Final paper for “Music Since 1945” with Professor Anne Shreffler:
Writing a piece that commemorates 9/11 brings with it an unavoidable and considerable challenge: how to make art out of real suffering. In this paper, I will look at three composers who have made such an attempt: Michael Gordon, Steve Reich, and John (Coolidge) Adams, who fall under the umbrella of “American Minimalism,” even if all three might reject the term. Features such as the presence of a steady pulse, the use of repetition, the slow alteration of figures or cells as a central formal device, and the overt use of process made audible to the listener, are shared among these composers’ works. But I consider these three composers’ 9/11 commemoration works in this paper not only because the composers share membership in a broadly defined aesthetic movement. Curiously, all three composers go about commemorating 9/11 with found objects (texts and audio). Gordon, Reich, and Adams seem to share the intuition that their work should preserve some of the realness of the tragedy. In what follows I will start by laying out a criticism of art after mass trauma from the German philosopher Theodore Adorno (section 1). In sections 2–4 I will study Gordon’s, Reich’s, and Adams’s works. In particular, I will look more closely at how these three works relate their chosen texts to our perception of victims’ suffering, in an effort to bring out the radically different approaches these three composers have taken on commemorating 9/11 in music. In closing I will analyze how these choices stand up to the critique posed by Adorno.
Section 1: Adorno’s paradox
Theodor Adorno theorized and editorialized profusely on art’s ability (or inability) to represent mass death. In the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust, Adorno insisted that art that was attempting to represent what had just happened in Europe was “barbaric” because “the so-called artistic rendering” of the pain and suffering of the victims, “contain[ed], however distantly, the possibility that pleasure [could] be squeezed from it.”& Even though Adorno asserts that “[i]t is barbaric to continue to write poetry after Auschwitz,” he also reminds us that we must never forget the victims’ suffering. It follows from this that our culture must enact this remembrance. By extension, he thinks, artists, who produce objects of culture, have a responsibility to help us never forget. This is where Adorno’s analysis generates a paradox: To ensure not forgetting “demands the continued existence of the very art [that victims’ suffering] forbids.” The representation of the suffering is problematic because it invites pleasure and abstinence from representation of suffering is problematic because it enforces amnesia. Adorno claims that both courses of action, representation and its omission, hurt the victims: To mute, reduce, or remove the full scope of the horror of a mass-trauma event represented 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.”
The contemporary American composer faces this conundrum in the aftermath of 9/11. In a way, Adorno’s criticism of artworks that provide their viewer with an image of the suffering the work takes as its subject matter is not heeded by Gordon, Reich, and Adams. But it is important to appreciate the difference in historical context when noting this fact: postwar Europe does not have precisely the same concerns as contemporary America. Though 9/11 has left its mark on American society and politics, it did not come to have the fundamentally social, political, and culturally altering effects that the 1940s had on Europe. As Paul Griffiths notes of 1945 in the first sentence of his book Modern Music and After, “No other date has left such a mark.” But even though, as Griffiths says, “everything that has happened in music since hinges, whether in extension or retraction, on that post-1945 moment,” it also feels as if the grip of that moment has weakened. Perhaps a 9/11 commemoration piece need not follow the same guidelines as a work about the Holocaust or the atomic bomb. Accordingly, Gordon, Reich and Adams all do put the rawness of the real events into the artwork in the form of found texts. Since the texts capture some degree of the true events of 9/11 and have the quality of being artifactual rather than being “made” by the composer, we are left with only the music to alter our perceptions, distort the reality presented by the texts, and provide us with a more subjective plane of experience.
Section 2: Gordon, The Sad Park
Michael Gordon’s The Sad Park tells a clear story about art’s ability to comment on an event like 9/11 both through its overall formal structure and through the structure within its individual movements. Each of the movements in the piece, and consequently the piece as a whole, begin with the presentation of an artifact. Texts are presented with little distortion and little interference from musical elements. Over time, music takes over, leaving the artifacts behind in favor of the more subjective commentary provided by the composer’s intervention. In each occurrence of this formal arc, music and the spoken voices begin to meld into each other, and as the voices are processed, they are distorted and obscured, creating a purely sonic realm. Sometimes this is complicated by the fact that the music itself is representational, curiously suggesting real sounds associated with 9/11—a siren or an airplane engine, for example. Generally, the form repeated throughout the piece is that of a linear progression from text to music, artifact to artifice.
