Final paper for “Music Since 1945” with Professor Anne Shreffler:
For the American composer, writing a piece that deals with 9/11 presents a considerable challenge. Three composers, Steve Reich, Michael Gordon, and John (Coolidge) Adams take this challenge on by setting texts in some way related to the minimalist tradition (and thus repetition). The composers look for a way to express the horror and terror of the event as well as the grief and sadness that follows. Their pieces attempt to retell the events of the horrible day but not too directly. The challenge is in making the piece of art express something distinct enough from reality so that the viewer may walk away with something new to think about, instead of (re)experiencing trauma. They take a specific point of view or angle to allow the viewer to more deeply see a smaller glimpse of the full scope of 9/11 as an event, or object, and walk away with something. Their method in attempting to provide such a viewpoint is to set and/or manipulate texts that do deal directly with 9/11, since obscuring an event so prevalent and traumatic is impossible. These three composers all use “found” texts; there is no author or librettist. Because of this, the pieces have the potential to make the event’s horror and tragedy feel very immediate: to be the extraordinarily affective works of art the three composers intend to create. But in the specific choices Reich, Gordon and Adams make in picking texts and even more importantly, in how these texts are set, we can see three very different philosophies concerning the role and power of art in relation to a very real tragic (and recent) event.
Theodor W. Adorno theorized and editorialized profusely on art’s ability to represent mass death, specifically after the Holocaust. He famously said, “It is barbaric to continue to write poetry after Auschwitz.” Leaving his Marxist arguments aside for why the art most firmly established in the bourgeoisie—lyric poetry—is wrong after WWII, Adorno then continues on to explain that art directly attempting to represent the suffering in WWII is also “barbaric” because “the so-called artistic rendering” of the pain and suffering of the victims, “contains, however distantly, the possibility that pleasure can be squeezed from it.”& But also, Adorno notes, to honor these same victims’ suffering, we must never forget. And to ensure not forgetting “demands the continued existence of the very art [that suffering] forbids.” To remove the full scope of the true horror in a work of art is “an injustice … done [to] the victims, yet no art that avoided the victims could stand up to the demands of justice.” Virtually the same problem arises in contemporary times when writing a piece about 9/11. But leaving aside for now Adorno’s criticism of art that provides an image of the suffering, let us look at the three aforementioned pieces by Gordon, Reich, and Adams separately first to see what solutions or responses they may offer.
In all three pieces, the music in some way acts on the text, just as in any piece where text is set. Here, however, since texts are found and the three composers do nothing to hide this fact, they are recognizable and easy to connect in the viewer’s mind to the true events of 9/11. Therefore, the music, or the art, as opposed to the reality represented by the text, distorts that text in some way in these three pieces. On a micro as well as macro level, Michael Gordon’s The Sad Park follows a pattern of beginning with a higher presence of 9/11 where the text is less distorted or obscured. This then leads to a melding of the musical and vocal, or textual elements. The presence of the music takes over and at times curiously begins to suggest real sounds associated with 9/11—a siren or an airplane engine, for example. Thus the music or “art” and the text or “real” begin to swap places and roles.
This process happens within every movement and over the course of all four movements. The “real” elements in Park are recordings Gordon made of preschool children in his daughter’s class, explaining or trying to make sense of 9/11. (Even though in places the voice track is unrecognizable as a voice, we can still call it the voice because we know it has been derived and altered from these recordings—that assumption for the listener is never hidden). The piece opens with a mostly unaltered (save for some apparently added reverb) voice of a child saying, “Two evil planes broke in little pieces and fire came.” The phrase is repeated and elongated, substantially slowing down the recitation of the line. This continues under repetitive and incessant string quartet chords, which seem at first almost to supply an uncaring and objective backdrop. As Part 1 continues though, the voicing of the chords the strings commands more and more attention as they become more dissonant, awkward, and spread out. As the strings slow down (bar 165) the voice is becoming more abstracted—just sound. And finally at bar 190, the switch is complete: the audio track of the girl’s voice becomes a low-pitched drone, a backdrop, as the first violin separates itself from the texture to wail in the upper range. This wailing sounds both like crying but also very much like a fire or police siren. The attention has shifted from the voice to the music, and the voice has gone from literal and descriptive to abstract and musically supportive, while the music has gone from blank and expressionless to mimetic and affective, conjuring up literal associations with 9/11. Thus a philosophy of art and memory reveals itself. Repetitively remembering and describing terror and horror only makes understanding more difficult. Only in the abstract—in the music—can the tragedy of mass death truly begin to be represented and understood.
