Music can be a force for healing in the face of devastating tragedy. Composers who seek to confront the scars of loss and human suffering face the challenge of expressing qualities that transcend our differences and appeal to our shared humanity.
Chicago’s Fulcrum Point New Music Project addresses the need for healing after the painful events of 9/11 by programming an annual concert for peace. The featured music consciously embraces every conceivable quality that runs counter to the violence and hate that flared up on that terrible day. This year’s concert, performed at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance (and as a live broadcast on Chicago’s WMFT radio station), was offered as an extended meditation and as a humble sanctuary from the anger and sadness reawakened on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The afternoon featured works by nine different composers searching for that expression of shared humanity through a plurality of traditions and beliefs. The gift of free tickets for police, fire fighters, first responders, and their families was a gesture that kept the occasion grounded within a sense of connectedness to the brave actions that were also a part of 9/11.
The music included as part of 9/11: Ten Years and Beyond offered three distinct paths toward healing from the wounds of that day. Some composers approached music as an introspective expression of prayer that took the form of an elongated crescendo. Others chose to compose music that turned toward long-standing cultural traditions as a spiritual foundation for regaining one’s emotional bearings. Only one piece on the program confronted the subject of 9/11 directly.
Music in the form of a crescendo creates an aural image of prayer rising toward a benevolent hope; sound in the shape of increasing resolve to build upon what is good. Much of this was a music that focused upon simple materials and a sonic language of lyrical lines modeled after plainchant. This was the case with Musica Celestis for string orchestra by Aaron Jay Kernis, which began the afternoon set like a benediction. This form was then echoed in Sensoo by Lee R. Kesselman as the New Classic Singers provided a choral texture over the pure-tone qualities of bowed crotales. This same crescendo appeared again in Fratres by Arvo Pärt. The piece features tintinnabulation (Arvo Pärt’s word for his technique of composing two simultaneous voices as one line) and triadic resonance that rings through a sparse texture assembled from materials carefully stripped of ornamentation and excess.
Lamentation on the Disasters of War by Karim Al-Zand straddled the dual aesthetics of form and tradition by building its crescendo within a neo-Romantic language. This proved the musical durability of both approaches. The Traditional Buddhist Chant performed by Drupon Rinchen Dorjee Rinpoche was an audible manifestation of the kind of faith we turn to in the face of events we cannot comprehend. Lord Give Me Hope by Saalik Ahmad Ziyad was performed as a gospel lament for voice and contrabass. Ziyad proved to be a talented vocalist with enormous range. Kya Toota Hai, Andhar Andhar by Shehzad and Zeshan Bagewadi for acoustic guitar, voice, and contrabass is an Islamic prayer set to instrumental accompaniment. And the world premiere of 3 Yiddish Songs by David Stock for voice and string orchestra offered an expression drawn from the Jewish faith. The inclusion of each of the world’s major religions was an important part of reinforcing the universal desire for peace.
Buddha Girl for piano and electronics by Marita Bolles was the only work that took on 9/11 directly. The electronic portion uses an interview with Debby Borza recounting the day she lost her daughter on United Flight 93 and how that loss became a catalyst for making a life transformation and becoming a peace activist. Kathleen Supové gave an outstanding performance on the piano. She remained composed even as technical difficulties forced a re-start of one of the movements. The electronic part was mixed to a 5.1 system that surrounded the audience with a mix of recorded and altered sounds and speech while the piano part provided both accompaniment and live reactive presence within the overall texture of the piece. The stationary position of the piano on stage providing a counterbalance to the dynamic spatialization of the electronic material. Transformation was the theme running through multiple layers of this composition: feedback became voice; voice became the sound of sirens. Then the voice returned to describe the personal and spiritual transformation brought about by personal loss. The transformation toward believing that peace is worth working for, even if we believe we will not know peace within our own lifetime. Buddha Girl confronts the senselessness of 9/11 with a quiet persistence. Programmed at the mid-point of the concert, it was the one piece that sliced at the heart of both the pain and the healing that made such a concert necessary.
Prior to the concert I was personally struck by how strong the waves of emotion were on the occasion of remembering the upsetting events of ten years ago. The television programming that replayed the violent images and recounted the interweaving stories of loss grated against an emotional wound that runs surprisingly deep. Much has changed over ten years, but the jarring cognitive dissonance of what happened seems not to have softened. One cannot expect an afternoon concert to change this or bring more than temporary comfort. But Fulcrum Point did provide more than a distraction from difficult feelings and memories. In many ways, it suggested a multiplicity of paths toward peace that can be more vivid than the replayed video images seared into our collective consciousness.
Violence and loss challenge our comprehension and demand an exhausting effort to make sense of the senseless. Approaching the emotion and meaning of such an event through music involves reaching toward extra-musical values that are held as sacred. Whether those are inward looking or outward reaching toward the comfort of community and faith, this subject will continue to drive composers to examine our core values. Stephen Burns, the artistic director of Fulcrum Point, made the conscious decision to build a program of music that serves as an extended prayer. It was a prayer that emphasized inclusiveness and culminated in Kaddish, traditional prayer for the dead—a setting that incorporated every voice and performer from the day’s concert within a single piece. It was a performance that offered an expression and a hope that the human desire for peace will eventually be stronger than the forces that divide us. The standing ovation at the conclusion of this performance indicated that it was received in that spirit.