Tuesday, 11 September 2012

DISINTERRING MORE GHOSTS (MUSICAL RESPONSES TO 9/11 BY JOHN ADAMS + STEVE REICH)

Given the auspicious date, for once we have a timely post. In which minimalist musical commemorations of 9/11 are considered, before expanding into film and documentary and winding up as a partly political broadcast

”Remember me. Please don’t ever forget me.”

After attending the Kronos Quartet's ‘Awakening: A Musical Meditation on the Anniversary of 9/11’, I started to wonder what similar responses there might have been.

As it turns out, there’s a fair few things which are next along on the shelf, with the ever-busy Kronos folk seemingly at the centre of it all. (Though ‘Awakening’ was not a standalone composition but a programme put together from already-recorded works, I'll call it a ‘piece’ here for convenience. I also use the American term 'progressive' for anyone with a liberal/leftist political perspective, even if in the UK it more suggests indulging in musical meanderings about Topographic Oceans while wearing white flares.)

Now it may seem contrary to link to (let alone post) a YouTube video that’s just a black screen. In fact, for anyone that image-fixated, there are other YouTube clips that add the expected 9/11 disaster footage. But, honestly, listen to the piece and the black screen works better. (A white screen may have been better still. Or a black screen which slowly shaded into white as the piece progressed. But anyway...)

As Adams says in this interview, almost in echo of my comments following the Kronos Quartet Meditation, “9/11 had been so over-exposed... the country had gone into an orgy of repeating these images.” So instead of the sheer spectacle of the event the focus here is on the human cost; in Adams’ words “not the political aspects but the personal aspects.”

True, the inner sleeve does contain recognisable 9/11 images but of post-attack ruins. Looking at them feels contemplative rather than reactive. In fact there's something almost cathedral-like about them, with a workman kneeling as if in prayer. Which feels fitting to the music.


I’d called the earlier evening “the sonic equivalent of a commemorative wall – the place where people pin photos of the disappeared.” In this case the words from the opening section, after the repeatedly intoned “missing” are from actual missing persons boards pinned up after the tragedy. It's their unadorned artlessness, such as the quote above, which make them effective. Recordings of street noise add to this sense of verite. (It later moves into longer personal reminiscences, published in a New York Times series.) Adams has called the piece a “memory space.”

And, again similar to the earlier evening, the piece has a palindromic structure - building to an explosive middle before turning back into reflection. However, it doesn’t attempt to follow the same chronology of events. The line repeated over this build, “I know just where he is”, feels ambiguous. Though taken from a woman talking about her dead husband, it could be taken to mean that we know from where we were attacked. Similarly the music feels ambiguous, it could be illustrating either anguish or a war-cry. (I am fairly sure that I heard this section played on the radio, and it was explained Adams was giving vent to the revenge instinct that was vibing at the time, though he didn’t share it.)

Overall however, the piece seems to share the same humanistic concerns as 'Awakening'. Adams commented: “I hope that the piece will summon human experience that goes beyond this particular event." If the comparisons are there to be made, perhaps the main thing I got wrong was suggesting that the passage of time had led to this response – for Adams wrote this piece almost immediately. (“The request to compose this piece came in late January, which meant I had not much more than six months.”)

Indeed the CD's sleeve notes by David Schiff take quite the opposite tack: “In the months that followed the catastrophe, 9/11 became a source more of civic pride than of nationalism. The heroes were policemen and firemen, not soldiers; a mayor, not a president. The names read... reminded New Yorkers of their diversity and commonality.”



”The world to come...”

Steve Reich's 'WTC 9/11', also written for the Kronos Quartet and first performed in March 2011, uses actual voice recordings rather than transposing the words onto performers, perhaps only a minor difference to Adams'. Yet these surface similarities in fact merely place their differences into sharper relief.

It might at first seem more natural for Reich to create such a work than Adams. Unlike the West Coaster, he's a long-term New York City resident who lived a mere four blocks from the towers. (Though he did not witness the attacks first hand.)