The artifactual elements in The Sad Park are recordings Gordon made of preschool children from his daughter’s class trying to make sense of 9/11. The piece opens with the voice of a child saying, “Two evil planes broke in little pieces and fire came.” (The child’s voice has no significant processing. The only alterations to the sound seem to be some added reverb.) The phrase is repeated and elongated, substantially slowing down the recitation of the line. This continues under repetitive and incessant string quartet chords, which at first offer only an unaffected and impartial backdrop. Early in the section, there is scant interaction between the artifactual elements and the music. As Part 1 continues, though, the string chords command more and more attention as they become more dissonant, awkward, and spread out. Meanwhile, as the strings slow down (bar 165), the voice becomes more and more processed. It is finally altered to the point of abstraction into pure sound.
The switch is completed by bar 190, where the sonic thread that has been the girl’s voice becomes a low-pitched drone—a backdrop—while the first violin separates itself from the texture to wail in the upper range, capturing the listener’s full attention. This wailing in the first violin has ambiguous but nonetheless strong representational suggestiveness. I would argue that it sounds at once like crying and a fire or police siren. With this reading, we can note in this part of the piece two complementary transformations: while the voice has changed from a literal and descriptive mode to an abstract and musically supportive mode, the musical part has gone from being basically featureless and expressionless to engaging in a mimetic mode. The musical part, rather than the vocal part, has become the layer of the piece that conjures up literal associations with the event of 9/11.
I argue that a stance on art and memory reveals itself in this change. With this compositional choice, Gordon expresses his contention that describing terror and horror stands in the way of understanding. These descriptions may be necessary to situate us and make the subject matter known to us, by describing facts of the matter. But only in the realm of music can the tragedy of mass trauma be properly represented and be opened up to public processing. Descriptions of facts are hermeneutically inadequate while music makes understanding possible. This is the first argument that is put forth by the piece.
Nevertheless, this thesis is not supported with the same rigor in the rest of the piece. In the latter movements, the swapping of roles between artifact and artifice is not so straightforward. In particular, in part 3 the interaction between the voice and the instruments marks a departure from the structure presented in part 1; and in part 4, distortion takes center stage and presents an anthesis to the thesis of part 1.
In Part 3 the words—“I just heard on the news that the buildings are crashing down”—are virtually impossible to comprehend. However, the vocal part does not remain completely abstract, fulfilling only a sonically supportive role, as was the case in Part I. Instead, the vocal track is much more active and it converses musically with the string quartet. More importantly, the processed vocal sounds, though distorted enough to be detached from their descriptive content, become sonically mimetic. Beginning for the first time at bar 30, then around bar 69, and especially at bar 78 and bar 165, the child’s voice, altered beyond the point of semantic recognition, is highly sonically suggestive of a plane taking off and then cruising. Even if the semantic meaning of the spoken words is obscured, the processing is done so that we understand without doubt that these sounds originate from the voice recordings. Frequently, these sonic moments begin to stutter and break down, wind down, or run out of steam, as we might imagine an airborne vehicle would before an impending crash. The purely musical element of the string quartet, meanwhile, although developing and growing, is not mimetic the way it was in Part 1; it simply grows in intensity alongside the sound-image of the stuttering plane.
The effect of words turning into sound-description (of broadly speaking the same story that those words had described) is different than that of the first movement, where only music took on a representational role. As such, a further departure has been made from seeing words as the primary object of contemplation. Words themselves have been turned into musical representations of the event. This represents a midway point in the piece’s progression. The piece begins with the focus of attention on verbal description. Here, at what we might label the midway point, sonic representation reigns, representing a move towards abstraction, but not fully attained. As we will see, the piece ends in a fully abstract space, without any suggestion of representational sound or text.
