|Numinous The Music of Joseph C. Phillips Jr.
The Numinosum Blog
The past two years I have posted about my experience on September 11, 2001 and the subsequent composition, The Spell of a Vanishing Loveliness, that came from that experience. Recently there was that big (in the new music community at least) controversy of the cover of the new Steve Reich recording of his composition WTC 9/11 which showed a slightly darken image of one of the planes about to strike one of the towers; such was the uproar that Nonesuch Records decided to remove the image from the recording. Despite some beautiful and powerful moments (the sections with the singing of the Psalms and Exodus were especially riveting), overall I was not particularly moved by WTC 9/11 when I heard the NYC premiere at Carnegie Hall on April 30th. Some of the reasons for my ambivalence can be read in some of my tweets after the Reich cover photo went live:
C'mon @NonesuchRecords, yes we know the @stevereich piece is about Sept. 11 don't hit us over the head with "9/11!" sanctification #subtlety 20 Jul
I wasn't thrilled w/"WTC 9/11" when heard @carnegiehall, because, for me, it represented precisely what having that photo on the cover means 20 Jul
not against Sept. 11 pieces per se just when they draw too much attention as 9/11! pieces (ala Rudy "noun, verb, 9/11" Giuliani)#endofrant 20 Jul
As far as my response, The Spell of a Vanishing Loveliness is not about September 11 but rather a reflection of the reality that even in horrific experiences, there can be found beauty and knowing this is a part of being human. With all of the events and artistic responses set for the 10th anniversary, I think it is good to remember that there is a difference between "9/11" and "September 11": one reflects simple binary thoughts ("good vs. bad", "right vs. wrong", etc.) and often jingoism and the other speaks of universal complexity and subtlety of emotion and feelings. This September 11th I'm wishing for more of the later in the artistic responses than the former. To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm in the movie Jurassic Park, I hope artists thought not only of whether they could respond to September 11, but to think if they honestly should.
Here is my story:
It has been 8 years since the events of September 11, 2001 and recently I've been thinking about John Adams's, and subsequently my own, musical response to that day. John Adams in an interview originally posted on the New York Philharmonic website (and now on his site), talks about his trepidations when asked to write a work, On the Transmigration of Souls, to have been performed almost exactly one year after the attacks of 9/11:
"I didn’t require any time at all to decide whether or not to do it. I knew immediately that I very much wanted to do this piece–in fact I needed to do it. Even though I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of a shape the music would take, I knew that the labor and the immersion that would be required of me would help answer questions and uncertainties with my own feelings about the event. I was probably no different from most Americans in not knowing how to cope with the enormous complexities suddenly thrust upon us. Being given the opportunity to make a work of art that would speak directly to people’s emotions allowed me not only to come to grips personally with all that had happened, but also gave me a chance to give something to others."
I started the composer group Pulse in May 2004 with an initial meeting of six other like-minded composers. From this initial fellowship gathering, all through that summer and fall, we worked on organizing our premiere performance to be that December. For that first performance, I knew I wanted my piece to be based on 9/11, but was unsure of what direction to take. Like John Adams stated, it felt too big and too raw an event to process my feelings enough in order to create something decent let alone meaningful. After a few sketches and false starts, which looking back now, tried to do and say too much, I decided that the best way for me to approach the composition was to reflect on my own experiences that day. To create something with simple and direct expression that did not tackle 9/11 directly, but tangentially; something not exactly programmatic but still able to convey the story of an unexpected pulchritudinous moment that day.
I was in Brooklyn at the time of the attacks, substitute teaching a high school math class at the Brooklyn International School, in a building next to and overlooking the Manhattan Bridge. I first noticed something was wrong when I casually looked out the window to see the usual bustling rush-hour car traffic flowing over the bridge was non-existent. Someone eventually came to the classroom I was in and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Many of the students became visibly upset. I looked out the window again and where just a few minutes before no one or thing was coming over the bridge, now the bridge was beginning to fill with people streaming from Manhattan eastward across the roadway. The first tower had fallen before I had a chance, during my prep period, to run out onto the bridge toward Manhattan (just before the police stopped anyone from traveling westward) to see what was happening for myself. I reached the center of the bridge and could see the top of the second tower in flames. Less than a minute later the second tower, hauntingly silent and seemly in slow motion, imploded upon itself with audible gasps and cries of horror from the crowd which turned to look.
After retuning to the school, you can imagine that it was difficult to focus for the remainder of the school day. With people passing in front of the school, it was a constant reminder of the enormity of that morning's events. The fear and confusion was particularly palatable in the students. As the news coverage slowly uncovered the terrorist plot, this being a high school of all recent immigrants (many of whom were Muslim and wore Islamic veils and scarfs), it was hard not to control my own fears of what would happened to the students when school let out and they would have to pass through the crowd on their way to the subway. Despite the police presence, would they be blamed and suffer verbal or physical abuse from the understandably bewildered and upset crowd coming over the bridge? At the end of the day, many of the teachers, myself included, decided to walk with some of the students to the subway to make sure they were ok leaving the school.
Later in the early evening with two other friends, I was on a townhouse roof in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn surveying the entire lower Manhattan cityscape. I watched as a distant flickering mass seemed to be coming closer toward us from the World Trade Center site. At first it looked like a swarm of white butterflies, glittering in the evening sun, but as it got closer we realized that it was paper rising with the heat from the site and floating toward us from lower Manhattan. An immensely beautiful and ethereal sight, none of us spoke as the swarm came directly over us with some of the many pages from law books and computer printouts fluttering above and some landing all around the roof. We watched as the swarm passed over us and quietly continued farther into Brooklyn. No more than five minutes, this small and ephemeral moment, still resonated with me all those years and when I was ready, found outlet in my composition.
The Spell of a Vanishing Loveliness premiered at the inaugural concert of Pulse on December 1, 2004. The performance featured Amy Cervini (vocals), Sebastian Noelle (guitar), Jody Redhage (violoncello), Diana Herold (vibraphone), with me conducting. It was one of those moving performances where everyone in the audience and the musicians (including myself) were wrapped inside an all-encompassing bubble of the moment. After the piece ended and we were changing over to the next composer, Jody remarked "Did you feel that?" and indeed, the air seemed charged with something tangible and indescribable during and just after the performance (I realized had goosebumps during the end of the piece as the vibraphone and guitar drifted into their final nothingness). There was something magical, real, and true about the performance with the events of 9/11 only three years removed and still so close to people's emotions. It remains one of my most special musical memories so far in New York.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 9:00 AM
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.