Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I see water and buildings

So the tenth anniversary of 9/11 is nigh, and classical music has gone into memorial mode in full force. Rather unfortunately, memorials are the only real political events which classical music institutions summon the power to address (I guess we had the Inauguration). I suppose that’s a given – with theaters owned by the Koch brothers, it’s not easy to find the funds to engage in much liberal activism – but museums of comparable size and scope to some of our orchestras do a much better job of making exhibits both political and controversial.

I’m going to throw out a bunch of ideas in this piece, and I’m sure you’ll disagree with some if not all of them. Bear with me – I understand that this might seem like a very critical, and perhaps insensitive way of approaching this subject, but there are issues which should be addressed. In a few years years I think they will be handled in academia, since the musicology world is currently very preoccupied with the political ramifications of classical music; but there’s things that should be said now, too.

There is a disappointing lack of focus, and perhaps savvy, in how our greatest orchestra has decided to memorialize 9/11. On 9/11, the New York Philharmonic will play a free concert of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. Now, to be fair, the Phil doesn’t perform Mahler’s 2nd all that often – the last performance was in 2008, and this will be the first with Alan Gilbert – but the more I think about it, the more I think that this is the wrong piece with which to commemorate of the greatest tragedy in recent American history.

The arc of Mahler’s Second is ultimately one of triumph, even triumphalism – a narrative of resurrection. This is a piece with a fairly specific (and very, very beautiful) meaning. Commemoration should be about mourning and remembering, not resurrection. Even taken metaphorically, as a call for spiritual renewal, it does not jive with memorializing death. And before the otherworldly Urlicht and final call to Resurrection, there is almost an hour of phantasmagoria, music which tilts towards the horrific – it’s my favorite symphony, but it has little to do with a sense of mournful peace (better classical alternatives would be the spectacle-oriented Requiems, like those of Brahms or Faure).

The real problem here is the fact that, for our classical institutions, Mahler 2 means everything, and thus nothing. Mahler 2 opens seasons, it closes seasons, it marks moments of happiness and moments of tragedy. As James Oestreich pointed out in a review of a book, Bernstein conducted the “Resurrection” following the JFK assassination, but also led it many, many other times – to celebrate his 1,000th NY Phil concert. Classical music shouldn’t be this versatile; no art should. Yes, we can speak of absolute music without any “fixed meaning” (itself a dubious argument), but we’re talking about a piece with a text, with a narrative arc. There are many meanings to the “Resurrection,” but it does not have all meanings. It becomes not universal but meaningless.

Requiems function better than symphonies for this purpose, I think. And where is John Adams’ Transmigration of Souls? The orchestra commissioned and premiered it nine years ago; it won a Pulitzer Prize, and has been absent from their repertoire ever since (Oestreich has this one covered). We are remembering a distinctly American tragedy; we should be honoring it with distinctly American music.

That said, there are plenty of new commemorations to be performed elsewhere. The Times lists a new song cycle by Jake Heggie, a new opera by Christopher Theofanidis, William Basinski’s “Disintegration Loop 1.1,” and Kronos’ “Awakening” Project – they join the recent Steve Reich and Michael Gordon recordings as well as an upcoming Corigliano commission.

I haven’t heard Reich’s WTC 9/11 yet, but the controversy around its album cover just shows that this can, and should, be a topic to discuss. I’m less interested in the Too-Soon-isms of art making use of 9/11 (for me, it’s a matter of taste, not too soon or too late), but of composers and artists attempting to enter a theoretically neutral world of memorial without acknowledging the fact that they are also engaging in knotty world of music-as-politics.

I listened to Kronos’ great new recording of Gordon’s The Sad Park. What’s striking about the music is that it sounds like plenty of other music by Michael Gordon – and this raises important question for which I don't have answers. Does a composer need to do something new, something different with his musical language, in order to honor an event of such import? And what style of music is appropriate to commemorate recent death?

Theofanidis’ Heart of a Soldier opens next week in San Francisco, and tells the story of one of 9/11’s many heroes. You can listen to an audio excerpt (from an opera workshop) here. Go listen, and come back. It’s pretty confusing – I have no idea what the lines “I wish I could be more debonair/more Fred Astaire” doing in a 9/11 opera. I’m no fan of Theofanidis’ music, and I have a bad feeling about this.

But why? I think it has something to do with a certain airiness to the music, a limpid lyric quality which is common among a group American composers – Danielpour, Theofanidis, to some extent Higdon and Gandolfi (mostly members of the "Atlanta School", if you go by that designation). So is this just my personal taste, or is there an appropriate musical language with which to tell what is probably the most contemporary story (besides Two Boys) we can put in on the operatic stage? I don’t know; when I think of the chaos and horror of 9/11, I think of the bleak terror of a Bernd Alois Zimmermann or the ferocious energy which Adams and Gordon summon in their works.

