the emotions of that day. Having not known what to do with these recordings of sonic collapse and decay since making them in July 2001, Basinski brought them out on the afternoon of September 11, opened the windows of his Brooklyn apartment, and played them as a soundtrack while he and his neighbors watched the plumes of smoke over lower Manhattan and “tried to work out what the hell was going on.”[2] In the evening he filmed the still-smoldering buildings as the sun set, later setting the footage to the first in The Disintegration Loops series, dlp1.1. The film was eventually purchased by the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

The Disintegration Loops are classic minimalism in a late-’60s style, even if their aesthetic of sentimental ruin and melancholic introspection is more 21st century in flavor.

Looped and layered, with a processual form that, once begun, is left to run its course, The Disintegration Loops are classic minimalism in a late-’60s style, even if their aesthetic of sentimental ruin and melancholic introspection is more 21st century in flavor. Other compositional tributes have been less minimalist in their approach, however. In contrast to trends within the visual arts there have, for example, been a large number of neo-Romantic responses in which emotional registers are more specifically articulated: among them John Corigliano’s One Sweet Morning, Robert Moran’s Trinity Requiem, and Karen Walwyn’s Reflections on 9/11. Even those works by composers of an ostensibly minimalist background have been rather more mixed in their style and aesthetic. In last week’s post I referred to how John Adams used harmony and orchestration to color his piece’s recitation of names, giving each a particular identity and providing his work with an overall emotional arc. In this post and the next, I want to look in detail at two more memorial pieces, both of them by minimalist (or at least post-minimalist) composers and both of them string quartets: Michael Gordon’s The Sad Park (this post) and Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 (next week).

Both pieces were also commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. In 2006, having been asked to play a concert at the Herbst Theatre where the founding charter of the United Nations was signed, and to do so on the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the quartet devised a program that brought together the world’s music in an attempt to better understand it after 9/11. That program was arranged into three sections. The first comprised traditional music from Iraq, Iran, and Central and Southern Asia. The third drew more on the contemporary classical sphere, moving its geographical focus to Europe and North America. The second, and the concert’s heart, featured Gordon’s The Sad Park (as well as two works not directly related to 9/11: John Oswald’s Spectre and Kronos and Paolo Prestini’s arrangement of ‘Armenia’ by Einstürzende Neubauten).

In 2001, Gordon’s (and Julia Wolfe’s) son Lev attended nursery school in lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from Ground Zero. Shortly after the attacks, one of his teachers, Loyan Beausoleil, began to make recordings of the children’s recollections of that day, and Gordon uses four of these (for example, “Two evil planes broke in little pieces and fire came”) as the basis for the four sections of his work.[3] Like Basinski on the roof of his apartment, these kids were trying to figure out the meaning of 9/11—albeit from a very different position of understanding—and this becomes the theme of Gordon’s piece.

Varieties of digital sound processing are applied to the four speech samples: in Parts 1 and 3 the samples are progressively time-stretched until their individual sonic grains can be heard (the first section of Part 3 also loops different fragments of the original sample); in Parts 2 and 4 different granular synthesis techniques are applied that compress or fracture the sample. In Part 4 the sample is also looped and given a stuttering, shaking effect. In all four instances, the original speech is taken in or out of recognisability using audible processes that morph it into sounds evoking howls or multitudes of anonymous, unrooted points of sound. Rather than—in quasi-surrealistic fashion—uncovering hidden, unconscious meanings within the original samples, the effect is to dwell on the psychological changes that take place in the course of repetition and recollection, in the obsessive rewriting and overwriting of memory that takes place immediately after trauma.

The effect is to dwell on the psychological changes that take place in the course of repetition and recollection, in the obsessive rewriting and overwriting of memory that takes place immediately after trauma.

The relationship between the sound samples and the string quartet writing is oblique. Although the strings are not an orchestration or transcription of the vocal sounds, there is a certain amount of harmonic complementarity between the two, placing both layers of the work in the same musical space. There are also some loose rhythmic correspondences. In Part 1, for example, the string music gradually slows in parallel with the sample’s gradual stretch, although it does so by stepwise shifts in meter rather than a gradual ritardando, and at a different pace to the electronics. (In Part 3 something of the reverse happens, with the quartet music becoming busier as the sample slows.) Gordon’s music also provides a general emotive palette that is, for the most part, tense, agitated, and anxious. Even when the music and speech act in direct dialogue (as in certain moments in Parts 2 and 3 when the music drops out for the speech to be heard clearly, before stepping back in), the emotional intent is relatively unspecified.

Nevertheless, the work is undoubtedly programmatic in its choice of samples: the references in the children’s speech are clear, even if made through the imprecise and uniquely inflected recollections of kindergarten children (“I just heard that on the news that the buildings are crashing down”). Yet beyond basic statements about the event, Gordon’s chosen texts impose no narrative, and neither does his music, which is minimalistically abstract in its use of disengaged processes and static tableaux. Only in Part 4 (“And all the persons that were in the airplane died”) do the musical cues become clearer. The shuddering looped sample (evoking sobs?) is set against dissonant rising glissandi, which give way to a furious final three minutes of heavily accented sawing, an unfettered release of energy, a final thrash, a question shouted into space, unanswered.

Unlike most post-9/11 works, The Sad Park is barely a memorial at all: its tone is not that of reconciliation. It is not a requiem, nor is it a “memory space” like On the Transmigration of Souls, with all the implications of security and psychological processes of acceptance that term suggests. Rather, it attempts to process the attacks’ immediate aftermath through simultaneous layers of mediation: the reactions of children too young to understand but old enough to recognize fear in the adults around them; the electronic processing that transmutes those words into any number of sonic symbols; and the extrapolation of this into a harmonic and rhythmic palette. What’s left is a rare portrait of doubt, anger, anguish, and bafflement that stands apart from the calming tone of official memorial style.

1. Michael Kimmelman, “Out of Minimalism, Monuments to Memory,” New York Times, January 13, 2002.

2. John Doran, “Time Becomes a Loop: William Basinski Interviewed,” The Quietus, November 15, 2012, http://thequietus.com/articles/10680-william-basinski-disintegration-loops-interview.

3. More of Beausoleil’s transcriptions are documented at www.youngestwitnesses.com.

Commemoration Music: Commemorating 9/11

If one were looking for an official “monument” among musical responses to 9/11, one might expect to find it in John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic early in 2002, it was written to be performed at a concert scheduled for September 18 that year, very close to the first anniversary of the attacks. The timing was a coincidence: the concert had already been planned with an original program of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Yet on realizing the date, the orchestra wrote to Adams to request a commemorative piece to replace the Stravinsky. (The fact that September 2002 also marked the official beginning of Lorin Maazel’s tenure as the orchestra’s music director only added to the significance of the occasion.) The orchestra had already found a public role for itself in the wake of the attacks, offering consolation to the people of New York in a remarkable performance of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem on September 22, 2001, that replaced the scheduled gala opening of the 2001-02 season with a benefit concert for the families of firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers, and in the actions of individual members, who had given ad hoc performances to mourners at the Ground Zero site.

