Thursday, September 11, 2008

Remembering September 11th, 2001

On September 11th seven years ago, I woke up in my newly-moved-into mid-town apartment just before 9am and logged on to my lap-top to see what was going on in the world. There was some nebulous news flash about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. I assumed it was probably one of those small 4-seater type planes and went to find out more about it. Having logged into a chat room where friends were already chatting about what was happening, I read that, now, a second plane hit the other tower. Suddenly, the bottom dropped out when I realized this is no accident: what is going on?

Originally, there was a flood of 1000 words here describing how that day unfolded for me, but you know what happened and the pictures may still be fresh in your mind. To keep this post relatively short (at least, for me), I wanted the focus to be how this affected the music I composed.

The year before, I had written a violin and orchestra piece that still has no title, inspired by the opening chapter of Tolkien’s Silmarillion, the violin seems to call the world into being but evil is introduced by an opposing power; there is a clash and then everything eventually collapses back to the beginning. Nor have I done anything with it beyond showing it to a few people who’ve basically never gotten back to me about it (that unplayable, huh?).

Shortly after I was able to function again following 9-11, I began a companion piece, again with no title, where a solo English horn was a voice-in-the-wilderness, spinning out a prophet-like meditation whose message becomes perverted by his followers and of which he loses control.

I was, maybe, half-way through the piece when I’d gone to hear the Market Square Concert “Summer Music” performance by the Ying Quartet which had a new work on the program, one I didn’t care for much. Thinking back on the historical baggage of writing a string quartet today with Beethoven and Brahms and Bartok tromping along behind you, wondering what I would ever do if someone asked me to write a quartet, Joel Lambdin sat down next to me at intermission, as if on cue, and asked precisely that: would I write a string quartet for his Harrisburg Players’ Collective? I fumbled around with some ideas, mostly working on technical issues – writing for four strings is a lot harder for me than writing for a full orchestra, historical baggage aside – when a motive started to gel that I liked. And then I put the English horn piece aside and never went back to it.

Now, without getting too detailed about my musical language and compositional habits, I tend to work with numbers substituting for pitches in standard notation. This helps me think of the pitches more abstractly without traditional 19th-Century contexts of how chords function or how one pitch leads to another. In this shorthand, something developed by theorists analyzing 20th Century music for years, C is 0, C-sharp or D-flat is 1, F is 5, B-natural is 11 and so on. This motive I was working out started with a long sustained A moving to a B-natural before erupting into a dramatic chord. Or as I wrote it using this number-system, 9-11. Though no listener would hear what you would see with those numbers on the page, it became the start of my String Quartet. It was September 9th, 2002.

The premise of the quartet was an arch in five movements, each reflecting a different emotion experienced in the preceding year: rage - fear - that numbness which is neither grief nor mourning - hope - and then I wasn’t sure how to end it, perhaps with either a lament or a dramatic protest or maybe something positive. Eventually the last movement went in two opposite directions simultaneously, dividing the four musicians into two duos (much the way Elliott Carter did in his 3rd String Quartet, though without as deep a complexity). It took a long time to work all this out, writing a few hours a day before going into the station.

The hardest to write was the “fear” movement, the second movement’s swirling paranoia which I likened to being lowered into a tank of piranhas and you have no idea where they might attack you from: going from this frame of mind out into the real world was a daily adjustment and sometimes not an easy one. Only when I had mapped everything out and put all of the emotional details into the plan was I able to approach it as an abstraction without the psychological drain. The same worked for the final movement, too: there was to be no identification which duet was which side of the political spectrum, just two factions not only violently disagreeing but in a sense not even listening to each other, the death of the dialectic.

The quartet was completed on September 8th, 2003.

It was not the most practical thing I could have written for an ad hoc ensemble that doesn’t play together regularly like an established quartet. I was constantly worried about its being either unplayable or being simply too hard to perform with only a few rehearsals. Showing the rough drafts to Joel on an installment basis – I remember showing him the first movement and, as he looked at the first page, seeing how his hands began to tremble – there were several occasions when he could've backed out of his commitment to play the piece: I had to write what I needed to write at that time. To his credit, he urged me to keep going. It became, after all, only the second piece I’d completed in some 20 years and I think we were both afraid that if he backed out now, I would stop writing this one, too.

One thing that occurred to me as I was writing it – I believe it happened during the fourth movement, a long-lined melody unfolding over constantly shifting and increasingly faster harmonies – how much easier this would be to write it for orchestra. The structure was also symphonic in scope, and so I began toying with the idea of “turning it into” an orchestra piece. The first sketches were made a few days before the quartet was completed, but now I had to write out the final draft and full score of the quartet, plus copy parts for the impending performance. But on the morning of September 11th, 2003, I stepped out on my porch around 10am and heard the single tolling of a church bell, presumably the one just two blocks away, joined then by the gentle pealing of bells from other churches around the city. After a moment’s pause, there was a creative flash in which I saw the whole piece begin to take shape in my mind. I went to the piano and started sketching a few ideas that would become the symphony that put me back into this constant 9-11 frame of mind for another two years.

Because the quartet still required much of my post-compositional time, I did not actually begin writing the symphony until late-January 2004, but after that it became a nearly daily creative encounter. I spent the intervening months working out the structure – except for the finale which again became an issue: how to end it – and it wasn’t until most of that was done I felt I could begin filling in the notes. In a way, the piece itself was basically finished: all it needed was the notes. It would have been too neat, perhaps, to have finished it around September 11th, 2005, but there was still much work to be done: there were times when a week’s vacation would have been wonderful to cover the necessary groundwork but it wasn’t practical to arrange the time. Instead, when my turn came for a holiday, I was not at a point where that amount of concentrated time was helpful, working out certain drudgeries of background that turned the mind to mush after a few hours anyway, necessary but unrewarding and often frustrating (times when I wonder if composing is really worth it, when the negative voices are the loudest, when you lose track of what your goal really is). It wasn’t actually finished until late-January of 2006, two years and a day after I’d begun composing it.

