Monday, January 29, 2007

Music as a Response to Terrorism

Music often celebrates the heroic and mourns the tragic in the human experience. Occasionally, what is heroic or tragic is also political. Beethoven's Eroica Symphony (Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major), which originally carried the title Bonaparte, is perhaps the most famous example of concert music celebrating the heroic. (According to an early biographer, Beethoven flew into a rage and removed the title when he heard that Napoleon had proclaimed himself emperor.) Dmitri Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony (Symphony No. 7 in C major), composed during the German siege of Leningrad in World War II, is another excellent example of the celebration of the heroic.

Where there is a text set to music, the political dimensions of a piece of music can be made more explicit. Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, which employs not only the text of the Latin mass but nine war poems of Wilfred Owen, is a beautiful work--overtly political--that mourns the tragedy of war.

Can music offer a response to terrorism in the post-9/11 world? Two of the foremost American composers have suggested that it can.

Within months of 9/11, the New York Philharmonic commissioned an orchestral work by John Adams. His composition (On the Transmigration of Souls), which incorporated a recording of various voices reading a list of names of victims of the destruction of the World Trade Center and a choral text that included lines taken from handmade flyers left in Manhattan by the families of the missing, was a compelling memorial that one critic compared to Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

More recently, Steve Reich's Daniel Variations has been premiered at the Barbican Theatre in London, Carnegie Hall in New York, and Disney Hall in Los Angeles. I was privileged to attend the West Coast premiere at Disney Hall last night.

Daniel Variations was commissioned to honor the memory of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was captured and killed by militants in Pakistan in 2002. It begins with a text spoken by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (in modern-day Iraq) in the the Book of Daniel: "I saw a dream. Images upon my bed and visions in my head frightened me." It is a vision of terror, but against this awful premonition in the first movement, Reich in the second movement presents a surprisingly powerful affirmation expressed in five simple words spoken by Pearl in the tape made by his executioners: "My name is Daniel Pearl."

The music is an important part of what makes the second movement so powerful, but so is the significance of names. Those whom the Nazis sent to concentration camps during World War II were dehumanized by having their names stripped from them; a number tattooed on each prisoner's arm replaced his or her name. Knowing this, we can understand how the simple recitation of Pearl's name in Daniel Variations can be heard as an assertion of his humanity under circumstances of extreme inhumanity.

Grant Gershon, director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, said in a pre-concert talk about the program that the second movement of Daniel Variations left every performer in tears during the first read-through in rehearsals. Most of those in the audience last night were, it seemed, similarly overwhelmed.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Reich's Daniel Variations is that it celebrates the heroic more than it mourns the tragic. In this respect, it offers a life-affirming response to terrorism.