Yet for all this, Adams’s piece is far from a typical monument. It may have garnered all the prizes available to it from the American musical establishment—including the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and (in its recording by Maazel, the New York Philharmonic, New York Choral Artists, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus) the 2005 Grammy Awards for Best Classical Album, Best Orchestral Performance, and Best Classical Contemporary Composition—but it sets itself apart from the declamatory, official statement. Instead, On the Transmigration of Souls turns toward the listening subject, opening up a contemplative space that seems to serve the needs of a mourning, traumatized listener more than to offer narratives of heroism, national redemption, or even vengeance. The attacks themselves—although present in many other examples of 9/11 music—are conspicuous by their absence; the closest allusion is the text “I see water and buildings,” the last words of one of the attendants on American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the North Tower.

The piece turns toward the listening subject, opening up a contemplative space that seems to serve the needs of a mourning, traumatized listener more than to offer narratives of heroism.

The work’s construction is well documented but worth reviewing. As well as the orchestra, Adams uses a chorus and a pre-recorded soundtrack. The text, which is divided between the singing chorus and spoken recordings on the soundtrack (made by Adams’s friends and family), is compiled from the handwritten missing persons signs that sprang up in huge quantities around Ground Zero in the days after the attacks (photos of which were taken by the New York Philharmonic’s archivist, Barbara Haws), and the short “Portraits in Grief” obituaries that the New York Times ran every day for more than a year after, each one a miniature of someone who had died in the towers. The soundtrack contains a further layer: recordings of New York, made by Adams in the early hours of the morning walking round the city. This is played back through speakers placed around the audience, mixed with the sounds of the orchestra, to create an immersive musical experience that surrounds its listeners rather than simply broadcasts to them from the stage.

The tone of Adams’s work—contemplative, non-dramatic, focused on absence rather than presence—prefigures Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s Reflecting Absence memorial park, opened on the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2011, two vast square pools with surrounding waterfalls, sunk 30 feet into the footprint of the original towers. It also echoes Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC (1982), one of the most successful of all contemporary memorials. Cut into the ground, giving it a minimal vertical profile, Lin’s memorial comprises two long wedges of black granite (each around 250-feet in length), which meet at their widest edge at an angle of about 120º. The black walls are highly polished and reflect the image of their viewers. They are inscribed with the names of the 58,253 US veterans killed in the war, arranged in chronological sequence.

The immersive style of Adams’s piece also relates to Lin’s memorial. Much like Lin’s mirror-like granite, Adams’s field-recorded, spatially distributed soundscape folds the listener into the work. Spatiality radically subjectivizes music, since (unlike the flatter, theoretically “even” projection from the stage) everybody’s experience will genuinely be different depending on their seating position. There is no “ideal” position from which to hear, and therefore no projected ideology of right or wrong, definitive or flawed. (It’s worth noting, however, that in practice this aspect of the piece initially troubled Adams: of the work’s premiere he writes that “some listeners found themselves uncomfortably close to a loudspeaker while others, being too far away from the nearest one, barely could make out what was coming from them.”[1])

Likewise, there is no “right” way to engage with Lin’s memorial. Too large to take in at once, it must be viewed in a combination of detailed attention and generalized scanning. To witness the whole thing is to take part in an active experience that requires at minimum a walk along its 500-foot length. Despite the inclusion of a 60-foot flagpole at the memorial’s entrance and Frederick Hart’s bronze sculpture Three Fighting Men (both mandatory additions not included in Lin’s original design), Lin’s memorial does not privilege one reading over another: part of its success lies in the fact that it can be read as both an indictment of war and a tribute to its fallen heroes.

The use of names is important in both contexts. As Erika Doss suggests, within a memorial context, naming first and foremost creates a sense of social unity: “to be named is to be acknowledged.”[2] Lists of names are a prominent feature of contemporary memorial art, and great attention is paid to matters of sequence and inclusion or exclusion. (Should attackers be listed among the dead, for example? They aren’t in On the Transmigration of Souls.) Inclusion of a name can personalize a work of memorial and deepen its affective power. But names also enable lists, which provide a neutral ordering logic that can counter the “shattering disorder” of atrocity and trauma and that claims those names as a unified body. Adams steps gingerly between these poles. His soundtracked text, softly looping and layering names and appellations (“My sister,” “My brother”) echoes minimalism’s history, from the counting patterns of Glass’s Einstein on the Beach to the looping speech of Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain, Come Out, and My Name Is. It also recalls the recitation of names that takes place on occasions such as the anniversary of 9/11. But Adams’s music is not completely passive: it responds to those names, giving them individual identity through changes in harmony and orchestration, so that they are not subsumed into an undifferentiated mass.

It is a quietly complex work; its underlying concept is, I believe, one of Adams’s most sophisticated.

The idea of the mass remains part of the aesthetic of Adams’s work, however, just as it is part of Lin’s. He has described how his initial difficulty in beginning the piece was overcome after watching amateur footage of the New York attack and seeing the clouds of paper falling from the top of the towers: “an image of millions and millions of pieces of paper floating out of the windows of the burning skyscraper and creating a virtual blizzard of white paper slowly drifting down to earth. The thought of so many lives lost in an instant—thousands—and also the thought of all these documents and memos and letters, faxes, spreadsheets and God knows what, all human record of one kind or another—all of this suggested a kind of density of texture that I wanted to capture in the music, but in an almost freeze-frame slow motion.”[3] This is almost an image of the sublime, in which the sheer number of documents and the mass of data they contain overwhelms and, in turn, becomes a means to absorb and come to terms with the horror of that day. This sensation is reflected in Transmigration’s use of document masses—the missing persons signs, the Portraits of Grief obituaries, the list of names—and its orchestration, “refracted and rendered into particulate matter.”[4]

Adams’s combination of soft orchestration, gentle harmonic palette, slow tempo, and steady intonation of phrases—“We will miss you … We all love you”—can verge on the sentimental: the mass can become too personalized. And the composer himself has expressed misgivings about the success of the work’s surround-sound element, something that may have been better achieved through more radical means. Nevertheless, it is a quietly complex work; its underlying concept is, I believe, one of Adams’s most sophisticated. Its greatest success lies in its adaptation of minimalist tropes of immersion, massification, documentation, looping, and repetition to create a neutral space that can record without moralizing. My next posts will prise open the function and limits of minimalism to commemorative music by comparing two contrasting but closely related examples.

