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Decade 9/11: Responses in Classical Music

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Writing a piece about a major disaster, war or other crisis is one of the bigger challenges a composer may face. In this guide to pieces about September 11, we explore how every composer faced a specific hurdle and how they arrived at a given solution.

John Adams
On The Transmigration of Souls (2002)
Premiere: New York Philharmonic; Lorin Maazel, conductor; Sept. 19, 2002
Recording: Nonesuch records (2003)

The Challenge: When John Adams got a call from the New York Philharmonic in February 2002 about writing a piece for the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, he was deeply ambivalent. “As I’ve said many times, I was sort of horrified by the idea because the wounds were very raw and people were at that point almost overdosed on imagery,” Adams said in a recent interview with WQXR.

The Solution: Adams was immersed in the musical world of Charles Ives at the time, and immediately he began to think about the composer’s serenely philosophical pieces. “The Unanswered Question and his Fourth Symphony suggested to me a way of dealing with this event and making what I ended up calling a kind of musical memory space. I wanted to create something that would make people feel like they were walking into one of those huge European cathedrals where you go in out of a sun-filled busy urban street in Paris or Rome and the moment you’re inside you’re in this very quiet space and feel like you’re in the presence of thousands of souls – people who have lived and whose spirits are there.”

The Music: The piece presents a documentary-like assemblage of texts: a reading of a group of names of the dead, words from the notes that were taped to walls all over Manhattan in the days following the towers' collapse, excerpts from The New York Times' "Portraits of Grief" series, among other things. These are distributed among adult and youth choirs and the taped voices of Adams' friends and family members. The orchestra is something of a big bystander, moving the singers from one state of mind to another.

Adams on Transmigration (recorded at WQXR, July 18, 2011):


John Corigliano
One Sweet Morning (2011)
Premiere: New York Philharmonic; Alan Gilbert, conductor, Sept. 29, 2011

The Challenge: When Alan Gilbert asked John Corigliano to write a large-scale commemoration of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the composer realized he didn’t want the piece to become a tone poem – a piece of abstract orchestral music that attempted to depict the event. “How could I instruct the audience to ignore their own memories?” he asked in a program note.

The Solution: Corigliano decided to write a piece with words that would provide other images, “both to refute and complement the all-too-vivid ones we’d bring with us into the concert hall…. I needed a cycle of songs that would embed 9/11 into that larger story.” Each of its four movements is set to a poem from a different age and country, sung by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. The texts are Czeslaw Milosz’s “A Song on the End of the World,” written in Warsaw in 1944; section of Homer’s Iliad; “War South of the Great Wall,” by the 8th century poet Li Po; and the poem that gives the cycle its name: “One Sweet Morning,” by E. Y. (“Yip”) Harburg. “It ends the cycle with the dream of a world without war – an impossible dream, perhaps, but certainly one worth dreaming,” writes Corigliano.

The Music: Corigliano describes his score as both “brutal and unsparing” and “deep and tender.”


Michael Gordon
The Sad Park (2006)
Commissioned and Premiered by the Kronos Quartet

The Challenge: On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Michael Gordon escorted his children to school two blocks north of the World Trade Center when one of the airplanes flew over their heads. As he explained in an essay for The New York Times: “It was a personal event for me, and I wanted to capture the intensity of my experience in some way; to leave it here on earth as a commemoration... But the thing that was gnawing at me the entire time was this: By using this subject am I forcing the audience to be sympathetic to my work before even a note of music is played?”

The Solution: Gordon responded with The Sad Park, a 30-minute work for written for the Kronos Quartet and built from recorded comments made by preschoolers in Gordon's son's nursery school class who witnessed the destruction. “By using someone else’s voice, the voice of four-year-olds, by taking the recordings and abstracting them into music, I tried to create a sense of objectivity, a statuesque type of music. I wasn’t expressing my pain, or my politics. I was just capturing something that happened.”

The Music: Each section of “The Sad Park” is built from one of the lines of recorded speech. The accompanying music is deliberately restrained and unemotional. It is only at the end, when for the last four minutes the listener is left with only music, that the string quartet is finally allowed to comment. "Then, in the only non-narrative section of the work, does the listener really find out how the composer feels and thinks," noted Gordon.


Robert Moran
Trinity Requiem
(2011)
Recorded by The Trinity Youth Chorus and Members of Trinity Choir, Trinity Wall Street,
Robert Ridgell, conductor

Recording: Innova Records (
9/6/11)

The Challenge: When Philadelphia-based composer Robert Moran was asked by Trinity Wall Street church to write a Requiem for their youth chorus to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the composer was unsure. “Having a youth choir sing a Requiem strikes me as slightly ghoulish and a bit unnerving,” Moran explained in a program note. “Besides, most of the voices in this chorus are of young people born in 2000. The World Trade Center attack would mean nothing to them.”

The Solution: The composer found inspiration in the all-too common grief found in war zones around the world (such as Kosovo in the 1990s or London in World War II) when children suddenly lose their families to violence.