Among the 9/11 pieces, there are tropes that emerge. The use of the stories or voices of victims, or those related to victims, is almost universal. This has a two-fold effect. It ascribes a specificity of meaning to the music – not just bringing in the human voice, but the human voice intoning words which evoke exactly the events of 9/11 – which link the music inexorably to the event. This specificity means that, unlike Mahler 2 or Barber’s Adagio, the music really can’t be used for anything else – it is performed as a 9/11 commemoration or not at all (in theory).

But this is also a kind of rhetorical strategy. The composers are using voices to construct a musical narrative while setting a text which avoids poeticizing a tragedy – an attempt to, theoretically, present the victims’ voice “objectively.”

But there is no such thing as objectivity in a work of art. Let’s come back to The Sad Park. Gordon discusseed this ideal of objectivity in a piece he wrote for The Score a few years back, but he still hides under the illusion of objectivity. I’m don’t really want to demonize one of my favorite composers for holding very common beliefs – which come unfortunately close to Cold War-era composers’ claims of musical objectivity despite their art stinking of political influence – but they do deserve unpacking. Gordon holds the misconception that politics and music can avoid mixing, that music can be inherently abstract.

No, there is no political message in a Bach fugue, but one can certainly be ascribed to it. Gordon’s definition of music is the one which corresponds to the Schopenhauerian one that, “alongside world history there goes, guiltless and unstained by blood, the history of philosophy, science, and the arts.” (Taruskin argues this the best, in “Afterword: Nicht blutbefleckt?” an article in the Spring 2009 issue of Journal of Musicology.) It is a German Romantic ideal, that the score can exist outside the framework of political circumstance – that only when composers purposefully collide with political themes does their music acquire political resonance.

But if there are political ramifications to commemorating 9/11, then there are political implications of commemorating it with music. We cannot hide behind the veneer of classical music and scrub political meaning from what cannot not be a political event. The New York Philharmonic is a large institution, one with clout, and what it programs matters. Let’s not forget that the White House has issued guidelines about how to honor the anniversary, when, according to the Times, “the world’s attention will be focused on President Obama, his leadership team and his nation.” We shouldn’t pretend that the tenth anniversary of 9/11 can exist in a void of apolitical mourning, especially given the heated rhetoric which has surrounded 9/11 in the past decade (and the numerous ways in which it has been invoked for political posturing).

To go back to the music, I still think that Adams’ Transmigration is the best commemoration for 9/11. It came quickly, premiering on the first anniversary of the attacks. It also feels distinctly American: the situation of place within the piece, with the soundscape purposefully grounded in downtown New York; the dialogue with Ives, our musical founding father (whose Unanswered Question is my definitive piece of somber Americana); the specificity of invoking victims’ names without assigning too much value to any individual victim’s narrative. It feels both remote and close-at-hand, and the clouds of sound allow one to, as Adams wished, hover within a space of memory. It reminds me in many ways of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, where you can lose yourself in the field of concrete spires, all of different heights – an opportunity to quickly disappear into a world of remembrance, in the center of the city.

And of all the classical commemoration events going on, Music After is the smartest, and most sensitive, treatment. Rather than dramatize or push a narrative, the marathon concert will simply attempt to present a part of New York as it was on September 11, 2001. How many other concerts will do that?


  1. A great post and a provocative one. Thank you. I disagree that 9/11 was a specifically American tragedy. Of course, it was an attack on America and the city that, for many, symbolises the greatness of that country, but to close off musical memorials to specifically American ones is to miss the universality of tragedy in general. And this one in particular. 9/11 had huge and global repercussions, probably larger than we currently realise, and they extend far beyond the southern tip of Manhattan. Therefore, so should the memorials. That's not to say that Mahler says it all... but he gets pretty close.

    If you're interested in my thoughts on the Reich, you might want to read

  2. <- there's the Reich, if you want it, taken from the european premiere at the barbican. or you can wait for the cd. but that's no fun!

  3. Thanks, Gavin -- that's a good point, of course it is not only an American tragedy, and has global repercussions which are still going on today. That said, I don't like the idea that Mahler is always the one to go to -- even if he is an adopted New Yorker, I think there are better pieces and better composers with which to mark the occasion. And from the orchestra which is probably the closest thing to a classical ambassador that America has, I think I want to hear American music (they had the same problem on their Maazel Korea tour).

  4. It might interest you that the rightwingers at Big Hollywood have weighed in on Reich's WTC: