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.”
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.
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.
The art critic Erika Doss tracks many of these changes as they relate to public art in her 2010 book Memorial Mania. 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.” 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.”
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.