The Music: Using a combination of youth choir, organ, harp and cellos, Moran’s score is more reflective and soothing than some of the harder-edged responses in the last decade. Listeners will note the synchronicity recorded on tape during the Offertory; a siren passed by during a vocal take and could not be edited out. "It becomes a touching reminder of the context of this work and the personal authenticity of these fine musicians," said Moran.


Steve Reich: WTC 911 album art

Steve Reich
WTC 911
(2010)

Premiere by the Kronos Quartet, 3/19/11
Recording: Nonesuch Records (
9/6/11)

The Challenge: A few minutes before 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Steve Reich was awakened by a phone call from his son, Ezra, who lived in the family's apartment four blocks from the World Trade Center. The composer and his wife had been asleep in their rural home in Vermont. Reich clicked on the TV and saw the second plane crash into the South Tower. "Don't hang up," Reich instructed Ezra, who was 23 and lived with his wife and daughter, adding, "keep the phone line open." They did for nearly six hours. Yet years when by before Reich considered a piece about the day.

The Solution: As Reich explained on WNYC’s Soundcheck, in 2009, a request came from David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet for a 9/11-related piece using tape. The inspiration didn't come immediately. “Three or four months after David proposed this, I thought ‘wait, a minute. I have unfinished business. Then it was crystal clear." Reich took the beeping pulse tone the phone company torments us with when we leave a land-line off the hook and made it the signature sound in WTC 9/11. But what’s usually just annoying becomes more unsettling in the context of this three-movement piece.

The Music: Violinist Harrington opens by sawing on a repeated F, doubling the phone warning beep. The piece then moves quickly onward through a procession of sampled lines from fire department workers, voices from air traffic controllers and neighborhood residents. At 15 minutes, WTC 9/11 is not a grandly scaled requiem like On the Transmigration of Souls, but a hectic clash of conflicting emotions and reactions to the attack. Kronos plays a largely textural role, particularly as the live audio mix placed the taped sounds squarely in the foreground. Still, the piece’s almost documentary-style soundscape carries plenty of impact on its own.


Christopher Theofanidis
Heart of A Solider (2011)
Commissioned by San Francisco Opera, to be premiered Sept. 10, 2010

The Challenge: San Francisco Opera commissioned New York composer Christopher Theofanidis to write an opera based on the true story of Rick Rescorla, a former soldier who gave up his life saving thousands in the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. “When somebody says we want your first full-scale opera to take place in Vietnam and the World Trade Center you get a little concerned about how to handle that task,” Theofanidis said at a press launch for the production. "One of the things that’s really amazing about the story is I think we all relate to certain themes in here. We were 50 blocks away from the WTC when this happened. I was completely numb. I had no way of dealing with this.”

The Solution: With librettist Donna Di Novelli, Theofanidis decided to keep the opera very character-focused. “All three of these people have profoundly strong characters,” he noted. “You have to do it with a light touch. You have to know when to be light about it and when to show the emotional intensity that’s there. Throughout the opera there’s a Rossini-esque quality to things that are quite heavy.”

The Music: Theofanidis is known for writing music out of fairly familiar harmonic and rhythmic building blocks, yet have it come out sounding fresh and provocative. A rehearsal excerpt on the SFO Web site gives a taste of what audiences can expect from the opera, which stars baritone Thomas Hampson, soprano Melody Moore and tenor William Burden.


Joan Tower
In Memory (2002)
Commissioned and premiered by the Tokyo String Quartet
Recording: Naxos (2005)

The Challenge: In a program note, Tower explains that this 15-minute piece started out as an elegy for a friend but soon 9/11 occurred and turned it into a lament for the victims of the attack as well.

The Solution: While brief, at just 12 minutes, the piece packs a punch. "Her primarily angular harmonic language, with its predominantly dissonant cast, evokes a sense of agitation bordering on rage," writes Victor Carr on Classicstoday.com.

The Music: Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein described how the piece “follows a clear-cut musical and emotional trajectory. Fast, choppy, restless music (echoing that of the Shostakovich Eighth String Quartet) expresses pain and anger; slower, more lyrical music speaks of consolation.”


2015 Update: Other Pieces Inspired By 9/11:

Juraj Filas: Oratio Spei (''Prayer of Hope''): This Czech composer's grandly-scaled requiem got its New York premiere in 2011. It is scheduled to be performed again by the Oratorio Society of New York on Nov. 2.

Eric Ewazen: A Hymn for the Lost and the Living: This New York composer and Juilliard professor described the inspiration for the piece: "A Hymn for the Lost and the Living portrays those painful days following September 11th, days of supreme sadness."

Ned Rorem: Aftermath. "Since I'm a Quaker and a pacifist, I wanted to write something that would reflect my sentiments in those directions," the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer told NPR. "So I wrote Aftermath, which is all on poems that are anti-war or the results of war, or in a more distant way a remorse for any death."


Weigh in: What music speaks to you about Sept. 11? Is there a particular composer whose approach you connected with? Leave a comment below: