The Sound of September

So, another summer is winding down. The kids are heading back to school, the summer festivals have ended, and a new season of performances is about to begin. But looming right in the midst of all of it is the anniversary of September 11, adding a weary weight to what was once a time of beginnings and gala season openers.

Barely a day goes by without a reference to the attacks finding their way into our lives. As a country, the emotional and economic aftershocks continue to be detailed nightly for us by the media, the impact still a constant for not only those who were there that day but also for a nation that watched it all unfold on CNN. Security measures instituted at airports and even concert halls remind us that we have been woken from our idyll. Our sense of security just because we are American citizens has been upset in a way that prior acts of terror at home and abroad never approached.

Composers, just like everyone else in the nation, were stopped short in their work and their lives that morning. Attention previously devoted to commissions with impending due dates was suddenly tuned only to news reports. Aaron Jay Kernis was hard at work on a piece for the opening of the Philadelphia Orchestra‘s new concert hall at the time. A few weeks later he told writer Ken Smith, “I sat in front of the TV for three full days in total shock, wondering how long it would take for life to begin again, and how I could keep going,” he said. “I remember turning off the TV at 6:00 P.M. on Thursday, and by the weekend I was back spending as much time composing as I had in front of the screen. Everything still felt inadequate to the tragedy. And yet, I found myself moving forward just by getting back to work.”

Kevin Puts was packing for a year in Rome at the American Academy on September 11 and remembers sitting in his living room surrounded by boxes, totally stunned. “I was absolutely certain that all the plans I had for the commissions of the coming year would have to be thrown out,” he recalled recently. “I had the feeling that the weight of this event was so enormous that any effort to make sense of it or put it into perspective in the interest of my own sanity was impossible and that the only hope I had was to deal with it in the music I would write.”

As he completed his Symphony No. 2 a few months later, he found a vent for some of those feelings and a comfort in the routine of doing the work again. “I think the only way any of us could start to feel better was through the continuing of the way of life we knew. I think we were all a little afraid that America might just shut down or something, so maybe the fact that the work was written and performed in a concert hall with people dressed up and polite to each other was comforting in some way.”

Those sentiments are echoed by composers across the country. Some music came tumbling out in a rush soon after, some ideas incubated for months. Britten wrote his War Requiem in 1962, almost 20 years after the final battles of WWII, so perhaps the purest response has yet to even be conceived.

For Phil Kline, the need and the opportunity to respond were immediate. He is perhaps most widely known in New York for his annual outdoor pieces that feature strolling participant/listeners each playing a specially recorded cassette tape on their own boom boxes. Kline says he was so filled with adrenaline in the days following the attack that he couldn’t stop working, but after a few days, a friend suggested that it might be a good time for one of his walks. “I thought about it for a few minutes, realized I should do it right away, that I would have just enough time to write and organize a new piece for the following Saturday.”

The process of putting the tapes together became it’s own kind of personal therapy. “It actually helped me get away from some of the buzz, as I could immerse myself in the work in a space on the very lower east side with no phone. I found (maybe because time was of the essence) that I could surrender to my feelings and let the processes, emotional and musical, flow freely without subjecting myself to some of the usual internal criticism. In a sense, many of the aesthetic considerations I’d pursued my entire life didn’t mean a damned thing to me that week.”

The performance, then, became an expression of communal grief for Kline, those who participated, and fellow New Yorkers who just happened to stumble upon the group that night. “It was quite something, really wonderful,” Kline recalls. “The sound was beautiful, but what struck me most was that there was no sense of it being an avant-garde experiment or an art event at all. People just started walking with us. When we encountered a motorcycle cop on 15th Street, I thought, “Oh no,” but he led us down 5th Avenue, stopping traffic at the cross streets for us.”

Fellow New York-based composer Elodie Lauten was also compelled to create a work in the spirit of collective healing. S.O.S.W.T.C. was performed in Brooklyn in December 2001, as a video/audio installation and was followed by a multi-religious healing ceremony. In her notes for the piece, she explains that “if the piece was composed in reaction to the events surrounding the World Trade Center building collapse, it is neither morbid nor elegiac. It is simply, in a Buddhist sense, a comment on reality without judgment, a meditation of the collective consciousness of the time.”

On a personal level, putting the piece together was a way to work through “a confusing mass of energies and responding to it.” She’s not sure that the result needs to be enduring art, however. “It is hard in a way to revisit the piece and perform it again, it is rather painful,” she confesses. “But I will do it if it seems appropriate.”

Ingram Marshall composed what was for him a personal response—a piece for Todd Reynolds (violin with electronics) titled September Canons which was performed several times last winter. Marshall said recently that “composing September Canons was a healing experience for me in the sense that it helped me to process some of the incredible horror that seemed so unreal yet so overwhelming. This brought into focus for me the truth about making art—which is always apparent but too easily forgotten—that it assuages the soul and brings the light of creation itself to others. Sappy as this sounds, it does ring true in the irony of a horrendous event which makes us all feel insignificant yet at the same time spurs us on.”