It is impossible, of course, to prove whether it really was Gordon’s intention was for us to perceive the literal image of a plane’s flight-gone-wrong in his manipulation of the spoken audio as I suggested. (It is certainly what I hear.) But whether it specifically was the composer’s intention to invoke a faltering airplane or not, it is unquestionable that in this part of the piece the textual layer (i.e. the voice track) has been abstracted to the point where it is now able to act in a sonically conversational manner with the string quartet.
These changes serve a particular effect, whereby the music has shown itself to be capable of playing a supportive role to literal description and itself being mimetic, and the voice has shown itself able to support the music’s mimetic capabilities and to sonically describe an image of its own contents. In other words, the two spheres—artifact and artifice—have become one and the same. Indeed, at around 21:15 (in part 3) in the recording a single string instrument (probably the viola) and the voice part begin to do the exact same thing. This string instrument and the vocal part both rise, as if jointly imitating, again, an engine starting up. But as time goes on, the music slows beyond the point where we can hear it as anything but an abstraction.
Finally, I turn to Part 4, where distortion begins to take over to present, as I will argue, an antithesis. Recall that distortion was used only to process the sounds of speech up until this point. Now, it is applied to the string quartet. Moreover, no texts or spoken parts are present. We may sense that the distortion on the previously descriptive vocal elements has somehow infected the string quartet. In the absence of any textually or musically descriptive or representational elements, the piece comes to deny its own ability to deal with its subject matter directly. How are we supposed to read into this change? I think that the string quartet’s descent into distortion—particularly distortion that sonically originated from children’s accounts of what happened—points to one conclusion: that art’s ability to represent mass trauma on this scale ultimately fails. This is the antithesis to the thesis in Part I of the piece: that descriptive facts cannot help us understand trauma, only music will. In part 4, the only remaining presence of 9/11 itself in the artwork seems to rest outside our real-time perceptions of the piece altogether; we can only preserve our grip on the subject matter by our awareness of what came before this part. The piece thus undermines its own attempts at telling the story of 9/11 first through words, then through music. The hermeneutical project fails.
By its own lights, Gordon’s piece seems to be a self-conscious testament to the conclusion that music can play no role in representing 9/11. But is Gordon telling a parallel meaningful story to his listener by showing us that his piece fails at representing the tragedy of 9/11. The Sad Park shows us that though the story of 9/11 may be too emotionally monolithic and impenetrable to tell through music, a piece of music about it can at least gesture at this fact itself about 9/11, which indirectly speaks to the trauma of the event itself.
Section 3: Reich, WTC 9/11
Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 is more direct in its approach to representing 9/11. In his liner notes Reich says that he wanted to write a long piece but he felt extending it would reduce its impact. The aspects that carry this “impact” in the piece are the nature of the artifactual material and the formal simplicity of the structure. First, Reich makes few abstractions and distortions to his found objects, unlike Gordon. Perhaps most strikingly, Reich uses actual found audio from 9/11 itself, whereas Gordon only used audio that had testimonial and descriptive content. These found audio files featured in the piece are largely unaltered. They are merely presented, often even unaccompanied at first. Second, Reich is all the more direct by grouping the piece in three parts, each around the type of content in the recordings. Each section is entirely transparent in what it is about: first, city and air traffic emergency transmissions; second, retellings by people involved, third; a Jewish prayer. No attempt at formal complexity is made.
I would argue that Reich’s chosen method for attempting to make the greatest impact on his listeners—a goal implied by his comments in the liner notes—is by narrativizing and dramatizing 9/11 in the piece. Reich uses archival audio from actual air traffic and first responder radio transmissions to tell the story of the events. He sets these radio transmissions in an order that they could have actually occurred. In listening to these artifacts, we are transported directly into the actual moments of terror and shock: first an air traffic operator says, “plane just crashed into the world trade,” and then a New York Fire Department operator says, “all available ambulances.” WTC does not so much as tell the listeners what happened that day, rather than offer to the listener the chance to be situated within 9/11’s present; we are given the chance to experience a real piece of 9/11 itself, instead of standing at a distance from it and learning about it by way of testimony, description, or musical representation.