However, though some earlier works could be considered politically progressive, lately his concerns became more mystical through a re-acquaintance with his Jewish heritage. ‘Come Out’ was released in 1966, at the height of the Civil Rights movement and shows it. Yet 1981's 'Tehillim', in which Psalms are sung in Hebrew, marked a slow but steady change in direction. While, at least in operas such as 'Death of Klinghoffer,' Adams has taken a more explicitly political line. (He's stated that things have since been made difficult for him, not just in terms of his career but also in so simple a step as security checks at airports.)

Yet listen to the pieces and it's as if they get it the wrong way round. Adams was more the post-minimalist composer, more willing to introduce symphonic dynamics to his work. As I've said before, I think of Reich’s work as harmonious and serene. Yet 'WTC 9/11' is much the more discordant of the two, composed significantly later but shorter, sounding more urgent and contemporary, homing in on the events of the tragedy.

Even that trivial-sounding decision to use field recordings helps to throw Reich's response into sharper relief. He's commented “these are actual recordings with the intensity and the grit that is embodied in people who were there who didn't know what was going on.”

Based around actual recordings of Aerospace Defence Command and the Fire Department, the strings matching the line crackle as a flurry of communications try to respond to the disaster. The first movement starts and ends with the sound of a phone off the hook. It's another work which could be given a Tower of Babel interpretation, falling towers scuppering communication.

Yet, interestingly, controversy ensued over the original CD cover for this release (above). As said above, the choice to visualise the attacks is more logical than for the other two pieces, for the focus is more specifically upon that day. However, this choice was widely criticised, and not just by the political Right. Reich finally released a statement that the cover would be changed, feeling the furore was distracting people from the music. (it was replaced, I kid not, with fluffy clouds.)


This perhaps underlines a dichotomy. 9/11 was a huge national, if not world, event. Yet minimalist and even post-minimalist music are marginal pursuits, beloved perhaps by the likes of you and me but bypassed by the general populace, their influence well exceeding their reach. Why a number of such works on this subject?



“What hit the coast was a natural disaster, pure and simple. The flooding of New Orleans was a man-made catastrophe, a federal fuck-up of epic proportions.”

With the Neoconservatives' rise in political influence following the attacks, the right soon came to ’own’ 9/11. If it was ever questioned how failing to stop a terrorist atrocity should be seen as a virtue, the answer was simply that we need to get more right-wing. A notorious example of this seeping into popular culture would be Paul Greengrass' 2006 film 'United 93.' The English director had previously seemed something of a leftist, with films such as 'Bloody Sunday' (2002) dramatising the murder of Irish demonstrators by British soldiers. Significantly 'United 93' uses many of the same devices as both the previous film and Reich's piece, even up to utilising the same air traffic control transcripts. It's a very good film.

It's also the most blatant piece of baseless right-wing propaganda this side of Fox News. The faux documentary style merely convinces us that events must have happened when there is no evidence for them whatsoever. Slipped in among the actual is a German passenger acting as a 'surrender monkey' to the terrorists.

The film's climax, when the passengers rush the terrorists, is preceded with intercut scenes of their reciting a Christian prayer and the terrorists intoning the Quran. The poster, in tastefully pushing the burning towers to the back of the image, shows a plane instead advancing on the Statue of Liberty's crown – aligning perfectly with the right-wing insistence that “they're jealous of our freedoms.”

Meanwhile, excluded from Ground Zero, progressive opinion soon shifted to another disaster site - New Orleans, hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Though precipitated by an act of nature the disaster was massively exacerbated by official failures and neglect, with a response that matched astonishing incompetence with appalling malevolence - including virtual ethnic cleansing of poor districts. (Causing the rapper Kanye West’s ripple-inducing comment on live TV “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”, which some took as though it was fresh information.)

If the Twin Towers transmogrified into the War on Terror, Katrina came to represent the destructive excesses of free market capitalism, sucking up and destroying the lives of working people. Government proved both incapable and unwilling to protect people from it’s rampaging.

Perhaps the best example is Spike Lee’s documentary ’When the Levees Broke’, begun only three months after the event and released the following year. It’s sub-head ’A Requiem in Four Acts’ takes on similar language to the musical pieces we’ve looked at. Structurally it also seems similar - built up of a myriad of interviews from many different places, adding together to give a ground-level perspective. However, even though there’s no grand voice-over or editorialising, it’s much more polemical, much more impassioned. It doesn’t just list the dead, it asks how they got there.