But the swap of roles is not so straightforward throughout the whole work. In Part 3, the words—“I just heard that on the news that the buildings are crashing down”—are completely impossible to comprehend. However, the vocal part does not remain completely abstract, filling only a sonically supportive role. Instead, the vocal track converses with the string quartet, and these altered sounds become potentially mimetic and literal. Beginning the first time with bar 30, then around bar 69, and especially at bar 78 and bar 165, the incoherent altered child’s voice sounds highly suggestive of a plane taking off and then cruising. Frequently, these sonic moments begin to stutter and break down, wind down, or run out of steam. The music, meanwhile, although developing and growing, is not mimetic the way it was in Part 1; it simply just grows in intensity alongside the image of the stuttering plane.
I will admit, it is impossible to prove whether Gordon intended us to see the literal image of a plane’s flight-gone-wrong in use manipulation of the audio file, but whether intentional or not, that the “meaningless” and abstract voice track converses at all in a call-and-response manner with the string quartet shows how by this point in the piece, the literal and real image of 9/11 has been equated with the abstract world of music. The music has been shown to have the capability to play a supportive role to something descriptive and to be mimetic; and the voice too has been shown to support the music’s description and to remember and describe itself. The art sphere and the real sphere are one and the same by this point, and this is exactly what occurs moments later at around 21:15 in the recording when a single string (probably the viola) and the voice begin to do the exact same thing. Both the string instrument and the vocal part (around the intense veneer of the three other strings) rise, a bit faster than before and faster than what will follow, as if imitating, again, an engine starting up. But as time goes on, it slows to the point of being too abstract to represent something literal like an engine gathering speed, and finally, in Part 4, distortion completely takes over. Actual electric-guitar-style distortion is applied to the string quartet and no texts or vocal parts are present. This distortion of the music itself and total absence of the voice removes the overall work’s, and by extension, art’s ability to represent the mass death that the piece tries to. The representation of the mass death of 9/11 in Gordon’s The Sad Park ultimately, by the end of the piece, only occurs in our awareness of the subject matter in conjunction with the void left by the eventual total abstraction and removal of all musical and vocal or textual elements that have literal and mimetic meaning ascribed to them. But it is important to note that it is a process—we reach this point only by the end of the piece.
Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 tries for something much more direct and poignant. As Reich says in his liner notes, he wanted a longer piece but he felt extending it would “reduce its impact.” Reich achieves this “impact” by making no abstractions or distortions as there were in The Sad Park. His found audio files have been largely unaltered. Furthermore, he groups the piece in three parts and the type of content of the recordings in each section is very clear and controlled: first, city and air traffic emergency transmissions, second, retellings by people involved, third, a Jewish prayer (which I will come back to in a moment).
Reich “impacts” us by making the all-too-well-known events of 9/11 into drama or narrative. He sets the emergency transmissions in an order that they could have actually occurred. It takes the listener directly into the actual moments of terror and shock: an air traffic operator saying “plane just crashed into the world trade” and a NYFD operator saying “all available ambulances.” The piece does not “tell” us what happened that day, it simply re-experiences 9/11 for us. That claim would not hold if the string quartet provided a new angle, but Reich uses the string quartet to, as he puts it in his liner notes, “double [or copy] and harmonize the speech melodies.” In other words, Reich transcribes the pitches and rhythms of the voices and the string quartet supports the voices, makes them into music, makes them more resonant, but does not change their ultimate effect. Since Reich’s music does not “act” on the text, it just simply copies the melodic contours and pitches, we can say that in WTC, art supports experience, but doesn’t provide new angle. Art is not separate from reality but they are not equated either. In WTC, art’s role is to objectively tell the story and the events as vividly as possible, and then allow the audience members to make with the reliving of the events what they will.