In part 1, the string quartet provides little to no subjective interpretation of the real raw audio from 9/11. Its music does not act or comment on the text. Reich uses the string quartet to, as he puts it in his liner notes, “double and harmonize the speech melodies.” Reich has transcribed the pitches and rhythms of the voices in the sound recordings, and the string quartet merely mimics and supports the raw voices. The result makes these horrifying audio recordings more resonant and perhaps more emotionally jarring, as we recognize the effort that the composer has made in matching the quartet to the voices. But this does not much change their ultimate effect, because the rawness of the found audio is itself so poignant. Our attention cannot help but be focused overwhelmingly on the thought that these actual words were being spoken by actual people on that day.
In this context, art is quite literally attached to raw reality. Indeed, it is fully dependent on it. Since every musical utterance is attached to a sound in the found audio, it seems the artifice would have no existence without the artifact. But though art is not separate from reality, in this instance, art and reality are hardly given equal weight either (as we could argue they are at the midpoint of The Sad Park). In WTC, art’s role is clearly inferior: it has been relegated to objectively documenting the story and the events as vividly as possible, and allowing the audience members to make with that what they will. The vision of art in WTC is: art as a kind of journalism.
The journalistic vision of part one is continued in part two of three in WTC. This part establishes that time has passed since the event. The audio recordings in this section are testimonial. Still, the same technique is used as before—the music doubles and harmonizes the voices. Again, this subordinates music’s role and largely removes the possibility of a subjective layer that can be provided by music. Furthermore, the testimonies that Reich chooses tell us the aspects of the narrative about 9/11 that any likely listener to the piece would already know. The testimonies are not particularly revealing or altering of our perceptions of the event. Even with the slight distance from the raw audio of 9/11 itself, the effect is not much different.
Part three, however, finally breaks with the vision and temporarily occupies itself with a different engagement with the subject matter. Here, we have the only time in the piece where the music becomes more pronounced than the text, and the non-literal realm of music is allowed to the forefront. The recorded voice of this section is a Jewish prayer, and this recording has a true melody here. Even though the strings also copy the melody here, for the only time in the piece, they play clearly louder than the pre-recorded audio. The meaning of the prayers is also important. The two Hebrew prayers mean that the eternal and the divine will protect and guard the bodies of the dead until “the end of time” where they will be brought “to the place that I have prepared.” In this section of the piece, Reich does not allow for composition of new material, but he seems to suggest that even though music can’t introduce truly new content, art can, in some sanctified space where a mere telling of traumatic events is left behind, begin to provide something to its listeners. It can offer some sort of explanation or interpretation but only here, in the house of a sacred language. This hope, however, is short-lived.
Though Reich entertains the possibility of music’s participation in understanding in this limited plane in the latter section of part 3, he also quickly shies away from this space. Between and after the two prayers, spoken recordings just like the ones from the two earlier parts cut through the texture. 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, art can only face up to mass trauma directly, with the actual events at the forefront of the representation. Meaning or interpretation need not be clear—“I don’t really know what that means”— but still, the truth or facts must be presented accurately—“and there’s the world right there.” To Reich, the role of a work of art about mass trauma does not ultimately go beyond an accurate representation of the events. Art cannot play a role in helping us interpret or process. The piece begins and ends with the tense and ambiguous sound of a phone off the hook. Perhaps this is all we can have. For Reich, representing 9/11 in a more subjective light is impossible.
