Tag: September 11 memorials

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.

9/11 – Jazz

Cameron Brown, James Weidman, Kendra Shank, Vito Leszcak, E. J. Decker, Jeanfrançois Prins, Hilliard 'Hill' Greene, La-Re, Gabriele Tranchina, and Joe Vincent Tranchina at the 2007 Heart of Jazz Concert at the Sugar Bar. Photo courtesy E.J. Decker.

Cameron Brown, James Weidman, Kendra Shank, Vito Leszcak, E. J. Decker, Jeanfrançois Prins, Hilliard ‘Hill’ Greene, La-Re, Gabriele Tranchina, and Joe Vincent Tranchina at the 2007 Heart of Jazz Concert at the Sugar Bar. Photo courtesy E.J. Decker.

I’m writing this post after attending and performing at what has become something of an annual pilgrimage for me, the September Concert: Heart of Jazz event held at Ashford and Simpson’s Sugar Bar in Manhattan. Every year since 2005, Edward James (a.k.a. “E. J.”) Decker has produced an event featuring an assembly of thirty to forty jazz singers and instrumentalists who get together to honor the memory of those lost in the tragic collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.
E. J. is a native of New Jersey and a singer, songwriter, actor, and political activist who has been described by jazz historian-journalist Scott Yanow as “a talented, but fairly obscure, baritone … [with] a strong voice touched by that of Billy Eckstine, although he has his own sound.” His father, Everette, was a big band singer who worked for a time with the pre-war Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and influenced E. J.’s singing style. But E. J.’s repertoire reflects the folk, rock, and jazz music he heard in the early 1960s around New York and later when he was in college (St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). According to his entry in the encyclopedia at Jazz.com, it was while in college that E. J.—like many who were coming of age at the time—discovered that music could function as a carrier of socio-political messaging that might not be included in mainstream entertainment. E. J. was particularly impressed with the anti-Vietnam War messaging that was gaining popularity at the time and was inspired to activism, going as far as to be appointed to chairing a Philadelphia-based rally that presaged the famous National Moratorium rally held in Washington, D.C. on November 15, 1969, and serving as a member of the security retinue on the 20th anniversary of the 1963 Civil Rights March held at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1983. This is the same rally that recently was commemorated with a 50th anniversary celebration. (Sadly, many believe that the core issues of the original march have been resolved and that people should quit complaining.)