The second part of the three in WTC establishes that time has passed since the same events are told, but in the past tense. Still, the same technique is used, and the audio recordings tell us facts we already know, putting us directly in the memory of 9/11. Part three, however, strives for something not as immediate. Here, we have the only time in the piece where the music is more pronounced than the text, and the non-literal comes to the forefront. The recorded voice itself has a true melody here, since it is a Jewish prayer, and the strings copy this melody louder than the prayer itself, as if the text is replicating the music. The two Hebrew prayers mean that the eternal and the divine will protect and guard the bodies until “the end of time” where they will be brought “to the place that I have prepared.” A possible reading of the prayers is that only in the religious, or maybe the foreign, or maybe in some other distant scope where literal meaning has been lost, can art begin to have an effect and change our perception of something as traumatic as 9/11—that only then can it offer some sort of explanation. Reich is considering this here in Part 3, but with what follows, we can see Reich shying away from the abstraction that the Hebrew and the new higher presence of the music offer.
But between and after the two prayers, spoken recordings just like the ones from above cut through. They say, “the world to come / I don’t really know what that means” and “and there’s the world right here.” That Reich chooses these two quotes to end the piece shows that to Reich, for art to face mass death, it must do it directly, with the actual events at the forefront of the representation. Even if the meaning or interpretation is not clear—“I don’t really know what that means”—the truth or facts must be presented clearly—“and there’s the world right there.” We must do what Part 1 does to be able to interpret; WTC, or art, cannot stand in and interpret for us. And thus the piece ends with the tense sound of the phone off the hook that opened the whole piece and carried us through the ultra-literal and representational Part 1. For Reich, to mystify or represent in a more abstract light is impossible.
Finally, our third example, John Adam’s On The Transmigration of Souls, has its own very different philosophy on art’s ability to represent and deal with mass death. Transmigration avoids any representation of the actual events of 9/11. Because of this, Transmigration could in fact work as a piece about any mass trauma event. It is about the experience of the living, of the surviving, more specifically, the experience of those who lost loved ones. In this way, Adams has made Transmigration for a different audience than Gordon and Reich. And for the general listener that has no direct connection to 9/11—no loved ones lost--Transmigration conjures very different images and emotions than Park and WTC. It explores the emotions of the after-effects of 9/11 instead of giving us some sort of recreation or image of 9/11 itself and then letting us as viewers create our own afterward. In this sense, the piece is somewhat restricting in that it tells us how 9/11 would makes us feel if we were directly involved. Transmigration is a selective reading, a sliver, of many complicated experiences of many individuals. And Adams’ method of choosing and setting texts does just this—is selective in this way.
As John Adams’ website (and the score) indicates, the texts come from “brief fragments taken from missing persons signs that had been posted by friends and family members in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy; personal reminiscences (principally drawn from interviews appearing in the “Portraits of Grief” series in The New York Times); and a randomly chosen list of names of the victims.” We can identify similar effects from moments in Transmigration to effects in Park and WTC, even similar techniques, but the overall result is different. For example, just like in WTC, multiple times, the plainspoken image from the moments of terror is conjured up. Text cited “in multiple sources” as a flight attendant aboard flight AA #11’s last words states, “I see water and buildings.” But the main difference is in what audio and text is manipulated, and how. The manipulated audio in Transmigration never has words and it is always mimetic. Sometimes the prerecorded nonverbal sounds take on a high presence, while other times provide a background soundscape. The point though, is that these mimetic sounds do not come from any text. They are not manipulated words as in Park or harmonized words as in WTC. They provide most of the representational elements in the piece. These sounds—a recording of a siren and a “cityscape” sound (as indicated in the score)—cannot be labeled as part of the text, nor can they be labeled as part of the music. They are “real” in the sense that nothing else is standing in for or representing these sounds; they are true recordings, like a photograph as opposed to a painting. This “accurate” representation may seem like Reich’s attempt to show 9/11 plainly and let us react how we may, or it may seem like Gordon’s attempt to let art distort. But these “photographic” sounds do neither because, to Reich, they would not mean anything specifically related to the narrative of 9/11 and, to Gordon, they do not distort what they represent. For Adams, they are there to set a scene, as in a drama or a narrative; however, what follows is not dramatic and does not explain a series of conjoined actions.
