by Evan Hause
Review of musical responses to 9/11 at kalvos.org website for American Book Review, March-April, 2002 [Vol. 23, No. 3]
Every person affected by the tragedy of September 11 has probably already performed at least one musical piece in reaction to it: a moment of silence. Take silence, or a blank canvas if you will, as one end of an expressive spectrum and the chaotic and reactionary filling of it with violent strokes of a black crayon as the other, and you have a visual analogy to the range of music presented at the internet collection created in response to 9/11 at Kalvos & Damian (www.kalvos.org/tragedy.html). This website contains four hours of music by twenty-eight contemporary composers, with the promise of more to come. These expressions of sympathy, loss, confusion, and rage were created between the afternoon of September 11 and mid-October using synthesizers and other instruments, digital sound synthesis, sampling, verbal instructions, and written composition rendered by live instrumentalists. They average five minutes in length and are listenable in RealAudio or mp3 format.
An observance of silence (contributed here by Robert HP Platz) makes an apt departure point in a discussion of the thirty-one compositions at the site (arranged in alphabetical order by composer with some offering more than one work). Pauline Oliveros submits the like-spirited instructional message that you, the audience, can respond musically on your own: "Place your right hand over your own heart. Place your left hand on the back of your partner. Sing/chant/intone AH on any pitch that will resonate your heart." Other pieces tread very lightly upon the silence, replacing it with ambient fields of sound: sculpted masses with little or no melodic activity which dwell by turns tranquilly or dissonantly on the periphery of the meditative listener. James Bohn's Community 091101 and Phil Kline's Sepember 22 Vigil are the most extensive of the ambient works here. Both are coincidentally in six installments and last about forty minutes. While both expound a landscape of stasis and contemplation with little development, the differences in their mood, presentation and purpose are marked. Bohn's jagged and murky soundscape is really six subtly different versions of the same process (apparently using an electronically processed voice above a harmonium) which he intimates are for eventual film accompaniment, while Kline's pretty audio (apparently using an electronic keyboard) was created for the purpose of distributing in cassette form to a large number of participants with boom boxes for a walk through the streets of Manhattan on the eponymous date, creating a mobile outdoor sonic environment (which is best described in the pictures and text at an outside website). The more dissonant approach to ambience, possessing as it does qualities of confusion and darkness, is also evidenced in the pieces World Trade Center and Miroirs XIII by Misha Stefanuk and Alberto Vignani, respectively. Roddy Schrock's "sound sketch of relentless pacifism," Crumpled Stream, seems to strike the best balance of these pieces, working the silence with kid gloves.
It can be difficult to tell whether the sounds in electronic music are synthetic or the product of a recorded "found" sound, or sample. Indeed the distinction is primarily academic but it is worth mentioning because sampling is proving to be a seminal component of our music of the future. Randall Packer's VOID attempts to put the listener at ground zero of the World Trade Center collapse by creating a "sound installation" based on descriptions of earwitnesses. He calls it "a non-space where one can contemplate the enormity of the event, the weight of its destruction, and the implication of its impact on humanity." Fred Szymanski's Wedge processes the sounds of heavy rescue machinery using a computer program of the same name. A considerably less sublime sampling technique is evident in Tim Conrardy's synth-pop Metal Bird, which lays the voices of spectators and G. W. Bush over a Miami Vice-like keyboard soundtrack and follows the events of the day in film-music fashion. Claudio Clemens offers a wonderful electronic piece entitled Higher Falls based on a single chirp of a cricket in a South American jungle, but the cryptic program note does little to tie this piece with the disaster of September 11.