1. John Adams, Hallelujah Junction (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008), p. 266.

2. Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 2010), p. 150.

3. New York Philharmonic, “Interview with John Adams,” available at https://www.earbox.com/on-the-transmigration-of-souls/ (originally posted to New York Philharmonic website, 2002).

4. Adams, Hallelujah Junction, p. 266.

Commemoration Music: Memorials and Monuments

The final years of the 20th century witnessed a huge growth in public memorial art: what the Villard Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, Andreas Huyssen, called a “memory boom.”

Huyssen, in the 1999 essay “Monumental Seduction” in which he uses this term, is referring in particular to practices in Germany—where, he argues, “a memory-mania of truly monumental proportions” focused on Holocaust monuments and memorial sites has taken place—but his words carry a much wider resonance. This recent “obsession with monuments,” he claims, “is only part of a much larger memory boom that has gripped not just Germany and … is much wider in scope than the focus on the Holocaust would suggest.”[1]

While a “memory mania” of similar scale may not have overtaken music over the same period—and in any case the function, meaning, and reception of music, even when commissioned by “official” institutions such as major orchestras or opera houses, differs greatly from that of public art—it is clear that musicians have been similarly fascinated with memory and commemoration over the last twenty years or so. In this short series of posts, I will look at some ways in which this has been expressed by American composers in the last couple of decades, what those expressions might mean, and what they might, in turn, have to say about the way in which we conceive of, articulate, absorb, and understand some of the difficult emotions associated with traumatic loss.

What might these works say about how we articulate and understand the difficult emotions associated with traumatic loss?

To begin with, I’d like to suggest some theories on what led to this increased interest in memory and commemoration, not just in music but in the other arts too. General pre-millennium anxiety played a part certainly, but more specific factors can be identified as well.

Often, just the simple passage of time was enough to activate renewed considerations of past traumas from artists born later or not immediately affected by them. This is a clear element of much public art and architecture: one thinks of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.; Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin; and Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also in Berlin. Yet its effects were also felt in music. Two notable examples, both dealing with the legacy and memory of the Holocaust from the perspective of Jews who are either too young or were too far away to have experienced it firsthand are Chaya Czernowin’s Pnima … ins innere (inspired by David Grossman’s novel See Under: Love) and Steve Reich’s Different Trains. Related to this, the growth in social liberalism that took place at the end of the 20th century forced encounters with contested pasts that activated new forms of commemoration. Two American memorials that might stand as examples are the Indian Memorial designed by John R. Collins and Alison J. Towers with sculpture by Colleen Cutschall at Little Bighorn National Monument in Montana, and Carla Stetson’s Clayton, Jackson, McGhie Memorial in Duluth, Minnesota, erected in memory of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, three black men lynched in the town in June 1920.

There were also technical and aesthetic reasons for the resurgence of memory into contemporary culture. The shift from analog to digital media through the 1990s and 2000s, for example, certainly encouraged reconsiderations of cultural stability and the permanence (or otherwise) of the work. This has been a particular issue within music and is foregrounded in works such as Philip Jeck’s Vinyl Requiem or William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops. Gérard Grisey’s Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, another major work of the late 1990s, can be considered under similar terms: the anxiety here is not about the decay of media, but the slow death and disappearance of civilizations, yet the musical language of melancholy and disintegration is remarkably similar. Object permanence is also a theme of one of the most iconic visual artworks of the period, Damien Hirst’s “pickled shark,” The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Finally, music’s postmodern manifestations—ranging from the music of Helmut Lachenmann to that of John Zorn to the more recent adoption of remix practices—undermined the inherited norms of Western art music: the unities of the instrument, a legible stylistic history, and the fixed identity of the work itself. All of these contributed to preoccupations with transience and permanence, fluidity, and stability that were manifest and expressed in music in a wide variety of ways and that provided new musical vocabularies and aesthetics with which to confront trauma and commemoration.

Music’s postmodern manifestations contributed to preoccupations with transience and permanence, fluidity, and stability that provided new musical vocabularies and aesthetics with which to confront trauma and commemoration.

The art critic Erika Doss tracks many of these changes as they relate to public art in her 2010 book Memorial Mania.[2] In it, she juxtaposes the “memory boom” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries with the “statue mania” of a hundred years earlier, when between the 1870s and past the end of World War I thousands of statues and monuments were erected across the US, an obsession that eventually led the American Magazine of Art to complain wearily, in 1919, of “the plague of war memorials now sweeping over the land.”[3] With the later “memorial mania,” coming as it did after radical developments such as pop art, land art, and minimalism, Doss observes a shift in emphasis in such works from monuments to memorials. A precursor of this distinction is Oskar Hansen’s unrealized proposal (1958) for a memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Eschewing the vertical, declamatory structure of traditional monuments, Hansen proposed a horizontal tarmac path, slicing diagonally and precisely across the former camp, heedless of any buildings or other obstacles in its path. Untended, the rest of the camp would slowly fall into ruin and out of memory, but Hansen’s indelible scar, black, harsh, and confrontational would remain, demanding explanation, for decades.

Doss’s distinction between monument and memorial rests on the difference between history and its subjects. The former privileges grand narratives (of great men, military victories, national mythologies), the latter private affect. The former articulates and regulates an official history bestowed from the outside, or from above; the latter opens a space for the viewer to enter and negotiate their own relationship with that history. It’s a distinction between cold, hard facts and the feelings of real people: memorial art, reflected Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times in 2002, “is therapeutic, redemptive, and educational.”

While 9/11 drew artistic responses that were both official and/or traditional, most works made in reference to the attacks or their victims took the form of emotionally open-ended, even ambiguous commemoration.

As I have said, many of these elements were in place in both music and art long before the end of the 20th century. Yet it was an event of the early 21st that drew many of them together into sharp and terrible focus: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. While 9/11 drew artistic responses that were both official and/or traditional, most works made in reference to the attacks or their victims took the form of emotionally open-ended, even ambiguous commemoration: Kimmelman above is writing in January 2002, on proposals received for the World Trade Center site in New York.

Music was no exception to this mode of response, and many compositions written in the wake of the attacks have taken the form of memorials rather than monuments, to adapt Doss’s terminology. Heroism is rarely a feature, although there are exceptions, among them Christopher Theofanidis’s 2011 opera Heart of a Soldier, based on the true story of Rick Rescorla, a Vietnam veteran who was second vice president of corporate security at Morgan Stanley, and whose World Trade Center evacuation plan is believed to have saved almost 2,700 lives that day. Neither are overt narratives of national identity or forms of emotional management. Although he uses the term “memorial” slightly differently to Doss, John Adams’s declaration about his own response, On the Transmigration of Souls, is representative: “I want to avoid words like ‘requiem’ or ‘memorial’ when describing this piece because they too easily suggest conventions that this piece doesn’t share. If pressed I’d probably call the piece a ‘memory space’.”

