What music should memorialize 9/11, a day that invokes thoughts, memories,
and emotions that are many and frightening, mournful and angry, incompatible
and coexisting? How can or should music remold the contours of a national
consciousness, which was described by President Bush a year ago in this
We remember the images of fire and terror at the Pentagon, in
Pennsylvania, and in the heart of New York City. We remember
the ruthlessness of those who murdered the innocent and took joy
in their suffering. We remember the courage of the police and
firefighters and rescue personnel who rushed into burning buildings
to save lives, knowing they might never emerge. And we remember
the victims - moms and dads, sons and daughters, brothers and
sisters, husbands and wives - and the loved ones they left behind.
... And in the days and weeks that followed, America answered
history's call to bring justice to our enemies and to ensure the
survival and success of liberty.
Can any one concert encompass these events? Over the next week in the
Bay Area, concerts will be offered by the Pacific Collegium and Pacific
Boychoir, the San Francisco City Chorus, and the Kronos Quartet, among
others. Which of the many memories and deeds mentioned by President
Bush have been, will be, or could be consecrated by memorial performances?
"We remember the images of fire and terror ..."
Let's start with the images of "fire and terror." Few works in the
repertory depict fire. Probably the most famous is the Magic Fire music
from Wagner's Die Walkure. But this music is too grand, with no terror.
Jon Leif's blow-one-away depiction of the eruption of an Icelandic
volcano, Hekla, might be an expensive candidate (the score calls for,
among other things, huge chains to be bashed against rocks).
For terror, there are a number of good candidates. One of the best would
be the second movement of Shostakovich's "1905" symphony, which depicts
the panic as the Czar's troops charged and fired upon the crowd, or the
second movement of his Symphony No. 10, supposedly a depiction of Stalin.
Perhaps a fitting combination of fire and terror might be realized by a
performance of Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. But
Penderecki's work, terrifying as it is, might confuse listeners by raising
possibly inappropriate Ground Zero parallels if it were played as a
memorial for 9/11.
The depiction of fire and terror would seem like a natural for Hollywood
composers. After all, the standard script is supposed to have a fireball
at the 23-minute mark. John Williams' music for The Towering Inferno
has many ingredients to match this item on the list, not the least of
which is its title. But is it too glitzy? And aren't new sounds needed
- the two jet crashes, and the sounds so chillingly captured in the
Naudet brothers' documentary of jumpers hitting the pavement? However,
as Ed Johnson-Ott remarks in his review of Oliver Stone's recent release,
World Trade Center:
The trailers are full of artfully framed images and stirring music,
but here's the thing: It's been nearly five years since Sept. 11 and
I remember everything from that day quite clearly, thank you. I don't
need - I don't want - anyone to take those vivid images burned into my
head and attempt to feed them back to me with a big-name lead actor, ace
cinematography, and orchestral cues to guide my emotions. The same could
be said of music and composers. Yet the firemen, policeman, and other
rescue workers are also worthy of musical tribute. Their courage might
be captured by the noble expressions of Elgar, say the "Nimrod" movement
from the Enigma Variations, or even better, the minor-key Coronation
March, Op. 65. However, Elgar was British. Some would argue that
something more American is needed, say the Sousa In Memoriam march of
1881. But Sousa of the quick-step is more appropriate for living heroes,
rather than the ranks of the fallen at Ground Zero.
"We remember the victims ..."
For those who perished, Barber's Adagio for Strings has been played
many times. This work has become the dirge for our age, performed on
occasions from the deaths of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy
to the funeral of Princess Di. Although overly familiar, it has the
advantage of wordlessness, a state that frees some listeners to be with
their private thoughts. Others, however, may want more specificity, in
the form of a text offering meaning, comfort, and hope. And for some,
the voicing of grief is essential, and song therefore must play a part.
At the end of the president's observations is a forceful declaration:
"history's call to bring justice to our enemies." Would courtroom music
suffice here, or should we have music of vengeance? I know of no decent
work in the former category. For the latter, the number is legion:
Prokofiev's "Battle on the Ice" from Alexander Nevsky, "... Vittoria!
Vittoria!" from Puccini's Tosca, a Don Carlo revenge aria from Verdi's
Force of Destiny, Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever, Pino Dinaggio's
School in Flames and Bucket of Blood cuts from the film Carrie, and so
on. For those fringe Web sites that demand that nuclear weapons be
dropped on the capitals of "Axis of Evil" nations, perhaps Karl Amadeus
Hartmann's Gesangsszene would serve. Its text concludes with:
And the sun is scorching. ... And the thunder of the inexorable
will come forth from the throat of the swallow. And from the
incision in the bark of the cedar tree will flow the tears that
mark the end of the world.
"... and all those left behind"
Can all these thoughts - should all these sentiments - coexist in the
same program? At the other extreme, is music itself an affront, with a
moment of silence being more appropriate instead? For those seeking to
address all the elements of Bush's observations, the classic Latin Requiem
Mass has it all: for the vivid and vengeful, the fire and terror of the
"Dies Irae" (Day of Wrath); for the mourners and solace-seekers, the
"Angus Dei ... dona eis requiem" (Lamb of God ... grant them rest).
