Listening Beyond September 11
By Ken Smith
The musical silence that week was deafening. Just as every sports bar in New York had filled its dearth with wide-screen CNN, my own speakers were streaming nothing but news reports. Getting through a three-minute song without distraction was a chore, to say nothing of a symphony. We did have some "help" from Clear Channel, the Texas-based radio network that sent out a wildly disregarded no-play list of some 150 "inappropriate" songs -- as if anyone had thought about Steve Miller's "Jet Airliner" since 1979.
The unthinkable had happened. Not just the events themselves, which have already changed us all, but the fact that music -- for many of us our chief consolation in troubled times -- seemed a powerless, even frivolous, response. It took four days for the curtains to start to rise again on New York's arts institutions, but even then, most of us still felt like the lone drawing in the New Yorker's Black Issue: a woman who had set down her violin to mourn.
But rise those curtains surely did. Urged by Mayor Giuliani to get back to normal, New York City Opera's belated opening weekend had singers and audiences alike gathered more as a civic duty than as a service to the art. The choice of shows didn't help, either. After witnessing our city's skyline hideously destroyed by a team of suicidal mass murderers, the last thing we needed to see was The Mikado. By the time Ko-ko's list of things that won't be missed got around to Gary Condit, Martha Stewart and Monica's dress, I wanted to scream "THAT'S JUST NOT IMPORTANT ANYMORE!"
The next day it was off to hear a Bach recital by Richard Goode, whose very pianistic approach toward the composer is filled more with the heart than the head. Just the kind of thing I usually hate. But this time was strikingly different. The playing was emotionally pitch-perfect, the pulsing essence of life tempered by the proper restraint. Minor keys flowed into major keys, as if unfolding light out of darkness. It was music to grieve by.
Around the country, orchestras were adjusting their programs, replacing both loud pieces and travel-impaired soloists with more appropriate standards like Elgar's Nimrod and the Mahler symphonies. Barber's Adagio became the national threnody. It was concert as public ritual, with emotionalism not only tolerated but encouraged.
It's become a cliché to say that we are not the same country anymore, but what that will mean on an artistic level is far from clear. A tragic seed has been planted in every sensitive composer. Audience tastes will no doubt change as well. Is the omnipresent Star-Spangled Banner an indication of a new era of musical patriotism? Will programming veer toward frivolous escapism, or a taste for some of the darker emotions? There are no clear answers right now, but we can divine a few things from the past.
"Audiences will want to hear their own sensibilities matched by music that doesn't pander to them, that isn't sentimental or kitsch," says conductor and Bard College President Leon Botstein. "Somehow, the vocabulary of John Williams and Andrew Lloyd Webber just doesn't do it. When music becomes a public service, it's crucial to fit it properly to the occasion. Music can do things words can never do."
After the current spate of musical comfort food runs its course, Botstein's hopeful scenario has audiences responding favorably to some of the more gritty and emotion-laden aspects of modernism that have been jettisoned in recent years in the name of accessibility. On the way out is "wallpaper music" that is "narcissistically self-expressive," as well as academic music with no relationship to the audience.
"If anything good can come out of this, it could be the reassessment of our values," says composer John Corigliano. "The last few weeks have been a very humanizing process."
"One of the reasons I became a composer is that music is one of the best ways of expressing the inexpressible," says composer Aaron Jay Kernis. "And the experience of listening or performing is communal. Half the time we don't realize how connected to other people we are. But if anything, musical expression now feels more necessary, more direct. There's a feeling of being lucky to be alive, and having the need to express that feeling creatively."
But what music will we find? I think we can assume that John Adams' Death of Klinghoffer, with its sympathetic portrayal of Palestinian terrorists, is unlikely to get performed any time soon. Nor, for that matter, will works by Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose professed admiration of the terrorist strike as a brilliant conceptual piece set off a backlash in the musical world, with many tarring the avant-garde and its barely disguised contempt for the public as an implicit devaluation of human life.
An immediate halt also came to Supermax, an opera by composer Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie about the maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado that at one point housed Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, right-wing extremist Timothy McVeigh, and Islamic terrorist Ramzi Youssef, who led the first World Trade Center attack. The 75-minute opera, portraying the prisoners' daily hour outside of solitary confinement in the prison exercise yard, was scheduled to open next spring at The New Group, a New York musical theater company.
"This presents a certain problem for us now," says Wallace, whose earlier reality-based operas with Korie included Harvey Milk and Hopper's Wife. "This is a serious piece, with the men speaking for themselves and, we hope, hanging themselves by their own ideology."
But one of arias has Youssef singing, "the two towers of evil keep tumbling down," which presents some obvious sensitivity issues. "If we continue, I think we would follow our original concept," Wallace says. "We don't want to do anything to provoke, but we don't want to follow the party line, either."
Besides glibness, another potential problem with such musical reactions is excessive sentimentality. "Works need a certain gravity," says Botstein, citing Leonard Bernstein's Mass, written for the opening of The Kennedy Center. "Compared to Bernstein's own conducting of the Mahler Second in memory of Kennedy, which had a public monumentality about it, Mass didn't make it."