In my next posts I will look a little more closely at some of these musical responses, and it is to Adams’s piece that I will turn first.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press). He edited the most recent edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, and blogs about contemporary music at johnsonsrambler.wordpress.com.

1. Andreas Huyssen, “Monumental Seduction,” Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present, ed. Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe, and Leo Spitzer (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1999), pp. 191–206.

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

3. Charles Moore, “Memorials of the Great War,” The American Magazine of Art, 10(7), 1919, p. 233; quoted in Doss, ibid., p. 28.

Celebrating John Duffy with Music and Memories

John Duffy Celebration

“What we did was very radical,” Frances Richard told the crowd gathered to honor the life and legacy of composer, advocate, and Meet The Composer founder John Duffy. “Sitting here so calmly all these years later, I don’t know if you realize it. The idea was to pay composers. Whoever heard of such a thing?”

The audience erupted into applause and laugher, as they had throughout the evening of music and remembrances which also included remarks shared by John Corigliano, Robert Cross, Tania León, Annette Duffy Odell, and Steve Reich. There were also performances by Muhal Richard Abrams, Fred Sherry, Miranda Cuckson with Aaron Wunsch, and the Cassatt String Quartet with Glenn Morrissette and Tomoya Aomori. For those who missed the May 3, 2016 event at Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn, full clips are available below.

The Queen of Grace and Kindness—Deborah Atherton (1951-2014)

Deborah Atherton seated and holding a piece of brthday cake with a lit candle on top.

Deborah Atherton. Photo by Claudia Carlson, taken at a meeting of her writing group, River Writers of Manhattan.

D SQUARED. That was the idea for a business name Deborah Atherton and I used to joke about when we considered joining forces to help small arts organizations and artists. (We never did launch that business.) We had decided a long time ago that in the workplace, I would use the name “Debbie” and she would use “Deborah.” In fact, I was shocked to hear her family and other friends refer to her as “Debbie” because we had put that agreement into practice some 24 years ago and never strayed from it. Our shared first name confused many, even as recently as a few months ago when someone thought I was the “Development Director Deborah” who was once married to Anthony Davis. We shared a common name, a common profession, and even common jobs, though in succession. But there was nothing common about Deborah. She was one of the most unique and creative people I have ever known, and as her sister-in-law said today, she was the “queen of grace and kindness.” I think everyone who knew her would agree to that coronation. Her death on December 10 sent many of us reeling with pain and loss.
I’ve been thinking about what I could write that would convey the deep and complex human being Deborah was. She helped many, many composers and performers through her work as a consultant and at the American Music Center, Concert Artists Guild, and the American Composers Alliance. She also mentored younger arts administrators. But she was much more than an administrator. She was an artist. And a mother, sister, aunt, cousin, friend. As my friend, she encouraged me throughout many changes in life. I still remember when I was pregnant and finally got the results of the amniocentesis—including the news that I was carrying a boy—which I shared with her. She burst out, “Debbie, boys are wonderful! They love their mothers!” She didn’t mention the obvious—mothers love their sons—but it was there, all the time. She loved her son Tim with all her heart. She spread love and warmth to so many people. She made friends everywhere she went. There are many people who had fabulous experiences with her and their voices should be heard. So I thought the best tribute to her memory would include some of their stories.

Deborah was an extraordinary writer of science fiction and a librettist. Her librettos included Under the Double Moon, a collaboration with composer Anthony Davis, and Mary Shelley, which she created in partnership with the composer Allan Jaffe. Here’s a memory Allan shared with family and friends of Deborah Atherton on a private Facebook page (which I reprint here with his permission):

When Debbie was in the hospital being treated for Hodgkin’s in the 1980s, her first bout with cancer, I went to visit her. At the time, we had started work on our first project, our musical Carmilla, a female vampire tale. When I saw her she was receiving a blood transfusion to counteract the effects of the chemo. As we were talking and the blood was dripping into her, we got the idea of a song “Blood!” where Carmilla and her cohorts sing about the wonders of that delicious red substance, and then and there we started writing our song, which became part of the piece. Resourcefulness, humor, the ability to make lemonade when we are dealt lemons, and a general positive outlook, all these qualities were part of Debbie, and have always been an inspiration for me. During this last bout with cancer Debbie mentioned a piece that she had in mind using the sounds of the hospital; she was convinced that there was a composition in that.
As a writing partner, Debbie had a vision which was so deep and often different. Sometimes she left me in the dust, and I had to scramble to keep up. Mary Shelley was like that. At first, I didn’t quite get it; an opera about the creator of Frankenstein where the monster was a symbol of this woman writer’s struggle with expression and acceptance of creativity, and the conflict it posed with the people in her life. The more she wrote, the more I set her words, the more I entered into her world and saw the depth and meaning. And over the ten years we worked on the piece, that world got richer and deeper for me, inspiring music that I didn’t know was in me. I am so grateful to Debbie for giving me that opportunity and only regret the fact that we couldn’t finish the piece we were presently working on.

Allan Jaffe and Deborah Atherton: “Mary’s Vision” from The Mary Shelley Opera
Mary Shelley sung by Barbara Rearick; Percy Shelley sung by Scott Murphree; Ulla Suokko, flute; Toyin Spellman, oboe; Richard Mannoia, clarinet; Louis Schwadron, French horn; Monica Ellis, bassoon; Conrad Harris, violin; Carol Cook, viola; Robert Burkhart, cello; Mark Helias, contrabass; Timothy Heavner, piano; Conducted by Alan Johnson. Recorded live in concert at The New York Society for Ethical Culture by David Baker and Katsuhiko Naito on May 16, 2002. Copyright © 2002 by Allan Jaffe and Deborah Atherton (BMI). All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Streamed with permission.