Yet associating the Day of Wrath with 9/11 is problematic. Should a Day
of Judgment be taken as the scenario for the proper conclusion of the
War on Terror by the mighty forces of the U.S.? Or should 9/11 itself
be taken as the Dies Irae of the jihadists, and a Day of Judgment on our
Despite this ambiguity, the Mozart and Verdi requiems, with their Dies
Irae movements, have been some of the most commonly performed. The most
remarkable set of performances was the round-the-world "Rolling Requiem"
of the Mozart, performed by more than 190 choirs in 21 time zones on
Sept. 11, 2002, at the anniversary time of the first plane's impact on
9/11. On 9/11 this year, the San Francisco City Chorus and 150 singers
will perform the Mozart again, in one place, at a free concert at the
First Congregational Church in Berkeley.
More circumspect approaches, perhaps abjuring the propriety of a Dies
Irae, have chosen requiems more devoted to solace. A favorite has been
Brahms' German Requiem, where no terror is depicted, where the Dies Irae
function is replaced by a setting of "For all flesh is as grass, and all
the glory of man as the flower of grass" from Peter 1:24. The Durufle
Requiem, to be performed by the Pacific Collegium and Pacific Boychoir
in a memorial benefit concert on Sept. 9-10, is in this more restrained
mold, as are other favorites, the Faure and Rutter requiems.
Pacific Collegium Artistic Director Christopher Kula has decided to pair
the Durufle Requiem with the 1946 Gerald Finzi anthem for chorus and
orchestra Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice, a setting of texts from two St.
Thomas Aquinas' hymns, rendered into metric English verse by the 17th
century poet Richard Crashaw. "This will be, for me, the most poignant
moment of reflection at these concerts on the anniversary of the World
Trade Center tragedy, as Finzi leads us from stark, awed contemplation
at the beginning of the piece to a final Amen that sounds like the
unfolding of new worlds, a new heaven," says Kula.
"And in the days and weeks that followed ..."
Among modern requiems, Richard Danielpour, who was reviewing proofs of
the score of his American Requiem with his publisher when the second
tower was struck, was the first to dedicate a newly composed requiem to
the victims. Christopher Rouse, who at the time was in the middle of
composing a requiem inspired by Berlioz, decided not to tie his work to
the disaster, but only to insert a moment of silence to mark the point
in the score when he learned of the attack. After years of delay, due
in part to the difficulties of performance, this requiem will receive
its premiere by the L.A. Master Chorale next March. Danielpour's requiem
was released on CD in 2002.
So far, probably the best-regarded response by a living composer has
been John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls, winner of the Pulitzer
Prize for Music for 2002. This work concentrates solely on memories of
the victims. Furthermore, it deftly finesses the issue of whether words
should interfere with private interpretations of the music itself by
avoiding complete sentences. Instead, fragments of missing-persons
postings and a quiet recitation of 78 names is enmeshed in a mostly
subdued, superbly balanced orchestral web.
The propriety of Adams' approach, as opposed to the standard full-bore
requiems, lies in the fact that we don't have, after only five years,
the proper perspective necessary to fully comprehend the meaning of the
disaster and set it in the larger context. Take, for example, one of
the greatest works of modern times, Britten's War Requiem. Commissioned
for the 1961 dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral - next to the ruins
of the cathedral bombed in World War II - it is commonly mistaken as
solely a commemoration of that war. But all the Wilfred Owen poetry
within that work refers to World War I, the folly and profoundly devastating
effects of which were only just beginning to be realized decades later.
Nor have these effects ceased even today.
Perhaps 2101 is the proper year for the comprehensive 9/11 requiem to
be written. And what then will be the nationality of the composer who
" ... what we could do is almost create an imaginary city"
The international aspects of 9/11 are to be addressed with the Kronos
Quartet's memorial concert this coming Sept. 11 in Herbst Theatre.
Violinist and Artistic Director David Harrington describes the concert
concept this way:
It became clear to me that what would feel most right ... was
to try to give our listeners a sense of many musical perspectives,
almost like a mosaic or tapestry of humanity, and that there
should be some music that's awesomely beautiful, some music
that's incredibly angry, and music perhaps from places that we
don't commonly get to hear in concert halls in the United States.
... It occurred to me that maybe what we could do is almost
create an imaginary city.
To do this, Harrington has crafted his own transmigration, a progressive
"musical meditation" of 11 works from 10 countries. The concert begins
with glosses on the muezzin's call to prayer, then moves through Iraqi
and Indian music to a climatic Armenia by the German industrial band
Einsturzende Neubauten ("Collapsing New Buildings") and a shattering
remix of prerecorded "1001 Kronos Quartets" in the work Spectre, by
Canadian "plunderphonist" John Oswald. Following a centerpiece of sorts,
Michael Gordon's frightening manipulations of children's voices describing
the disaster (The Sad Park), the concert concludes with a pair of
conciliatory works by Terry Riley (an excerpt from Sun Rings) and
Osvaldo Golijov and Gustavo Santaolalla (Darkness 9/11), culminating
in Kronos-accompanied Nordic choruses with the Piedmont Choirs Concert
We have many imaginary cities: the New York that once existed; the
countless cities today that reflect past acts of bloodshed and compassion;
and the future cities that we all have a responsibility to build as the
community of mankind. We have yet to witness the full consequences of
9/11, that indelible mark on the calendar. To which "history's call" -
heard by the President, ourselves, and the rest of the world in so many
different ways - will we rise?
In the meantime, music, that blessing, or call to arms, will be with us
to calm, and stir, our souls.
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