Thursday, August 4, 2011

String Quartet in Memoriam of September 11th

For my generation, September 11th was a stumbling from one dream into another. We were born at the very end of the Cold War or at the beginning of what came after. We weren't witness to the existential horrors of the 20th century—the Great War, the greater war that followed, the Holocaust, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, or the later nuclear posturing. We were never part of bombing drills, never lost a brother or father on the shores of Normandy. I think to us, more than anyone, that day in mid September—at the dawn of the twenty-first century—was a shock.

No one saw this coming, and I don't understand why. True to form, Chomsky rushed to the conclusion that our imperialism was the cause of our shock. He wrote that the only thing that made this atrocity unique was the target. But the World Trade Center had already been bombed by Pakistani terrorists in 1993 with the intent of destroying both towers. Nevertheless, the uniqueness of the 2001 incident is evidenced by the difficulty we had in naming it. It wasn't a bombing. It wasn't an attack. It wasn't restricted to a single location. It wasn't a battle. It wasn't an assassination. It wasn't murder. It was larger than murder. It was a time, a date. It was 9/11.

Our inability to name this event or to adequately articulate our emotions about it makes music one of the most fitting ways to discuss it. Music is the language we use to amplify or express our thoughts and feelings when our quotidian communication fails. And as a composer, I have an affinity for the events' symbolic and almost mathematical significance. Two parallel towers in parallel motion; 9+1+1=11; 11, two towering vertical strokes. 9ths and 11ths make for a striking (if compromised) authentic cadence.

But unlike the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, I do not see 9/11 as a work of art, let alone, "the the cosmos." In fact, I feel a disconnect with many of the writers, politicians, artists, musicians, and academics who have focused their efforts on Spetember 11th, and this quartet arose largely as an attempt to put my own voice into the discourse.

I won't analyze my own work or force my own interpretation of it on anyone else, but I will at least explain why I chose the titles for each movement.


i: "the eleventh"

This should be obvious.

ii: "our sleeping sword"

"Take heed how you impawn our person, how you awake our sleeping sword of war—we charge you in the name of God, take heed; for never did two such kingdoms contend without much fall of blood."

Like King Herny V, I felt that the morality of going to war was never clear—good or bad. (I especially felt that way about Iraq.) I believed the president when he said that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but even after we discovered that wasn't the case, I felt helpless in deciding whether or not we should still be there. On the one hand, women were gaining the basic rights which they were previously denied, but did we really have the right to be there in the first place? Doesn't democracy have to come from within the people themselves? At the heart of the whole affair were decisions that had to be made—decisions tangled in ambiguity. That is why this movement is pure improvisation. I didn't write any melodies or supporting lines. I just wrote out a few harmonic structures and general instructions. All the important decisions lie with the individual players.

iii: "where"

"Where" seemed to be the great question surrounding 9/11. Where did this come from? Where is my father, mother, husband, wife, friend, son, daughter, sister, brother? Where was the fourth plane headed? Where will they strike next? Where are they hiding abroad? Where are they hiding among us? Where will they send our soldiers?

iv: "sed perfecta caritas"

Timor non est in caritate sed perfecta caritas foras mittit timorem quoniam timor poenam habet.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear, for fear hath torment.
—1 John 4:18

I believe that individual responses to the events of September 11th showed a staggering amount of love. Yes, there were also displays of fear, hatred, confusion, anger, and malice, but more than anything else, I remember the candle-light vigils and the profound empathy we felt for the families of the victims.

Mehdi Dagarian, a survivor of 9/11, begins his lengthy account of that day by saying, "How can I not believe in miracles when I walked out of the World Trade Center unhurt? How can I not believe in love when I see the outpouring of it from the friends and family who have been calling and e-mailing me since the attack? Rather than seeing the world as an uglier place after the attack, I see it as a beautiful place where people give all they can when called upon to do so."

This final movement of the quartet is a study on John's claim that there is no fear in love. Although it rang true to me, I had trouble understanding what it meant. Certainly loving parents were afraid for their children on that day. But I feel that John meant something else. It's difficult for me to put into words, but I hope I captured the concept in the music.

This movement is also a celebration of the line, "but perfect love casteth out fear." As trite as it may sound, it is my firm conviction that love nourished with understanding will be the only solution to these crises. And I'm a hopeless optimist. I fully expect to see the day Beethoven and Schiller celebrated—a day when joy rips apart the fashion that has divided us, and all men become as brothers.

What I want most of all is for this quartet to speak to those who lived through the events of September 11th. It's my sincere desire that this music will ultimately be a source of comfort and hope—because hope and terror cannot bear to co-exist.

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