The words themselves—the parts of all three of these pieces that actually come from human testimony and thus speak on a one to one level with real experience—are all either sung by the chorus or re-recorded by voice actors in Adams’ Transmigration. The texts mostly make us think of those who lost loved ones: “my father” “my brother” “my mother” are spoken under the music. Sung by the chorus are lines such as, “The sister says, ‘he was the apple of my eye.’ ” The separation of the speaker and what is being spoken makes the chorus, that is, the vocal part that is closer to music as opposed to the spoken parts, more into a narrator. And since it is closer to the music and further from the recitations, we can say it is closer to Adams and the direct effect the piece of art itself can have. Adams’ chorus, and by extension Adams himself, is like a “holy narrator” the way Bach and his evangelist are in the Passions. Adams uses a similar choral palette in El Niño and The Gospel According to the Other Marry in the moments of narration or explanation. In those pieces, especially in Gospel, he uses three contra-tenors all in small and close-knit intervals to tell the story, which in Gospel as the title even tells us is intentionally and consciously subjective. These moments in Transmigration (bar 231 to 320) have very similar vocal writing to represent this sense of a “narrator on a pedestal.”
That Transmigration narrates for us a selected sliver of the experience of reaction is at the core of the piece’s philosophy on art’s role in representing trauma. In Transmigration, when dealing with mass death and trauma, this biased single view and reaction is the best art can offer us. The piece, due to its seamless slow builds and retreats and elegant formal arcs, gives us the perception that we ourselves are drawing the connections from the not mimetic music and not narrative text descriptive of 9/11 to the literal experiences of suffering post 9/11. But it is Adams, through his piece, who is actually doing it for us. Only in the experience of the individual account—one that does not claim to be universal—can the whole story and the aggregate emotion make any sense and have any validity. To Adams, trauma is not really represented truly, legitimately, or worthily as trauma until it has an effect on us (as opposed to letting us create that effect on our own with what we have been given). Until we have a response, it means nothing, and Transmigration attempts at providing one such response.
Now that we have looked at three ways that art attempts to justify itself in taking on the enormity of 9/11, let us revisit Adorno to see what he considers valid art that represents suffering. For Adorno, Beckett’s work (specifically Endgame) succeeds in finding a solution to the unavoidable problem of needing to honor the victim in a work of art about mass death or suffering. As Gene Ray concisely puts it in a re-hashing of Adorno’s argument, “Beckett’s achievement is to have evoked the catastrophe by restricting himself to its aftermath and to have emplotted this negative presentation with a formal austerity and dramatic impoverishment that refuses, in the severity of its renunciations, all links to traditional aesthetic pleasure” (my italics). And that the aftermath is defined by the reaction and is thus subjective, to Adorno, “in art, only what has been rendered subjective, what is commensurable with subjectivity, is valid”
A handful of these aspects Adorno calls for are present in Adams’ Transmigration, but I would be hard pressed to say that Transmigration has a “formal austerity” or “dramatic impoverishment”; one casual listening to the piece will show how the giant climaxes and yearning harmonies do provide some sort of “traditional aesthetic pleasure.” I might say that Gordon’s The Sad Park, especially by the end of the piece when the texts and subject matter and the string quartet too become obscured and distorted, employs a “negative presentation with a formal austerity” of the “aftermath,” but certainly the earlier mimetic and literal parts of the piece do not match what Adorno values. And lastly in Adorno’s judgment, Riech’s WTC would be an absolute failure. Its harmonizing of the spoken accounts makes their horrible memories into a sort of game, where the string quartet just copies and plays with the lines. This reduces the “impact” that Reich tries for, which is ultimately primarily just disturbing because we sense how much “impact” a piece about 9/11 should have.