Section 4: Adams, On the Transmigration of Souls
Finally, our third example, John Adams’s On The Transmigration of Souls, has its own approach to answering to the problem of representing mass trauma in art. First, Transmigration crucially avoids any sonic representation of the actual events of 9/11. Its choice of artifacts also respects this decision, not describing the events in words or even using the memories of survivors. Because of the lack of recognizable anchoring to 9/11, it could, in some ways, work as a piece about any instance of mass trauma. Second, Transmigration is about the experience of the living after 9/11. More precisely, it is about the experience of those who lost loved ones, not those who lost their own lives or even survived the attacks. In this way, Adams makes Transmigration with a more specific audience in mind than Gordon and Reich had in mind. Importantly, this allows Transmigration to explore the emotions of an immediately post-9/11 space through a very particular lens. Transmigration seems to tell us how 9/11 would have made us feel if we knew someone involved: emotions such as shock, anger, and grief are clearly gestured at. Transmigration offers a selective reading, a sliver, of many experiences of many individuals in the aftermath. Adams sees no reason to shy away from this fact and makes no attempt to make his commemoration “objective”.
Adams’ method of choosing texts is the first place to look to see the novelty in his approach. He uses a wider range of texts than the previous two composers. As 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.”
Even though the majority of texts are personal in this way, Adams also uses texts that belong to the scene. For example, a plainspoken image from the moments of terror is referred to in Transmigration. Text cited “in multiple sources” (as Adams indicates) as the last words of a flight attendant’s aboard flight AA #11 states, “I see water and buildings.” This phrases represents the only text that is directly about 9/11 in the piece. But it is also vague. Unlike the examples from Gordon and Reich, this selection of text is not about buildings coming down, airplanes crashing, or emergency vehicles rushing to the scene. It could be merely a description of New York, or any city, or almost anywhere. One would have to happen to know that these were the last words spoken by the American Airlines flight attendant to know specifically to associate them with 9/11. The point is that in Transmigration, associations with 9/11 are at most inferred, if present at all, in the texts he choses.
Another unique feature of the piece is that the layer of non-verbal pre-recorded audio, when present, is always heard performing a kind of scene-setting. This layer provides most of the representational elements in the piece. Significantly, these mimetic sounds never come from manipulated human voices or raw audio, and as such contain few direct signifiers of 9/11. 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. But, these elements are “real” in the sense that nothing else is standing in for or representing these sounds and they are true recordings of what they claim to be; they are photographs, rather than paintings. In effect, these are staged photographs rather than candid shots. The use of “real” sounds may seem related to Gordon or Reich’s attempts at representational music and sound. But Adams’ sounds are not “authentic” and do not even have much to do with 9/11 specifically. Only by way of suggestion—a cityscape and a single siren—to they conjure 9/11. For Adams, they are not part of the storytelling but rather are there to set a scene in service of other elements.
Adams exercises control over the delivery of the text, unlike Gordon and Reich. In Transmigration, all verbal elements, where we would imagine the narrative or at least the descriptive core to lie, are either sung by a chorus or re-recorded by voice actors. In Reich we had raw audio and first-hand testimony and in Gordon we had children’s attempts at description and sense-making. In both pieces the audio contained the voice of the actual person responding, testifying, or describing. But in Transmigration, the separation of the text from its source transforms the vocal elements into a narrator. Adams maintains control over this narrator instead of handing the listener some control in the narrative structure by handing over more artifactual objects. Adams’ chorus, and by extension Adams himself, is like a “holy narrator” rather akin to Bach and his evangelist in the Passions. In fact, Adams uses a similar choral palette in El Niño and The Gospel According to the Other Mary in the moments of narration or explanation. In those pieces, especially in Gospel, he uses three contra-tenors all in bound together in small intervals to tell the story, which in Gospel, as the title even tells us, is intentionally and self-consciously from a single point of view—not objective. These moments in Transmigration (bar 231 to 320) have very similar vocal writing to represent this sense of a “narrator on a pedestal.”
The texts sung by the chorus mostly make us think of those who lost loved ones: “my father”, “my brother”, “my mother” are spoken under the music. The chorus sings lines such as, “The sister says, ‘he was the apple of my eye.’ ” Thus, the contents of Transmigration’s narration are about reaction and reminiscence; it is always looking backwards in time to 9/11, not placing us in the present of 9/11. And these backwards looks are necessarily from the imagined vantage point of some particular person. Adams’s piece testifies to the fact that there is no established set of events that we can all loosely agree make up the idea of post-9/11. Any vantage point will give a partial take.
This is at the core of how Adams answers the central conundrum of dealing with mass trauma in art. I argue that Transmigration puts forth the following thesis: when dealing with mass trauma, an individual reaction (or series of them) is the best art can offer us. It is only through suggestion (and prior knowledge of the piece’s subject we as listeners may bring to bear on the experience of the piece) that we can connect the suffering represented by the text to the events of 9/11. The texts themselves focus mostly on the universal experience of loss, and the related emotions of anger and grief. For Adams, only in trying to imagine ourselves in the position of someone post-9/11 who has experienced tragic loss—a position that by its nature does not claim to be universal—can the communal reckoning make sense. To Adams, the facts of mass trauma cannot be rendered artistically. In the presence of rawer representations of mass trauma, we may be unable to effectively create meaning in response to mass trauma. Simply allowing the listener the leeway to interpret the events as they wish is too jarring, for Adams. Until we have a response we can understand and relate to, the exercise of experiencing the objective realities of 9/11 aesthetically is ineffective. Hence, Adams attempts to provide a glimpse of a more sensitive response to 9/11 by attempting to focus our attention on the more universal emotions of loss, anger, and grief.
Section 5: Conclusion
Now that we have looked at three composers’ attempts at creating a work of art that takes on the task of commemorating 9/11 and embodies a different answer to the challenge of responding to mass trauma, let us revisit Adorno’s paradox from the first section. Adorno did, in fact, have in mind a very specific idea for what would make a valid artwork that represented calamitous suffering.
For Adorno, Beckett’s work (specifically Endgame) provided such a model. As Gene Ray puts it in a re-hashing of Adorno’s argument, “Beckett’s achievement [was] 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). There are several requirements that are voiced here as a way out from the paradox. First, the artwork ought to focus on the aftermath. For, the aftermath occupies the space of reaction and thus the subjective. That the subjective experience should take precedence here is essential, according to Adorno. He writes, “In art, only what has been rendered subjective, what is commensurable with subjectivity, is valid.” Second, the piece ought not to allow for traditional modes of aesthetic pleasure. The formal elements—bare aesthetics and negative affect—secure this.
It is obvious that Reich’s piece falls short of all of Adorno’s requirements. But, at first glance, a handful of the attributes for which Adorno calls are present in Adams’ Transmigration. Adams is explicitly and exclusively concerned with the aftermath of 9/11. Thus, it occupies the subjective space—as it must, to be an appropriate response. Yet, Transmigration makes no attempt at “formal austerity” or “dramatic impoverishment”; a cursory listen would reveal the giant climaxes and yearning harmonies in the music that do provide some sort of “traditional aesthetic pleasure” that Adorno would eschew.
It is in the last part of Gordon’s The Sad Park, where the texts and subject matter and the string quartet all become obscured and distorted, that we find a “negative presentation with a formal austerity” of the “aftermath”. But neither the earlier mimetic and descriptive parts of the piece nor the artifactual material Gordon chooses fulfill Adorno’s requirements.
To sum up, the study of three American minimalists’ reactions to 9/11 shows that John Adams, with his Transmigration, gets closest to Adorno’s vision of valid artwork about mass trauma. I argued that Adams’s choices were in fact motivated by a concern similar to Adorno’s—eschewing any evidence from the scene of the tragedy—while Gordon and Reich were concerned with other hypotheses—namely, the possibility of understanding the event through music and the tension between the artifact from the scene and artifice in performance.
By rejecting the use of photographic traces altogether and shifting focus from the event to the aftermath, Adams meets the thematic requirement. Transmigration deals with the world post-event, not during it, and in that it is an intentionally subjective expression. It does not try to recreate or invoke any victims’ suffering in art, only the possible effects of it, the aftermath. The American Minimalists may seem in every way diametrically opposed to the ideas and broader cultural moment represented by Adorno and his contemporaries. But it is curious that Adams and Adorno can so align on part of a theory of what is appropriate art in the face of mass trauma, even if some issues remain clearly outstanding.