Deborah was also deeply interested in understanding creativity, and not just her own. She wrote about the creative process of others. She was on the board of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, an organization that was formed in 2003. She also actively engaged with other writers through a chat room that was formed some 20 years ago, as recalled by her friend Janice Ferri Esser:

There are a group of us online who call ourselves The Sistahs. We hail from all corners of the writing realm: film, television, theater, novels and stories, journalism, poetry, nonfiction, and teaching. We are still together, posting amongst ourselves, twenty years after meeting in the AOL Writers Club Chat Room. We chat about our work, our lives, our families, our joys and successes, our sorrows and misfortunes. We bitch, we laugh, we bemoan the current state of world affairs and offer up solutions. Oftentimes, we’d all be weighing in on this, that, or the other thing, the comments would be flying, but… no Deb. Then a day or so later, she would weigh in, as someone else noted with her characteristic kindness and grace, and always with intelligence and witty good humor. Deb’s comments were always worth the wait. I mentioned this to my husband the other day, and realized what it was that made Deb’s posts so special. She was one of those rare human beings who actually thought before she spoke. She would take in what was being said, think on it, and then frame her response to the conversation at hand in thoughtful, often lyrical terms. She was our Sage. I never heard her speak an ill word about anyone. She did not gossip or trash talk. She did not complain, even when she had a setback. She was humble and sweet and wickedly funny.

Deborah was never at a loss for creative project ideas that reflected her wide range of passions. So, at the time of her death, there was a body of work, most of it collaborative, that remained unfinished. One was an historical mystery novel she was writing for many years with her sister Susan. Another was a new project with Allan Jaffe. And yet another was a book about haunted places, an interest that then merged with her ability to read tarot cards when her former colleague at Concert Artists Guild, Mary Madigan, wanted to learn how to read them as well. Mary recalls:

We’d meet for a drink and dinner, and tarot readings. Deborah suggested meeting at places in old buildings, places she thought had an energetic influence or ghosts. We went to someplace at the Chelsea Market, and to The Algonquin, and then to Landmark Tavern. Apparently there’s a ghost at Landmark from the days of prohibition, and Deborah thought she’d do some research on that. (We did chat up the manager. He told us what he knew: something about a murder upstairs in a bathtub I think.) The first time we met there we discovered Irish music sessions in the back room on Monday nights. That became our routine—to meet at Landmark on a Monday night, sit in the back room, order fish and chips with a glass of wine, catch up on life, listen to Irish music, and do tarot readings.

When Deborah discovered last summer that she had a new medical challenge that would require intensive treatment and long hospital stays, she didn’t hesitate to reach out to family and friends. She let us know what was happening, and told us she would need visits from us. She connected us through a private Facebook page. How did she know that we would find comfort from each other on that page? That even in her death, she would broker new relationships and deeper understanding? I keep asking myself this question: How can I say goodbye to someone who, in spite of the obstacles she encountered throughout a good part of her adult life, wrought meaning and purpose out of every day, even days spent in hospital rooms? I really can’t say goodbye, not yet. So I’ll end this remembrance with a poem written by her friend Claudia Carlson on Wednesday December 3, when her condition worsened:
A Civil Departure
Dear Debbie, how can you be dying
on a night of civil unrest, helicopters and sirens…
You who spoke softly or not at all
a social smile for a reserved heart
observations saved for later, sharpened by wit.
I thought you deserved some sweeter notes
than shouts and municipal budgets gone to riot squads…
Fill the air with arias and songs you were writing.
How can you leave now with your novel half finished—
what will Captain Leonie do without you
to guide “The Water Lizard” to new plot points?
With my heart half emptied
the streets are empty now too
the protesters gone to bed…
Life is so short and yet I found you
let that be the better sorrow
I found you and loved you
and you had to leave too soon.
No wonder the sky rings with grief.

Old photo of Anthony Davis seated and looking toward the floor with Atherton by his side leaning against him.

Deborah Atherton (right) with Anthony Davis at Yale College, 1970. Photo by William Fowkes, reprinted with permission.


Debbie Steinglass

Debbie Steinglass

Debbie Steinglass is the Director of Development for New Music USA and a pianist. She is the former Executive Director of The Jazz Gallery, has counseled and coached many composers and small arts organizations, was a music teacher for many years, and started her career as an arts administrator 28 years ago as the Director of American Music Week at the American Music Center. Her husband and son, both fellow music enthusiasts and creators, are the center of her life.

Violinist Mark Sokol—American Music Advocate (1946-2014)

[Ed. Note: Violinist Mark Sokol, a founder of the Concord Quartet and a persuasive advocate of music by American composers, died on November 28 at his home in Sebastopol, California. He was 68. In addition to being an important musician in his own right, he mentored many top players, including David Harrington of Kronos Quartet who shares his memories of Sokol below.]

Historic B&W photo of Jacovin String Quartet playing their instruments.

The Jacovin Quartet, circa 1966 (L to R): Mark Sokol, David Harrington, Sylvia Spengler, and David Campbell. Photo courtesy of the Harrington family.

When I was 16, Mark was like the big brother I never had. He was always a little larger than life. I had my first beer with him, my first cigarette. We’d stay up half the night on Fridays and Saturdays listening to Elliott Carter or Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite after having played quartets until we dropped. He was a Juilliard Quartet fanatic and I got to know all of their recordings. We compared many performances of many groups. There was a time when I could pretty much tell any group on record by their sound. This obsession started at Mark’s place.

The instrument I have played in Kronos for nearly 41 years was the violin Mark played when he, David Campbell, Sylvia Spengler, and later Audrey King and I played together in the Jacovin Quartet. I played my very first world premiere with this group in 1965—Ken Benshoof’s Piano Quintet. We all played in the Seattle Youth Symphony conducted by Mark’s dad, Vilem Sokol, who was also both Mark’s and my violin teacher at the time. I might not have met Ken had it not been that Mark already knew him and had asked him to write a Piano Quintet.

Mark was borrowing the violin I now play from a foundation in Seattle. I always loved the sound Mark made on it. He had to return it when he went to Juilliard as I recall. I heard about this turn of events and then got to use the violin. Later the foundation went out of business and I was able to buy ‘my’ violin for $1,200, most of which Regan (Harrington) earned as a hotel maid at the Meany Hotel where Bartok had stayed when he came to Seattle in 1945.
Mark went off east to study, later formed the Concord Quartet, and had a very successful career for many years. I learned a lot from the trajectory of his work. The Concord Quartet was a Naumburg prize winner, got a management contract and was very prominent. The group had a close connection to Robert Mann of the Juilliard Quartet. In fact, Mark named his first child Robert. I think Mark eventually found a way to ge

t a Stradivarius. Meanwhile, I was making an in depth study of various quartets and how they all negotiated our society.
Kronos got started in Seattle in 1973, and the path I chose was much different—more home-spun, working from things I knew and then moving out from there. The first piece written for Kronos was Traveling Music by Ken Benshoof, who has remained my close friend and was even my composition teacher. Mark and I had several meetings and calls over those early years of Kronos. I remember once he came to our apartment in Seattle and brought an LP of the Concord Quartet’s performance of George Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 3 for me and we listened to it together. What an astonishing recording.