(I’d like to say something about the series ’Treme’, about the aftermath of Katrina, from which comes the quote atop this section. It might make for something of an interesting comparison as its maker David Simon, best known for ’The Wire’ previously produced ’Generation Kill’, if not about 9/11 then about the resultant invasion of Iraq. However, as I’m yet to see any of ’Treme’ that might have to wait!)



It feels like separate tram lines have been dug. It's reminiscent of the Red and Blue Americas, described in art speigelman’s post 9/11 comic strip 'In Shadow of No Towers.' “The map of the 2000 election – the one that put the loser into office – made it clear that we’re actually a nation under two flags! The state he lives in is the state of alienation.” Talking of himself as a cartoon character, in the third person, he continues “he’s barely ever been in the Red Zone, where the 44% of Americans who don’t believe in evolution tend to gather... He hardly knows anyone who supports the war and no one who voted for that creature in the white house [Bush].”

If this is the case then I’m not sure how I feel about it. I may have stated out exploring something I hoped to find a rich seam of (humanistic responses to 9/11 within America) and instead run into a barrier. It sounds like the red and blue Americas are happiest when their different reality systems don’t collide. As is probably obvious from the above, I prefer one colour to the other. Yet does that mean I should seal out the other from my life? Yes, of course Katrina was an important event. But that doesn’t mean 9/11 should be abandoned to the Right.

Of course it is absolutely correct when considering 9/11 to start with the human tragedy. And music, always better at evoking feelings than constructing arguments, is a well-placed medium to do that. But should you stop there? A documentary, in the style of 'When the Levee Broke' might go on to do this, but none seems to exist. Even a folk or rock song, with more of an emphasis on lyrics, would more naturally be drawn into wider questions. I'm sure such songs exist. But they're not public works like these musical tributes.

Many places in continental Europe now have statues or other public installations commemorating the victims of the Nazis. Yet of course none of them ask how it cam to be that the Nazis arose - that's simply not what they're designed for, any more than a gravestone would ask why cancer was widespread. Similarly if you want to commemorate an event without commenting on it, these musical memorials have become the go-to.

Restricting progressive responses to such pieces, however moving and however valuable they are in themselves, is almost tantamount to suggesting that going any further takes you into the Right’s territory. Which of course is absurdly incorrect.

Of course we should acknowledge the problem. There are sections... sizeable sections of the Right whose tactic is to repeat baseless lies in the hope that they stick. (The so-called ‘mosque at ground zero’, the concocted ‘birther’ controversy over Obama, the British NHS supposedly running “death panels” and so on.) It is hard to respond meaningfully to such absurd slurs, it’s like trying to start a debate with a fanatic shouting things in the street. Seriously, how do you respond to the screechy fantasies of Fox News? How do you hold a conversation with someone who's not holding one with you?

Perhaps we have domestic parallels, for example the European Union. Even now, with it's insistence on continent-wide austerity measures, when it couldn't be more obvious what a reactionary banks-and-big-business-biased institution it is, it's still difficult to the point of impossible to say any of that. Being anti the EU is the property of far-right little Englanders like the xenophobic UK Independence Party, fulminating over Brussels' plot to wiping the Queen's head from our currency and other such vital issues.

But there's significant differences. A large number of people... perhaps the majority are agnostic or even indifferent to the whole question, assigning it to the incomprehensible and distant world of capital-P politics. (Rightly or wrongly. Well actually wrongly, but never mind that now.) 9/11 was a much more immediate and visceral issue. A large number of people killed in a terrorist attack, targeted simply because of the building they worked in, that's not something which leaves people on the fence.

It amuses me when politicians talk about political engagement like it's an automatic social benefit, rather than something which simply suits them. The last election in America seemed to carve the tram lines deeper, with the “hopey-changey” arguments for Obama seemed to centre around his personality differing from Bush, much more than his policies. In the UK few people would seriously expect Miliband to act significantly differently in office to Cameron, something which quite frankly is to our advantage. In general I try to avoid “America bashing”, which seems at best pointless and most often hypocritical. However, when the evidence speaks you need to go with it...

The last, spoken line in Adams' piece is “I love you.” Not, I fear, a sentiment which looks to be widely shared any time in the near future.

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