Thinking about 9/11 music


Just so much 9/11 music. Is it something to do with new music’s need to be connected, to justify and assert its relation to society? There has always been an economy of commemoration in which music has a place, but as music has been perceived to grow apart from the wider world, that economy has grown in importance. At least among certain factions.

Compiling and listening today to a survey of as much 9/11-related music as I can find I wonder: Is it a coincidence that so much of this music is so terribly, terribly conservative? Music that is terrified of its own shadow, of daring even to utter anything. Commemoration is a natural habitat for such music: no offence is welcome, so it doesn’t matter if what you write causes as little disturbance at all. I was struck by how few of these pieces even have anything like a sharp dramatic contour. Among the various possible modes of response to an event like 9/11 (angry, documentary, elegiaic, martial, reflective, etc), dramatic is as valid as any other. And some of the works I listened to went down this path, but they were marked as much by restraint as anything.

Those factions I mentioned – aren’t they also the ones that are most anxious about the future of their art form? Perhaps here is a marker: This is ultra-violence, cotton-wool mediated.

So I’m turning again to Mark Bain’s StartEndTime, a sonification of seismological data collected around the time of the collapse of World Trade Center 1 and 2. “This work stands not as a memorial per se but as an action of affect, where the global terrain becomes a sounding board, a bell-like alarm denoting histories in the making.” Data collection, documentation and transcoding: these are how we apprehend the world today. And there’s no hiding behind the numbers.

Image: One of Stephen Vitiello’s contact mics, installed on the 91st floor of WTC 1, in 1999.



7 thoughts on “Thinking about 9/11 music

  1. Do not underestimate the opportunism in using the event to obtain a performance one might otherwise not receive. Years ago an Israeli composer matter-of-factly told me, “Every composer in Israel knows that if you write an orchestra piece about the Holocaust, it will get performed.” I suspect the same principle is at work with many 9/11 compositions.

  2. Hadn’t encountered the Vitiello work, looks very interesting.

    Not music, but in this relation one of my favourite bits of work is Steve Giasson’s remarkable ✈ ▌▌ (or “II” if that didn’t work) of 2010.

    Re the conservatism question: I’m reminded of the LRB’s slightly ill-advised symposium a few weeks after, and the flurry of correspondence it acquired, including one choice missive from Richard Taruskin.

  3. Opportunism certainly drives the choice of topics and the flight to conservatism. Capitalist business models value metrics and profit over all. Innovation is risky and artists are valued only for their potential currency, their ability to draw audiences. And there is also the factor that there is so much violence and tragedy that one becomes inundated with elegies, requiems and such with such frequency that it is difficult to keep up and even more difficult to find substantive music despite the undoubted sincerity with which much of this music has been written. God forbid that you would write a truly innovative work like the Rite of Spring because your paying customers would be offended. They require soothing familiar things that also help convince them that they are in the right. Works like Robert Moran’s Trinity Requiem get far less accolades than the overproduced drama of John Adams 9/11 piece. We have pretty much eliminated innovation and surprise from concert programming and the drive to keep things the same is unfortunately also pretty much a guarantee that such tragedies will continue on a regular basis. Great topic, Tim.

  4. I don’t see any reason to be surprised by the conservatism of the responses to 9/11. The deaths of thousands of people were of course a tragedy—as were the many more thousands of deaths during the subsequent wars waged by the United States and its allies, which have not resulted in a subsequent wave of musical compositions. The only people for whom 9/11 was an event of far greater significance than any war or terrorist attack are the neoconservative ruling parties of the United States and their supporters, as it exposed their vulnerabilities for the first time. Classical music has always existed to serve the rich and powerful, and therefore was pressed into service like the rest of the cultural apparatus to give the event a significance beyond its material repercussions. Classical musicians, being largely cut from the same cloth as classical audiences, were only too happy to oblige.

    I am tarring classical audiences with a broad brush here but in my experience an interest in “art music” of any form is limited to the leisured classes and correlates with political views consciously or unconsciously supporting whatever power structure has given them their privilege (whether corporate, class-based or academic). Some creators for whatever reason are exceptions to this—coming from lower-class backgrounds and/or espousing more overtly revolutionary views—but why they continue to produce art for a class fundamentally opposed to their own most likely comes down to rational self-interest trumping ideals. Write a 9/11 memorial because it’ll sell… don’t draw too much attention to the civil war in Syria (for example) because people don’t want to hear about it… et cetera. Ultimately it’s difficult for a white person living in comfort in the West to summon much feeling about tragedies they’ve never personally experienced; feelings become interchangeable, musical works are churned out because writing music is what they’re trained to do… as though music can stop the wars, make the old younger or lower the price of bread, erase solitude, etc… “keep calm and carry on” + “sit down, you’re rocking the boat.”

    I find we often talk about a piece of music being “conservative” when what we really mean is “not heartfelt”. Stylistically Bach’s St Matthew Passion is a century out of date, Beethoven was a reactionary by the time of his death, even your beloved Ferneyhough has been writing the same kind of music since the sixties (but what music it is!). It is not any kind of conservatism that offends in the 9/11 tributes—they are anodyne, manufactured, interchangeable; music without inner musical necessity. Each one could as easily be a tribute to the 1918 influenza pandemic or the death of your goldfish. Rhetoric substituted for content, technique for feeling, et cetera. I could go on, but you’re probably tired of me already.

    1. I wouldn’t say I surprised so much, just tracking and trying to make sense of a phenomenon. I’m more dismayed that, even within the conservative parameters that we might as well take for granted in this sort of context, there is so little imagination or invention at work – so yes, maybe it’s that lack of ‘inner musical necessity’ that I’m really referring to. Maybe we can see the use of documentary materials in pieces like On the Transmigration of Souls, WTC 9/11, The Sad Park, and so on, as a patch job around that problem: these aren’t interchangeable tributes – listen, this one even lists the names of the dead.

      However, I’m also aware that my dataset is relatively self-selecting, limited to a large extent as it is to pieces that have been commercially recorded and/or have received broadsheet review – there may be better pieces out there that I simply don’t know about. I’d like to hear them!

      I think you’re absolutely right about the role of class/political persuasion in all this – and thank you for setting it out so fully.

  5. Say what you will about the New York Philharmonic, they program some of the most adventurous music in the U.S. I can’t think of many other orchestras here that would perform Gruppen, Le Grand Macabre, or Kraft. They don’t program as much new music as the L.A. Phil, but when they do, it can be pretty wonderful. I’m no authority on Marxist interpretations of the classical music business, but there’s a pretty simple reason for The Transmigration of Souls. New York was attacked by terrorists. One of their most important cultural institutions wanted to create a memorial, and they in turn went to one of America’s best composers for a new work. Adams could have given them a melancholy, Death of Klinghoffery kind of work, but instead he created something new for himself, and new for American musical memorials. It hasn’t travelled as well as his other works, and that’s probably because it isn’t your typical elegy and it would offend a lot of people.

    Out of all the 9/11 works I’ve heard, Adams/ Transmigration really stands out as the best to me. I haven’t heard Mark Bain’s piece (or anything by him, for that matter), but I’ll seek it out.

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