When E. J. sings, he delivers the song’s melody fairly “straight,” with little or no embellishment, while his accompanying musicians improvise on the song’s structure. In the almost 20 years since I first became acquainted with him, I’ve never heard him “scat” on a tune. However, the vocalists who comprise the roster for the Heart of Jazz events pride themselves on their improvising abilities and nearly always include scatting in their performances. This year’s vocalists included: Mary Foster Conklin, Gabriele Tranchina, Anne Phillips, Linda Ciofalo, Melissa Hamilton, E. J., Lainie Cooke, Judy Neimack, Roseanna Vitro, and Antoinette Montague. Each singer performed for about 20 minutes with an accompanying five-piece group comprised of a horn player, a guitarist, a pianist, a bassist, and a drummer. Some of the group members would play for two singers, although on the set I played (with Anne Phillips and Linda Ciofalo) the pianists, Neal Alexander and Mala Waldron, changed with the vocalists. The other pianists were: Joe Vincent Tranchina (for Mary Foster Conklin and Gabriele Tranchina), Bob Albanese (for Melissa Hamilton and E. J.), Janice Friedman (for Lainie Cooke and Judy Neimack), and James Weidman (for Roseanna Vitro and Antoinette Montague). The rest of the rhythm section players, in order of their appearances, were: Lou Volpe (guitar), Saadi Zain (bass), and Newman Taylor Baker (with Tranchina); Joe Giglio (guitar), me (bass), and Baker again (with Alexander and Waldron); Dom Minasi (guitar), Cameron Brown (bass), and Peter Runnels (drums) (with Albanese); Jeanfrançois Prins (guitar), Gene Perla (bass), and Michael T. A. Thompson (drums) (with Friedman); and finally Roni Ben-Hur (guitar), Tim Ferguson (bass), and Art Lillard (drums) (with Weidman). Since there were only three horn players, they stayed on stage a bit longer. Patience Higgins played tenor saxophone for Conklin, Tranchina, and Phillips; Chip Shelton played flute and soprano saxophone for Ciofalo, Hamilton, and Decker; and Elizabeth Frascoia played trombone for Cooke, Neimack, Vitro, and Montague. That should add up to thirty-three musicians gracing the stage of the Sugar Bar over a period of five hours. E. J. also acted as the master of ceremonies, but was helped out at the last minute by WBGO-FM’s on-air host Sheila Anderson, who lasted for four sets.
The Heart of Jazz event is organized by time slots only; programming of sets is left up to the singers, who perform two or three numbers, and the instrumentalists, who play one or two tunes during the changing of the vocalists. Some of the audience might have found it interesting that the singers supplied charts for almost everything they sang to their groups while the instrumentalists didn’t use any for their musical interludes, but this is common practice for jam sessions, the working model for E. J.’s annual get-togethers. While jam sessions are often perceived as a jazz musicians-only event, where the music takes on an esoteric elitist character that can’t be “dug” by anyone who doesn’t play the music, some very popular groups, like Count Basie’s big band, were famous for improvising head-arrangements on the spot. Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic series was inspired by working on the movie Jammin’ the Blues and was essentially a travelling jam session. (It is no coincidence that the head of Basie’s sax section, Lester Young, was the star of Jammin’ the Blues, as well as a mainstay of Jazz at the Philharmonic.) The interesting part of Heart of Jazz is that, even though the line up changes every year, it changes very little. Some of the performers have played at every concert since 2005: E. J. (of course), Melissa Hamilton, James Weidman, Anne Phillips, and yours truly. Almost all of the rest have played it before and continue to return. It’s a small community of about 40 to 50 returning artists, including: Sheila Jordan, Harvie S., Virginia Mayhew, Bob Kindred, Claire Daley, Amy London, Christopher Dean Sullivan, Carol Sudhalter, David F. Gibson, Kate Baker, Tom Dempsey, Howard Johnson, and Jay Clayton (among others) and after nine years, we have become accustomed to seeing each other there. Granted not everyone sees eye-to-eye on everything and some don’t play together on any other day of the year, but when it comes to Heart of Jazz, all our differences are laid to the side for the evening.

911-Jazz 2005

The first year of Heart of Jazz at the Caprice Café on September 11, 2005
James Weidman-p, Ratzo Harris-b, Peter Runnells-d, Lou Vega-g, Roseanna Vitro-v

E. J. organizes the events so that the programs are unique and nobody performs with the same people as the year before. But sometimes the tunes picked are repeated because not everyone gets to the venue at the same time. I didn’t hear anything twice this year, but I also missed the first and last singers (Mary Foster Conklin and Antoinette Montague, respectively) as well as part of Gabriele Tranchina’s and Roseanna Vitro’s sets, so I can’t assert that with authority.

Until now, no documentation exists of the Heart of Jazz performances. E. J. has been strict about still photos only being taken with no videos. But this year I was able to convince him to let me do it with my cell phone if, and only if, everyone on the stage agreed. I was able to get a single tune from two singers, Lainie Cooke and Judy Neimack and their accompanists. Unfortunately I didn’t have a tripod, so the camera gets a little shaky. I guess I’ll have to invest in a portable stand for the future. E. J. has agreed to see if we can get everything recorded next year so that the best can be picked out for the readers of NewMusicBox. For now, though, I hope you like these:

Lainie Cooke singing “I’ll Remember April” (words by Patricia Johnston and Don Raye, music by Gene De Paul) with Elizabeth Frascioa on trombone, Jeanfrançois Prins on guitar, Janice Friedman on piano, Gene Perla on bass, and Michael T. A. Thompson on drums.

Judy Neimack singing “Minority” (words by Judy Neimack, music by Gigi Gryce) with Elizabeth Frascioa on trombone, Jeanfrançois Prins on guitar, Janice Friedman on piano, Gene Perla on bass, and Michael T. A. Thompson on drums.