Eventually he came to San Francisco and taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The last time I saw Mark was at an Afiara Quartet concert at the Conservatory on 19th and Ortega. That’s quite a while ago now. He had recommended to them that they call me regarding Peteris Vasks’s String Quartet No. 4, which was written for Kronos and which he was coaching them on. That’s how I ended up working with the Afiara.

I wish that Mark and I had been able to be closer these last 25 years or so. But there is no way to force that sort of thing.
Music has lost a really vital, passionate force.

Historic B&W photo of Jacovin Quartet members holding their instruments and talking.

Another photo of the Jacovin Quartet, circa 1966. (Mark Sokol is on the far left.) Photo courtesy of the Harrington family.

Lest We Forget

My original plans for this week’s post were to cover last weekend’s Charlie Parker Festival, but last-minute calls for work dashed them against the rocks (or, in the case of one night, against the rock ‘n’ roll). Then the preparations for the final concert of the “Jazz On the Deck Series” and Fay Victor’s “Herbie Nichols Sung” project took up so much of the time I would have spent working on my post that writer’s block set in. Sometimes I look to the articles and blog posts on NewMusicBox for inspiration, but the two excellent reports—“Wellesley Composers Conference and Chamber Music Center,” by Andrew Sigler, and “Music is Music: The 2013 PARMA Music Festival,” by Osnat Netzer—only deepened my despair about missing the Parker Festival instead. To be honest, the last day’s lineup of August 25 wasn’t missed because of work, but rather because I went to upstate New York to make music with friends whom I don’t get to play with enough lately. I felt that, no matter how inspired we were, I couldn’t justify writing about the private jam session, but then one of the NMBx articles supplied me with the impetus to continue the discussion from last week’s post with a slight recontextualization.

The eleven tracks included in Alexandra Gardner’s “NewMusicBoxMix: The Jazz Edition cover a broad gamut of instrumentation, style, and approach, but the one that is (arguably) the most strongly rooted in the jazz tradition is Wadada Leo Smith’s “Malik Al Shabazz and the People of the Shahada,” from Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012). A Google search on the tune’s parent composition offers the websurfer a link to a Wikipedia article about the piece. The titles of the box set’s 19 tracks mostly relate to themes regarding the struggle for African American civil rights. (Six of them are more general in scope, but still socio-politically focused.) I was reminded that celebrations have been taking place during the last week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march on Washington, D. C. that included Dr. Martin Luther King’s pivotal “I Have A Dream” oration. During this time, when so much is in the news about a continuing and persistent perception of race-based inequality (with scattered nods towards issues regarding gender identification and sexual preferences), I was especially moved by a Democracy Now! broadcast of August 27 that examined the censorship of women’s voices at the 1963 rally. According to the program, only one woman, Daisy Bates, was permitted to speak for longer than a minute. The show’s guest, Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee of Maryland co-founder Gloria Richardson, was slated to speak, but the microphone was taken from her after she had finished saying “hello” to the crowd. It wasn’t the first time that women were excluded from the debate on civil rights. The World’s Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840, held in London, England, is remembered more for denying seats to all of the women attendees—which included Lady Byron, Elizabeth Fry, Mary Grew, Mary Howitt, Anna Jameson, Abbey Kinder, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Neal, Amelia Opie, Ann Green Phillips, Sarah Pugh, Abby Southwick, and Emily Winslow—than for any motions for civil rights actions approved there. That event led to the first Woman’s Rights Convention being held eight years later in Seneca Falls, New York; but still, the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution, proposed in 1923, has yet to be ratified. So, in 1963, it didn’t matter the level of involvement in the struggle for civil rights one had attained, if you were a women, your voice wasn’t heard that day. The longest microphone time given to a woman at the rally that day probably went to Marian Anderson when she sang “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands.” One wonders how many women of color besides vocalist Dinah Washington might have terminally over medicated themselves that year.


Sathima Bea Benjamin’s 1987 album LoveLight

One of the names left out of my post last week was that of Sathima Bea Benjamin, who passed away on August 20, the same day as pianist Marian McPartland. Like McPartland, Benjamin was not born in the United States. She was a native of Johannesburg, South Africa, but relocated first to Paris (after the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960) and then to New York City in 1977. She was a singer who is credited with recording what could have been the first South African jazz record (My Songs For You) with pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (a. k. a. Dollar Brand), whom she would later marry. During the same year as the previously mentioned march on Washington, Benjamin met Duke Ellington while he was performing in Zurich and convinced him to come to see her future husband (Benjamin and Ibriham were married in 1965) perform at a nearby venue. The story goes that after hearing the South African pianist’s set, Ellington insisted on hearing Benjamin sing also. He was so taken with what he heard that he arranged for both of them to be recorded in separate sessions for the Reprise record label. Possibly because she sang jazz standards on her date instead of South African folk music, the Great American Culture Machine didn’t find her “commercial” enough and, while her husband’s session was released almost immediately (Duke Ellington Presents The Dollar Brand Trio, Reprise Records, 1963), hers didn’t surface for over 30 years (A Morning In Paris, Enja, 1996). It’s worth noting that this was better than the fate of her My Songs For You album, which was never released. In fact, the first album of Benjamin’s to be released was African Songbird, which was recorded in South Africa in 1976, just in time for her second expatriation to New York in 1977. This inspired one National Public Radio outlet to use as the title for her obituary, “How One Singer Made Four Debut Albums.” She eventually started her own record label, Ekapa RPM, which produced at least eight of her albums, including the 1982 Grammy-nominated Dedications.

“In My Solitude” Sathima Bea Benjamin and Duke Ellington – 1963

African Songbird

Sathima’s 1976 album African Songbird

Benjamin spent much of her time working as her husband’s manager and agent, but kept singing and recording, even though she remained largely invisible as an artist. Benjamin was also a political activist who was tireless in her efforts to win equal rights for the indigenous population of South Africa. After being recognized with the Order of Ikhamanga Silver Award by the president of South Africa in 2004 and presented with a Certificate of Achievement for being an “activist in the struggle for human rights in South Africa” by Pen and Brush, Inc. in 2005, as well as being the subject of a 2010 documentary Sathima’s Windsong, Benjamin returned to South Africa in 2011 and passed away there. Our condolences go out to Abdullah Ibrahim and the family of Sathima Bea Benjamin.
[Ed note: For more information, go to
Samitha Bea Benjamin’s webpage and the blog page for Matsuli Records (a label which specializes in South African music).]

Turn Out the Stars

The American music community has lost several significant figures over the last two weeks. Three of its most influential luminaries passed in the first three days of this week, and they should be acknowledged.