What I think is most significant when comparing Adorno’s ideas of post-horror art with that of these three pieces, is that Transmigration is not a piece for the victims, it is a piece for the survivors. The victims are left out of it. To me, this is what separates Adams’ choices about which texts to pick and how to use them from Gordon’s and Reich’s approach. Adams certainly does get closest to Adorno’s vision of valid art representing horror in that it deals with the world post-horror, not during it, and in that it is an intentionally subjective expression. It does not try to recreate any suffering in art, only the possible effects of it—the “aftermath” that Adorno is talking about. But as we’ve seen above, Park and WTC justify their reason for being and claim to worthy representation of recent mass tragedy in their own ways. Ultimately, it is clear that whichever we consider to be most valid—Reich’s, Gordon’s, Adorno’s, Beckett’s, Adams’ or any other’s—depends on a whole other set of values and assumptions I have not nearly the space to discuss here.
 Adorno, Theodor W. “Commitment.” In Notes to Literature, Vol. 2, edited by Rolf Wiedemann. translated by Shierry W. Nicholsen, p. 87. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
 Ibid. p. 88
 Adorno uses Schoenberg’s The Survivors of Warsaw as an example of such a work, which in Adorno’s assessment fails for the reason above.
 Ibid. p. 88
 Note: the score provided does not always match the recording, but differences are rare and small. When differences are actually relevant, I will work from the recording since it was made in 2011, while the score that I had access to was printed in 2010.
 This is probably bar 172 in the score, however, the glissandos do not match, and 216, when the glissando does appear is clearly a different moment in the recording (later in the piece) when “and all the persons that were in the airplane died” appears.
 A comparison to the way Reich’s Different Trains (about the Holocaust) deals with mass death and thus philosophies on art’s ability and role in such a representation would be interesting, but I do not have the space for it here. I mention it, however, because I do not think Trains works the same way as WTC, nor “believes” quite the same thing. Why Reich changed (assuming he really did) would be an interesting topic to explore.
 Adams, John. “On The Transmigration Of Souls.” Accessed May 9, 2013. http://www.earbox.com/W-transmigration.html.
 Adams, John. “Texts for ‘On The Transmigration Of Souls’ by John Adams.” Accessed May 9, 2013. http://www.earbox.com/W-soulstext.html.
 The first plane to crash into the World Trade Center
 They are not professional voice actors. Adams asked various people he knew, friends, family, etc., to say these phrases and let him record them and use the files for the piece.
 Curiously, Adams was the only one of these three composers who was specifically asked to write a piece in response to 9/11 (by the New York Philharmonic). Gordon had the idea for his piece on his own and asked the Kronos Quartet to work with him on it, and Kronos asked Reich for a piece for pre-recorded voices and string quartet on any subject and he produced WTC. How this plays into how the pieces philosophies of art’s ability to represent trauma, of course, is only speculation, but I thought it worth mentioning, as the occasion for Adams’ piece was by far the most public.
 Ray, Gene. “Mirroring Evil: Auschwitz, Art and the “War on Terror”.” In Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory: From Auschwitz to Hiroshima to September 11, p. 65. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
 Adorno, Theodor W. “Trying to Understand ‘Endgame’.” In Can One Live after Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, edited by Rolf Tiedemann. translated by Rodney Livingstone et al., p. 268. Stanford: Sanford University Press, 2003.
 It seems that Adorno calls for this “refus[al] of all links to traditional aesthetic pleasure” for reasons that actually have much more to do with a Marxist attack on the objects of the bourgeois, i.e. his High/Low theory of mass culture and the avant-garde, than a true consideration of what art after (and even about) Auschwitz could possibly look like. Though his claim that art about suffering should place itself in the event’s aftermath seems to endure, the need for stark, desolate, and austere aesthetics in any work of art seems dated and obsolete.