While the details of the World Trade Center destruction may be unparalleled, the emotions in its wake are not. "There's hasn't been great music evoking the Holocaust," says Botstein, offering a comparison. "Events like these exceed any kind of direct musical evocation." Like Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, which the composer claimed was not a "nature" piece but one artist's response to nature, music fails in depicting tragedy but becomes a perfect repository for the artist's grief and despair that words cannot express.
Just as America has quickly seen any isolationist ideals shattered, audiences can find solace in many past artists who've been there before. Botstein cites a number of works that reflected the emotional turmoil of the Holocaust -- the Misarae (1935) and First Symphony (1936) of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, the Symphony No. 3, Liturgique of Arthur Honegger. But one could argue just as pervasively that none of those works convey the power of Steve Reich's Different Trains, which took 50 years to emerge.
So how long until the new spirit of America is reflected in music? Film composer Jerry Goldsmith's September 11, 2001, a two-minute tribute to the victims, premiered at the Hollywood Bowl that Friday with the speed of a score to a real-time movie. Most composers need a little more time to process their reactions.
Christopher Rouse, whose own death-obsessed music in the late '80s and '90s earned him the nickname "Mr. Sunshine" at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, likes to quote Berlioz's dictum that "Hot passions must be set down in cold blood." He adds, "I don't think it's possible to create anything worthwhile in the heat of an intense emotional experience. You file it away, and gain a certain distance from it until you have the ability to express it."
Kernis, whose Second Symphony was largely a reaction to the Gulf War, concurs. "You need time to process raw emotion into art," he says. "Otherwise the results can become hackneyed and overbearing."
As a father, Rouse had become obsessed with a British murder case, where a 2-year-old had been killed by two 10-year-olds. But, he said, it took a year and a half to put those reactions into music. Likewise, Rouse was in the middle of his Flute Concerto -- a happy work -- when his mother was facing death.
Like Stravinsky, who wrote the Symphony in C as his wife and daughter were dying, Rouse had to finish the music as written. "There's an emotional temptation to put in some thunderclap of despair in whatever you're writing, but the music has to be itself," he says. "So I continued in this happy, bubbly vein, but resolved to write a piece later for my mother."
Just the opposite happened with Corigliano, whose Symphony No. 1 became the first significant response to AIDS from the classical music community -- but only because Corigliano changed a commission to his terms. "Georg Solti had originally wanted me to write a Concerto for Orchestra, which I couldn't bring myself to do when I was seeing people I knew dying," Corigliano recalls. "Suddenly, all that became meaningless. I told them, 'Look, a piece that shows off the brilliance of the Chicago Symphony is a wonderful thing, but I need to write something for my friends.' "
Wallace, too, will likely channel his current feelings into Book of Five, a concerto for the cutting-edge British new music group Icebreaker and the American Composers Orchestra to be premiered this spring. Stuck with what to do with his middle movement, Wallace is now contemplating it without soloists, making a noticeable absence. The title of the middle movement would be September 11, 2001, with the next movement, "a raucous, life-affirming response," called September 18, 2001, the birthdate of Wallace's son.
For a big-picture look at what to expect, Corigliano offers the AIDS crisis as an example. Despite the obvious differences in the situations -- a massive, immediate onslaught versus a long-term viral invasion -- the two have created similar reactions in the national psyche. Both came by surprise, and both put the nation in fear of daily life. "People in the '80s were constantly thinking about death -- their own and others' -- just as a lot of people today are now terrified to go into a building or board a plane," he says.
And most importantly, the artistic response to AIDS was also a particularly American phenomenon, he says. Composers who had once neglected to consider the audience as part of the musical equation were now writing public music with naked emotional power.
"The AIDS crisis was the moment of awareness that exposed the main conceit of the avant-garde," says Corigliano, echoing the theme of a recent essay he wrote for the New York Times (9/23/01). "Composers began writing to their audiences directly and personally again. We began to find strength in American pluralism, which is as big a strength in music as it is in our political thought. Unfortunately, there are people in music as well as politics who believe in a supreme morality and have practiced exclusion rather than inclusion."
"At times, composers have approached me and asked, 'How can you respond so directly to the events around you?' " says Kernis, whose has fashioned personal responses to the Los Angeles riots as well as the Gulf War. "Many of them thought my music should be less connected to the world directly."
Responding too directly, though, makes for journalism and not art. Part of a work's future in the repertory depends on how well it hides its roots. "I heard the Second Symphony about a month ago in London, and the piece was no longer about war," says Kernis. "It's about conflict. I've never considered the piece to be programmatic, so even though it came as a response to a specific war, it no longer seems to be specific to its time."
"We can be as specific as we want to be, but for the piece to survive it has to live as an abstraction," adds Corigliano. "My First Symphony appeared in Kiev without program notes, and the audience heard it merely as a tragic symphony. But they were just as moved as the people who heard it two weeks later in San Francisco."
As of last summer, Corigliano had cancelled several commissions, claiming that as an artist he "had nothing to say." That's changed now, as he slowly contemplates his next move in response to this new Black Tuesday. "I'm not sure how it will come out," he says, "but it will probably be an opera."
Kernis, for his part, says he spent so much of the past few years focusing on loss he doesn't see himself revisiting it. "At least right now," he adds. "The trauma is going to take a long time to process."
Struggling to finish a piece for the opening of the Philadelphia Orchestra's new concert hall in December, Kernis found his life and work that week coming to a complete halt. "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 says. "I remember turning off the TV at 6 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."