The most familiar name among the three probably belongs to pianist Marian McPartland, who passed away on Tuesday, August 20, at the age of 95. Born Margaret Marian Turner in Windsor, England, she displayed a prodigious aptitude for music and studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. But she found herself drawn to jazz and in 1938 went on the road as Marion Page with a vaudeville group, Billy Mayerl’s Claviers. (Mayerl was an early proponent of jazz in England who performed as the soloist in the 1925 London premiere of Rhapsody in Blue and later opened the School of Syncopation, where ragtime and stride piano were part of the curriculum.) Part of the Claviers’ itinerary included entertaining American troops during World War II, and it was while performing in USO shows in Belgium in 1944 that she met and began performing with her future husband, Jimmy McPartland. He was a Chicago-born cornetist who in 1924 was the 17-year-old replacement for Bix Beiderbecke in the Wolverine Orchestra when Beiderbecke left to join Jean Goldkette’s Victor Recording Orchestra, a precursor of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. (In fact, many of Goldkette’s best players, including Beiderbecke, were enticed to join Whiteman for better pay.) In 1949, Jimmy and Marian moved to New York City and she began fronting a trio that featured drummer Joe Morello and bassists Vinnie Burke and Bill Crow, firmly establishing her in the Big Apple’s jazz community. She can be seen standing between bassist Oscar Pettiford and pianist-arranger Mary Lou Williams in Art Kane’s famous photograph.

A Great Day in Harlem, 1958

“Harlem 1958” © by Art Kane.
Photo courtesy of the Art Kane Archive. All rights reserved.

They performed at the Hickory House in New York from 1952 until 1961. She recorded for Savoy and later Capitol Records and even recorded duo sessions with pianist Bud Powell, as well as a live session from the 1958 Newport Festival with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. She began a career as a radio personality on WBAI in 1964, where she was billed as her husband’s “better half,” and in 1969 formed the independent label, Halcyon, in an attempt to break through the “glass ceiling” that many women jazz musicians found themselves pressed against. Her erudite rhetoric, delivered in a measured and highbrow English accent, coupled with an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz standards made her a natural for radio. She was a regular at the Carlyle Hotel during the 1970s and 1980s, but she is best known as the creator and on-air-host of National Public Radio’s Piano Jazz, a weekly show that mostly featured McPartland talking shop with prominent or up-and-coming jazz pianists. (The show also featured non-pianists, but not very often.)

During the first season of Piano Jazz in 1979, McPartland interviewed Dallas-born Cedar Walton, a pianist who died on Monday, August 19. Walton moved to New York in the 1950s and began working with many of the so-called “hard bop” players there (saxophonist Lou Donaldson, trombonist J. J. Johnson, drummer Max Roach, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, and trumpeter Art Farmer). In 1961 he replaced Bobby Timmons in the ground-breaking Jazz Messenger groups led by drummer Art Blakey, that also featured bassist Jymie Merritt, trombonist Curtis Fuller, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. During his tenure in the Messengers, Walton also composed and arranged music for the group. Some of the pieces he penned during this time have become standards of the jazz canon (“Ugetsu,” “Mosaic,” “Bolivia”). After his three-year stint with Blakey, Walton worked for a year with vocalist Abbey Lincoln and then joined a group led by another Blakey alumnus, trumpet legend Lee Morgan. Walton began recording his own groups in 1966 and became a house pianist for the Prestige record label. Although he recorded at least 70 albums as a leader (and hundreds as a sideman or co-leader), he preferred to lead groups that featured horn players. His rhythm section mates were all top flight—usually bassist Sam Jones or David Williams and drummer Billy Higgins—but he recorded relatively few trio records. However, those that he did record show an eclectic and rhythmically complex approach that is rooted in gospel and bebop. His improvisations are deceivingly dense and the listener can be fooled into thinking that Walton is barreling through, when he is in fact a highly interactive and sensitive performer. In 2010, Walton returned to Piano Jazz, although McPartland had retired. His interview was conducted by piano virtuoso Bill Charlap.

I first met Cedar Walton in 1976 in Milan. I was touring with saxophonist Joe Henderson and we had played at a jazz festival there the night before. The next morning Joe’s group (with guitarist Steve Erquiaga and drummer Mike Hyman) met in the breakfast room of our hotel to eat before we caught a train to the next town on our tour. The only other people in the room were musicians from the bands who also played on the bill. That included drummer Eddie Moore (who was playing with saxophonist Dewey Redman and bassist Cameron Brown) and the rhythm section of the Cedar Walton Quartet (Walton, Jones, Higgins). Joe and Cedar guardedly talked about old times (Joe’s group was comprised of kids who were very new to touring and might not understand what the elder statesmen were talking about). While Walton was reserved in his demeanor, I could tell that there was a playful person just underneath the surface. Years later I had the humbling opportunity to play with him in his funk-based group in Boston with saxophonist Bob Berg and drummer Akira Tana. After the gig, we stayed in the large suite that the club supplied for out of town acts. Walton and Berg were listening to tapes of rough mixes of an album they had just recorded and I was impressed at how animated and passionate Walton (whose stage persona was somewhat stoic) was when listening to music in private.

I relived these and other experiences of meeting Cedar Walton while listening to the WKCR tribute to him on Tuesday. (The station has a policy of pre-empting its programming for a day when a jazz dignitary dies.) While doing research for this post I also ran across a listing for a duo concert featuring Walton and pianist Barry Harris that was to be a tribute to the late Mulgrew Miller. Miller, who left us on May 29, would have been 58 last week, and Harris will be 85 in November. The transposition of numbers in their ages is reflected by Cedar Walton, who was 79 when he died, and the third figure in the trio being discussed, author Albert Murray, who passed away at the age of 97 on Sunday, August 18. While Murray wasn’t a musician, his influence on music today—for better or for worse—is huge. He is the person largely responsible for the establishment of Jazz at Lincoln Center. It is a fact that JALC is often referred to as “the house that Wynton [Marsalis] built,” but it is also a fact that it was the intellectual and spiritual inspiration of Albert Murray that guided its foundation.

