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Commemoration Music: Working Out What’s Going On

Commemoration Music: Working Out What’s Going On

Speculating in 2002 on what a memorial at the former World Trade Center might look like, The New York Times’s architecture critic Michael Kimmelman took a guess. “A memorial, as part of a mixed-use project, will in some way turn out to look Minimalist, Minimalism, of all improbable art movements of the last 50 years, having become the unofficial language of memorial art. What used to be men on horses with thrusting swords has morphed more or less into plain walls and boxes.”[1] And his prediction has proved largely correct: Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s Reflecting Absence is part of a mixed-use project (a memorial park and museum), with a minimalist aesthetic.

There is no real equivalent in music to the mixed-use space of public art, but the aesthetic of minimalism has been evident in musical memorials to 9/11 as well. Although an accidental tribute, perhaps the most well-known example is William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops. Created a few months before September 2001 (and based on tapes recorded much earlier than this, in the early 1980s), Basinski’s recording of slowed-down Muzak, looped onto tape and then played back as the magnetic coating of the tapes (and the sounds it stored) began to disintegrate, seemed to capture perfectly the emotions of that day. Having not known what to do with these recordings of sonic collapse and decay since making them in July 2001, Basinski brought them out on the afternoon of September 11, opened the windows of his Brooklyn apartment, and played them as a soundtrack while he and his neighbors watched the plumes of smoke over lower Manhattan and “tried to work out what the hell was going on.”[2] In the evening he filmed the still-smoldering buildings as the sun set, later setting the footage to the first in The Disintegration Loops series, dlp1.1. The film was eventually purchased by the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

The Disintegration Loops are classic minimalism in a late-’60s style, even if their aesthetic of sentimental ruin and melancholic introspection is more 21st century in flavor.

Looped and layered, with a processual form that, once begun, is left to run its course, The Disintegration Loops are classic minimalism in a late-’60s style, even if their aesthetic of sentimental ruin and melancholic introspection is more 21st century in flavor. Other compositional tributes have been less minimalist in their approach, however. In contrast to trends within the visual arts there have, for example, been a large number of neo-Romantic responses in which emotional registers are more specifically articulated: among them John Corigliano’s One Sweet Morning, Robert Moran’s Trinity Requiem, and Karen Walwyn’s Reflections on 9/11. Even those works by composers of an ostensibly minimalist background have been rather more mixed in their style and aesthetic. In last week’s post I referred to how John Adams used harmony and orchestration to color his piece’s recitation of names, giving each a particular identity and providing his work with an overall emotional arc. In this post and the next, I want to look in detail at two more memorial pieces, both of them by minimalist (or at least post-minimalist) composers and both of them string quartets: Michael Gordon’s The Sad Park (this post) and Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 (next week).

Both pieces were also commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. In 2006, having been asked to play a concert at the Herbst Theatre where the founding charter of the United Nations was signed, and to do so on the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the quartet devised a program that brought together the world’s music in an attempt to better understand it after 9/11. That program was arranged into three sections. The first comprised traditional music from Iraq, Iran, and Central and Southern Asia. The third drew more on the contemporary classical sphere, moving its geographical focus to Europe and North America. The second, and the concert’s heart, featured Gordon’s The Sad Park (as well as two works not directly related to 9/11: John Oswald’s Spectre and Kronos and Paolo Prestini’s arrangement of ‘Armenia’ by Einstürzende Neubauten).

In 2001, Gordon’s (and Julia Wolfe’s) son Lev attended nursery school in lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from Ground Zero. Shortly after the attacks, one of his teachers, Loyan Beausoleil, began to make recordings of the children’s recollections of that day, and Gordon uses four of these (for example, “Two evil planes broke in little pieces and fire came”) as the basis for the four sections of his work.[3] Like Basinski on the roof of his apartment, these kids were trying to figure out the meaning of 9/11—albeit from a very different position of understanding—and this becomes the theme of Gordon’s piece.

Varieties of digital sound processing are applied to the four speech samples: in Parts 1 and 3 the samples are progressively time-stretched until their individual sonic grains can be heard (the first section of Part 3 also loops different fragments of the original sample); in Parts 2 and 4 different granular synthesis techniques are applied that compress or fracture the sample. In Part 4 the sample is also looped and given a stuttering, shaking effect. In all four instances, the original speech is taken in or out of recognisability using audible processes that morph it into sounds evoking howls or multitudes of anonymous, unrooted points of sound. Rather than—in quasi-surrealistic fashion—uncovering hidden, unconscious meanings within the original samples, the effect is to dwell on the psychological changes that take place in the course of repetition and recollection, in the obsessive rewriting and overwriting of memory that takes place immediately after trauma.

The effect is to dwell on the psychological changes that take place in the course of repetition and recollection, in the obsessive rewriting and overwriting of memory that takes place immediately after trauma.

The relationship between the sound samples and the string quartet writing is oblique. Although the strings are not an orchestration or transcription of the vocal sounds, there is a certain amount of harmonic complementarity between the two, placing both layers of the work in the same musical space. There are also some loose rhythmic correspondences. In Part 1, for example, the string music gradually slows in parallel with the sample’s gradual stretch, although it does so by stepwise shifts in meter rather than a gradual ritardando, and at a different pace to the electronics. (In Part 3 something of the reverse happens, with the quartet music becoming busier as the sample slows.) Gordon’s music also provides a general emotive palette that is, for the most part, tense, agitated, and anxious. Even when the music and speech act in direct dialogue (as in certain moments in Parts 2 and 3 when the music drops out for the speech to be heard clearly, before stepping back in), the emotional intent is relatively unspecified.

Nevertheless, the work is undoubtedly programmatic in its choice of samples: the references in the children’s speech are clear, even if made through the imprecise and uniquely inflected recollections of kindergarten children (“I just heard that on the news that the buildings are crashing down”). Yet beyond basic statements about the event, Gordon’s chosen texts impose no narrative, and neither does his music, which is minimalistically abstract in its use of disengaged processes and static tableaux. Only in Part 4 (“And all the persons that were in the airplane died”) do the musical cues become clearer. The shuddering looped sample (evoking sobs?) is set against dissonant rising glissandi, which give way to a furious final three minutes of heavily accented sawing, an unfettered release of energy, a final thrash, a question shouted into space, unanswered.

Unlike most post-9/11 works, The Sad Park is barely a memorial at all: its tone is not that of reconciliation. It is not a requiem, nor is it a “memory space” like On the Transmigration of Souls, with all the implications of security and psychological processes of acceptance that term suggests. Rather, it attempts to process the attacks’ immediate aftermath through simultaneous layers of mediation: the reactions of children too young to understand but old enough to recognize fear in the adults around them; the electronic processing that transmutes those words into any number of sonic symbols; and the extrapolation of this into a harmonic and rhythmic palette. What’s left is a rare portrait of doubt, anger, anguish, and bafflement that stands apart from the calming tone of official memorial style.



1. Michael Kimmelman, “Out of Minimalism, Monuments to Memory,” New York Times, January 13, 2002.


2. John Doran, “Time Becomes a Loop: William Basinski Interviewed,” The Quietus, November 15, 2012, http://thequietus.com/articles/10680-william-basinski-disintegration-loops-interview.


3. More of Beausoleil’s transcriptions are documented at www.youngestwitnesses.com.

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