Marshall finds that music’s place in the world hasn’t changed, but rather has become more apparent. He also suggests that one should probably have some distance to react to great catastrophe in any reasoned, meaningful way. “I don’t envy those who take on the burden of having to write a commissioned memorial of great gravity with much public attention focused upon it. But sometimes an instantaneous reaction can create enduring art. I can think of examples but they would be obvious. I guess there aren’t that many.”

From his vantage point in Vermont, Dennis Bathory-Kitsz admits that he may have been slower to feel the impact of the tragedy than his city-based colleagues. At the time, he says, “I came up with an overlapping series of emotional blocks and justifications to prevent myself from feeling anything. My own recognition of it took days to become real, and it was two weeks before I could begin to respond again as human being, much less as an artist.”

But respond he did, not only with his own work, but also by building a section of his site devoted to composers who wanted to share their music with each other in the weeks and months following. Some critics were skeptical of art that could be created so quickly and derided the site for including sloppy or ill-conceived material. Later compositions did naturally seem more considered in some cases, Bathory-Kitsz admits, but he found the “earliest pieces were visceral and extraordinarily emotional—and I’m from a generation of composers for whom emotion tended to be an unwelcome distraction left over from romanticism. It was just bewildering when all that ceremony of objectivized sound fell away after 9/11.”

What has struck him overall, however, was the risk each composer took and the new voices they were finding to speak with. “The nine billion less three thousand of us who were left behind after 9/11 had an instant re-assessment of our lives done for us. I was in touch with other composers who just despaired that their years of creation were simple-minded folly, rendered insignificant in one morning. Whatever was left to be said could only be said in some new way, which was sometimes very raw. Certainly much of it could not have been imagined without an artistic cringe on September 10.”

Though admittedly everything on the site probably isn’t enduring art, it does demonstrate how artistic windows were being opened just as doors closed. “It was different art, probably, for every artist who wrote something in those subsequent days and weeks and months.”

As time did begin to dull the nations sense of loss, composers such as Kenneth LaFave had the chance to reflect on a different level with the benefit of some distance. When he sat down to write “Spires,” premiered by the Kansas City Chorale this month, he found that his artistic concern was also a patriotic one, a need, he says, “to affirm the endurance of American ideas and identity in the face of this shocking tragedy.”

“I turned to the poet who, in my opinion, most powerfully sang the beauties of our land, Walt Whitman. When I hit upon a passage that made reference to ‘my own Manhattan with spires,’ I think my jaw literally dropped.” He then asked Robert Kastenbaum to add a second section that offered a contemporary echo of the Whitman text.

The entire process offered LaFave the opportunity to reaffirm his faith in America both publicly and privately. “The emotional experience of composing this work was that of connecting across the centuries to a great American poet who lived at the time of another national tragedy, the assassination of Lincoln. I believe I felt a little of what Whitman must have felt about the promise of America, about the importance of continuing our democratic experiment.”

But that democratic experiment, the nobleness of which is drummed into us as school children, is now very blatantly under attack at home and abroad. Modern living now involves new enemies in distant lands and in our communities. So where does music fit in to all this? Is art really all that important anymore?

“I’ve always believed that music is critical to the health of any society,” says Bathory-Kitsz, “and that composers (people whose lives are spent imagining music into existence from nothing) have the richest role in physical, non-verbal expression. But I’m no philosopher. I rarely try to analyze why I work. I feel empty when I’m not composing, frantic when I am, and depressed when I’ve finished. 9/11 gave me a more immediate outlook, so I don’t compose for the ages anymore. That was an illusion, a conceit of the 20th century, I suppose. Now I’m just one more composer writing for tomorrow afternoon.”

LaFave concurs. “I have always believed music to be a strong force for conveying intimate experience. Its effect on people is moral in quality. We are not what we eat or what we wear. We are what we feel and music is a most potent shaper of feelings.”

These days seems to have brought each composer closer to the vital reasons for their art and underlined why new art will always be necessary. Kline says people have said that music from the summer of 2001 seems prescient, as if it were written after the attacks, but he reasons that that is to be expected. “Artists should be sensitive to what lies hidden in their own times. The things that went terribly wrong with the world on Tuesday morning weren’t born that day. Terrible things had been brewing for a very long time, you could sense it, and it finally erupted in a single, signal event.”

From his current vantage point, he suggests that the past year has only reinforced or deepened ideals already held. “My mission hasn’t changed, though I suppose the need to hear, feel, create and communicate with music seems a little more urgent than ever. Intimations of Armageddon will do that to you.”