Meanwhile, the String Quartet was set for a performance in March, 2004. By this time, Joel had moved to New York City to find work, more training, and more inspiration to keep his own dreams going. The Collective would still be performing in Harrisburg but three of the musicians – Joel, 1st violinist Matt Lehmann and cellist Jennifer deVore, all playing in the Harrisburg Symphony – lived in New York City; violist Amadi Hummings, whom I’d met during the seasons he played with Next Generation Festival, was based in Virginia. So ironically, I found myself going to New York for rehearsals for a performance in Harrisburg. It was also the first time I’d gotten back to New York since September 11th, 2001. Given the nature of the piece and how much this date and its events had become part of my life, it seemed inevitable I should make a pilgrimage to Ground Zero. It was not possible to do it lightly or easily. And I knew from there I would go to a quartet rehearsal.

Walking through side streets still fenced off with barriers and walls where you could still read posters from people looking for loved ones (thinking of the opening of John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls with its heart-rending repetition of a child’s voice saying “Missing...”), I approached it from the side, spending much time just staring into this hole in the ground: there was not much to see, but it was what one could still see that had the most immediate impact – the ramp used to bring up the debris and the bodies buried in the rubble; the gouges in the stones of adjacent buildings. I tried to avoid the front of the place where many people, clearly tourists, got off buses, ran up steps to have their pictures taken in front of the fence – “And here we are at the World Trade Center” – before running back onto the bus for the next stop. I tried not to look at them or feel anything toward them. I knew friends of mine who lived in New York City, including members of the quartet, who still were unable to go there simply to see.

Much of that afternoon was spent at St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church, the stone church where George Washington had prayed when this city was the nation’s first capital. But how this building had survived the collapse of the towers is still a miracle: it became the triage center for the rescue mission in those first hours and was, in 2004, still a museum to the courage of the men and women who worked there and to those who died there. Someone had placed boxes of tissues near many of the exhibits. There were photographs of a young man playing the violin to soothe their spirits alongside photographs of those who gave them food or massages. There was even a photograph of a string quartet playing in the sanctuary and I thought of my quartet being played there, then shook my head “no.”

Out in the back yard, I sat on a stone bench where George Washington himself may have sat if not slept. Looking through the ragged branches of trees and iron fences that had survived the collapse, I looked into the space across the street where once the towers had stood and pulled out the score of my quartet to read through it. I had gotten into the second movement’s paranoia and put it away: it was not the piece to be heard here, in this space. It was not, perhaps, a piece to be heard on September 11th at all, for that matter, a day that needs contemplation and remembrance, not rage and fear. I read through just the slow static middle movement and then put it away.

I sat there, perhaps, for an hour before getting back into the subway, not having said a word to anybody the whole time but walking away with a pocketful of tissues, going over to the apartment in Queens where they were rehearsing my quartet. It was a beautiful spring-like morning in early March. As I turned down the street, I heard my music – my music!! – wafting up towards me from their rehearsal. They were in the middle of the slow movement.

It was then I felt, for the first time in a long time, I was doing something right.

The performance, to finish the story, went much better than I was anticipating: the quartet played incredibly well for the intense difficulty of the piece, both technically and emotionally. In fact, I was amazed by the impact of their performance and only slightly aware of the slight problems in the performance – one spot where two players were not together but which was quickly corrected, or realizing the last movement was under tempo: did anyone but the composer notice these things? I was happy enough it had not fallen apart somewhere, the last movement so rhythmically complex (one side slowing down as the other duet speeds up and practically explodes at the end). The performance at the Fredricksen Library in Camp Hill may not have had the best acoustics and I wondered if the two duets in the finale could work, though Joel assured me it would, under different circumstances.

It amazed me they had never asked me to change a note much less rewrite a passage because it was unplayable. Hard, yes; challenging, definitely. The audience response was generally enthusiastic though I was more amused at some who scowled at me afterwards as if I’d completely ruined their evening with my ugly and demanding music. When someone who’d been unable to attend asked a colleague if it was “pretty,” I could only respond that “it was inspired by September 11th: how could it be?”

And now, seven years later, it is still not a pretty time: people wondered, then, if they should hold those birthday parties because it’s September 11th. But now, time passes and perhaps the memories fade.

In 2005, I wrote that, though it’s now called “Patriots Day,” it was still a day for deep emotional contemplation and remembrance, whether you knew someone who died in those attacks that day or not, whether you support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or not, or whether you have lost friends and loved ones in those wars or not.

And then, that year, three years ago, there was also Katrina to engage our senses of rage and fear and that numbness one feels when, hopeless, you are faced with the inexplicable and the unsurmountable.

But life goes on: writing three years ago, I heard, across the street, neighbors sitting on their stoop with a month-old baby crying and laughing. She will never know what this date means, only reading about it in the history books in school.

This morning, now in the suburbs, it is quiet. Life goes on. But the memory fades a bit.

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Later: While listening to John Adam's "memory space" On the Transmigration of Souls, I read this account in the New York Times about today's memorial service in New York City. You can also listen to live NPR coverage from WNYC in New York City.

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