Most of the above pieces distinguish themselves in a category of music that, while being electronic, takes a couple of steps back from an original sound source or musical idea and crafts it into a fixed structure, however non-narrative. Another bountiful category at kalvos.org/tragedy.html is improvisation which is recorded and either left raw or treated electronically in some way. This process, the electronic extension of free jazz, is another strong trend of our musical time and place. Most interesting in this context is that the hub of free-improvised musical activity is, as it always has been, lower Manhattan. Despite the fact that some of these improvised works hail from other parts of the world, it is fitting that the free improvisers are represented at this site. Louis Kobra's Sucker Punch and Lev Zhurbin's Just...In General are restless, off-the-cuff rants in an electronic vein using multiple synthesizer tracks and little self-criticism, but they mean well and represent the "anything-goes" musical spirit that both downtown Manhattan and Kalvos & Damian engender. Phil Jackson's Taledamned is another muddy, computer-generated quasi-improv that trails off as though it forgot its point. These pieces made me want to hear more focused free improv on the subject of 9/11, perhaps more human (like Mary Lou Newmark's piece described below). Other approaches to improvisation, like Conrardy's, come from a more rock- or film-influenced temperament. Matucana's Where There is Hope, is Hope, Edgardo Solano's The Dawn After, Stefanuk's New York Will Go On, and Richard deCosta's Elegy are all keyboard-based "tunes," while Steve Leroy mellows out on the brooding bass guitar solo, Smoke, composed in a "spontaneous fit."
Throughout the website I appreciated the brief composer statements regarding expressive intent, materials used, and the correlation between the composer's process and sentiment. Gregg Wager's Afterlife uses an overall 3-against-4 polyrhythm to denote the clash of two at-odds cultures. Other works develop narrative or programmatic themes, such as Jon Shields and Chad Maim's In Tenebrus Lux and Brad Smith's Midday Meditation, which communicate in a conversational way somewhere between the distance of ambient music and the forthright oration of a solo work or improvisation. Smith's piece, for instance, is in three sections basically described as: 1) western frenetic life, 2) eastern meditative thought, and 3) joyful optimism.
Technology undeniably plays a large role in all of modern music, a fact nowhere more evident than at this website, where the vast majority of the compositions are electronic. The above-mentioned technologies make it possible for an electronic composer to put a musical idea "out there" very quickly. Left in the dust, or at least left fumbling with the technology, are composers who write for orchestras or choruses or chamber groups in the traditional way, for their creative process and the delay or absence of classical performance opportunities in modern culture preclude that months or years may pass before their work comes to light. Fortunately, such composers are not completely unrepresented at this website. Unbelievably, David Heuser (Elegy, September 11) and Zhurbin (Outside) managed to write string orchestra pieces and have them performed and recorded in a short amount of time after the tragedy. The streaming audio format does not harm these works as much as one might expect, rendering them at least as coherent as any synthesizer (or MIDI) version would. These two works for the same medium again point up the two general areas of emotional reaction existent at the site: from the rage and anguish of Heuser's Penderecki-like outcry to Zhurbin's brief ray of sunny optimism. Two solo works which come across surprisingly well on the internet, A Walk Through the Valley by Mary Lou Newmark and In Memoriam September 11, 2001 by Meira Warshauer likewise occupy contrasting expressive terrain. Newmark's violent electric violin improvisation makes for a spiky and dramatic complement to Warshauer's compassionate and beautifully played (by Robert Jesselson) cello solo.
Another mode of circumventing the turnaround time of traditional performance and recording is to realize an acoustically-conceived composition by electronic means, particularly MIDI. Eve Beglarian (Five Things) and Dennis Báthory-Kitsz (The Key of Locust) present electronically-realized versions of acoustic pieces in tandem with a downloadable view of the printed score, which is a successful web compromise given their style. Musically they are two birds of the same feather, minimalist in their insistent use of a small amount of musical material, and not particularly exploitative of the idiomatic qualities of the instruments. These highly abstract pieces are satisfying, and stretch the listener in an altogether new direction. Martin Schiff's 911 Elegy is a mournful solo for either a bass flute or a synthesized bass flute soundit becomes hard to tell. Distinctions of timbre tend to blur in streaming audio, just as distinctions between written and improvised works in this website's (and our current and future culture's) recorded and electronic musical landscape do.
All of these composers, and any artist who managed to work in the weeks following September 11 (including the hosts of this website), must be thanked. As artistic remembrances and tributes grow in number over the years, these products of that particular bewilderment and speechlessness that gripped the world in the summer's closing moments will hold a unique place. The improvisatory spirit vis à vis digital technology have served our artists well in this circumstance. There will be much more creative work produced in response to 9/11, but there can be nothing quite like the knee-jerk responses available at this (www.kalvos.org/tragedy.html) and, hopefully, other archives. Fortunately we are not left with only silence.