Of course, location is everything (when it comes to erecting an edifice) and Murray (whom Duke Ellington referred to as “the unsquarest man I know”) considered the “the traffic circle which commemorates Christopher Columbus who once set out for destinations east on compass bearings west” as the nexus point for the subway lines that traverse the great grid of north-western Manhattan and transport the inhabitants of the neighborhood known as Harlem (South to a Very Old Place, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971). He saw what was considered African American art, especially African American music, as an indispensible element of American culture. While this seems overly simplistic, it goes a long way towards explaining the American experience, and the idea has served well as a jumping off point for discussions of greater import than whether or not jazz is “America’s classical music.” His arguments pushed open the door of racial integration set ajar during the traditional jazz, swing, and bebop eras. And along with his friend and colleague Ralph Ellison, Murray established a tone for our current jazz-studies intelligentsia (e.g. Stanley Crouch and George Lewis). It’s a double-edged sword that injects a codified version of Signifyin(g) (a term introduced in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s The Signifying Monkey) into American highbrow culture but marginalizes the avant-garde—a status that the artists of these eras were all, including Murray, a part of. (Illustrating Amiri Baraka’s concept of “the changing same?”) It has even been argued that the process that led to JALC included a concerted effort to redefine jazz vis-à-vis historical revisionism that rewrites many important jazz figures out of the canon. But Murray famously described “blues-idiom music” as at the root of African American culture (Stompin’ the Blues, “The Musician’s Heroic Craft,” New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976)—an idea that isn’t news to jazz musicians. He removes the emperor’s clothes, so to speak, by revealing the blues as a form of literature and oratory that is mastered through a highly improvised and interactive performance practice; it’s less about emotional expression than about allegoric social criticism. It’s an exciting idea, especially when the counter argument of blues being a Native American form is raised. The end result might be a “chicken-before-the-egg” dialog that could rewrite European musicology. But the work of Jimi Hendrix, possibly the most innovative blues guitarist of all time, appears to have gotten lost in the shuffle. I don’t know if that means whether or not we’ll ever hear the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra take on the task of playing the charts that Gil Evans wrote for Hendrix; but at least, for the time being, jazz “not so much begins and ends as continues.” Thanks to Albert Murray.

Another thing that I discovered during my researching while listening to WKCR’s Cedar Walton tribute is that Walton has yet to be included in the Jazz Discography Project, an oversight that will, hopefully, be rectified. While there is a rather comprehensive listing at Tom Lord’s online discography, it cannot be linked to because Lord’s is a subscription service for academics. (There is a selected discography that is free to view after signing up, but it’s far from complete and not very informative.) I also learned that the memorial concert for pianist-producer-composer-singer George Duke, who passed on August 5, was streamed last Monday (8-19). Duke was one of the most influential musicians of the last 40 years. He was as comfortable playing jazz as he was playing fusion, funk, or the music of Frank Zappa. (Duke was a long-time member of The Mothers of Invention and Zappa played on Duke’s album, George Duke and Feel under the pseudonym Obdewl’l X.) He played a duo engagement last year with bassist Stanley Clarke at Birdland in New York that I couldn’t attend. I’ve heard that they both played well, which makes me sorry I missed it. I’ve only heard Duke on recordings and videos, but never live. But being a professional musician means that one usually works during the hours that other concerts are going on. All of us, even our brightest stars, create our work out of the passage of time, and it is a fact that the passage of time will turn out the stars.

Auld Acquaintances

As we prepare for the new year that is upon us, our instinct to look behind and remember who won’t be joining us has been sated by quite a few media institutions. Some separate out their “in memoriam” lists into various categories and sub-categories, while others create more comprehensive remembrances–often combining musicians and other creative artists with scientists, politicians, celebrities, and other names (or at least their contributions) that might be recognized by a portion of the public. Looking through these projects can be maudlin at times, but often these recognitions can engender renewed interest in the works of those who have passed and, if nothing else, remind us to treasure those who are still here.

Recently there was a bit of a dust-up between Alex Ross (of The New Yorker) and Wm. Ferguson (of the New York Times Magazine) on this very topic. For the past five years, Ferguson has been creating a multimedia “collage” of audio and images of musicians who have passed away over the previous year. His collages are technically well-constructed and thought-through (as far as production values go), and they range beyond the well-known celebrities to touch on artists that may only be recognized by aficionados.

But, as Alex Ross points out, these collages are completely devoid of any mention of performers or composers from the ranks of Western classical music. Ross states:

The omission is particularly maddening this year, since we lost two gigantic figures: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elliott Carter. Almost every other genre has been represented at one time or another, including avant-garde jazz (in the person of Rashied Ali). If the feature were labeled “non-classical music,” that would at least be honest. But the editors seem reluctant to admit their bias, which extends also to print: you won’t find Fischer-Dieskau or Carter–born in this city in 1908, astoundingly active until the very end–in the 2012 “The Lives They Lived” issue.

This obviously touched a nerve over at the NYT Magazine, because two days later Ferguson responded with a missive of his own attempting to defend his choices. In his explanation that the project wasn’t intended to be all-inclusive, Ferguson begins to let his own mindset show through:

The unspoken (and rather obvious, if you ask me) criterion to inclusion is that these are artists who have affected popular culture. They are, in the broadest sense of the word, mainstream. The songs in the mix are part of the popular soundscape. Elliott Carter–no doubt to our impoverishment–is not…
This is not a bias against classical music. Every year rock musicians are left off the mix, and every year I hear about it…
I don’t mean to be coy. I fully empathize with Ross and devotees of classical music. I, too, grew up a fan of a music that was marginalized and ignored by the mainstream. Such was the life of punk acolyte in suburban Pittsburgh in 1982.

Here you have one person with distinct views of what does and does not belong in the “mainstream” creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by consistently ignoring musical styles that are outside of his wheelhouse, yet suggesting through mislabeling that his projects are both stylistically diverse and qualitatively encompassing (in his words, a “K-Tel greatest hits compilation”). The editor is using his position to shape that “mainstream” by adding a few names that only indie, rock, and punk devotees would recognize while, at the same time, protecting it by disavowing not only classical music but Broadway and film music as well in addition to including only two jazz artists in six years. (Marvin Hamlisch, Hal David, Claire Fischer, Von Freeman and Richard Sherman are notably missing).

The intentionality of these decisions can be seen much more clearly when one looks at several other newspapers and magazines who did similar projects–both Carter and Fischer-Dieskau, for example, were named as notable passings in the New York Times itself as well as the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and NPR, as well as Carter being listed in US News & World Report and Fischer-Dieskau being listed by USA Today. Each of these newspapers/magazines made their own editorial decisions on who to add or leave off–the New York Times added Hans Werner Henze while the Tribune left off Etta James and Johnny Otis and while NPR and US News failed to mention Earl Scruggs–but the Times Magazine stands out as being the only high-profile institution not to mention anyone from the classical, film, or Broadway genres.

For someone like myself who is working on a long-term project that forces me to decide who to include and whom to leave out, such a blatant reliance on one’s own tastes and biases in such a public and influential setting is indeed troubling. Alex is right to call for a protest, but positive measures must be seen to as well to ensure that Ferguson and others realize the importance and place of these musics within our culture and society.