The Disjunct Melodies of Memory and War

Culturebot contributor Hani Omar Khalil responds to Mohammed Fairouz’s Symphony No. 4, “In The Shadow of No Towers” which premiered on March 26, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

Springtime may seem an odd moment in the calendar cycle of collective memory to debut a piece commemorating the September 11th attacks in New York. But this time of year marked an equally auspicious observance in connection with the attacks – the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War (launched putatively, if perhaps not intelligibly, in response to 9/11). The past few weeks have borne witness to an awful lot of public testimony over the wisdom of going to war with Iraq, with little contrition on offer from those politicians and media figures who supported it most strongly, and only scant acknowledgment from the President whose early political career was defined by his vocal opposition to it.

To see what the Iraq War has become – a conflict so toxic, vexing, and irresolvable as to no longer merit meaningful discussion in the very country that waged it – is to also lose sight of how genuinely divisive and disorienting the decision to go to war initially was, especially in light of the horrors visited on New York that fateful September morning. This sense of indescribable loss and ever-present danger, bracketed by division, disorientation, and rage against the body politic, permeates graphic novelist Art Spiegelman’s (Raw, Maus) 2004 work, In the Shadow of No Towers. At its premiere on March 26, 2013 at Carnegie Hall, the symphony by composer Mohammed Fairouz and performed by the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble, takes Spiegelman’s cartoonish frenzy of fear and resentment and renders it into a bold musical interpretation not simply of Spiegelman’s work but of the era it sought to portray.

In the Shadow of No Towers was originally serialized in Germany over 9 parts and compiled into an oversized board book in 2004. The aesthetic of each serial is intended to evoke the design and framing of an early turn of the century comic strip. For Spiegelman, this approach served both psychological and polemical purposes. “The only cultural artifacts that could get past my defenses to flood my eyes and brain with something other than images of burning towers”, he writes, “were old comic strips; vital unpretentious ephemera from the optimistic dawn of the 20th century.” More than just the eccentric scritti of a bygone era, these early works also represented for Spiegelman a kind of historical parallel to the jingoist media environment that would sound the drumbeats of war in his own time. The early Sunday comic supplements were part of the larger circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. The same yellow journalist race-to-the-bottom that egged the nation into the Spanish American War would over time also produce beautiful pieces of lush sentimentality (Little Nemo in Slumberland) alongside sophisticated works of high artistic subversion (Krazy Kat).

These spirits literally animate Spiegelman’s frame of mind as he moves from horror to fear to anger to resignation. “The blast that disintegrated those Lower Manhattan towers”, he writes in Episode 8, “also disinterred the ghosts of some Sunday supplement stars born on nearby Park Row. They came back to haunt one denizen of the neighborhood addled by all that’s happened since.” The attacks loom over Spiegelman’s narrative not as an event happening in real time, but as one New Yorker’s portion of the collective trauma inflicted on the entire city in their wake.  “SYNPOSIS”, reads the opening panel, dropping against an oft-revisited image of the North Tower aglow like smoldering embers, “in our last episode, you might remember that the world ended . . . “

Fairouz, however, begins his piece with a first movement (“The New Normal”) that comes as close to an aural depiction of the world ending as any that could be imagined.  Inspired by a triptych prefacing Spiegelman’s first episode, “The New Normal” opens with somnolent, almost meandering counterpoint that eventually settles upon an achingly measure-long pause. The listener is then thrown into a violent, crashing cascade of aggressive minor chords and martial cadences, as much evocative of planes striking skyscrapers as bodies slamming against the pavement. It is a brooding and intensely disturbing movement that illustrates the agonizing present-tense of the attacks. Monophonic bassoons introduce a funereal dirge for trumpet before returning to the opening theme, which sounds now more dazed than somnolent.  Spiegelman’s “New Normal” was intended to depict the ephemeral nature of the attacks as a chairotic moment in American culture, but in Fairouz’s rendering there is no easy escape from their memory.

It is in the second movement, “Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist” that Fairouz hews most closely to the psychological framing of Spiegelman’s work.  A spare, melancholy exercise in grey scales, “Narcissist” silences the traditional wind ensemble in favor of suspended cymbal, double bass, harp, and an array of unpitched percussion.  The scratching of a coin against the surface of a cymbal is the only continuous theme heard throughout the piece, and is ostensibly intended to evoke the search for victims’ remains in the twisted wreckage of the towers. As the movement proceeds, however, the sound of scraping metal also brings to mind the namesake panels from which Fairouz drew inspiration for this piece. In them, Spiegelman looks upon his face in a hand-held mirror, contemplating whether to shave or grow back his beard, vacillating between both looks before morphing into the fictionalized Art, the rodent protagonist from his earlier graphic novel, Maus. Silence, more than any key or chord, pervades “Narcissist”, but it is as much the muted silence of the departed – buried under, perhaps disintegrated into, the rubble of Ground Zero, or listed as missing on every bus shelter and light post – as the isolated silence of the living.

Fairouz re-summons the full symphonic – or in this case, dysphonic – muscle of the wind ensemble in the third movement (“One Nation Under Two Flags”), leaving behind the horror of the attacks themselves for the deeply polarized political environment that arose less than two years later.  This division is expressed through a highly contrapuntal double movement, in which the brass section, along with much of the percussion, plays one texture, while the rest of the ensemble plays the other. Fairouz had composed this piece for wind ensemble because of the genre’s uniquely American patrimony. Here, he draws on the varying historical repertoires of wind ensemble to illustrate the division of America into red and blue factions arguing past one another in disjunct textures. The brass texture is martial, percussive, and aggressive, seeming to draw at times from the military pageantry of John Philip Sousa as well as the vulgar bravado of burlesque jazz.  The wind texture, on the other hand, is more worrisome and cautionary: at times a hectoring sharp minor in woodwind, at other times a small, hand-wringing voice in harp. A confused, contrapuntal xylophone reemphasizes this disorientation, which occasionally gestures toward reconciliation, but eventually concludes in an angry crash, not unlike the attacks in the first movement.  But where the first movement came enveloped in measures of somnolence, lamentation, and melancholy, the second movement ends with an explosion, perhaps thousands of miles away from Ground Zero in a campaign of shock and awe.

History’s unrelenting march continues in the last movement (“Anniversaries”), which draws its inspiration from Spiegelman’s final strip in the series.  Sweeter and less frenetic than the previous three movements, “Anniversaries” is defined less by the remembrance of events past than by the disquietude of time itself.  The rhythmic texture is the ticking of the clock (here, a wood block) against a melody that grows progressively more major and introspective, but, as elsewhere in the piece, is never fully reconciled.  Instead, it ascends around and above one monophonic measure after another only to return to the antebellum meandering first introduced in “The New Normal.” A kind of confused triumphalism starts to set in before the movement, and the piece as a whole, ends with another crash; perhaps a scream of frustration or, perhaps, as in Spiegelman’s telling, the explosion of a giant time bomb. “[E]ven anxious New Yorkers eventually run out of adrenaline and –”, he writes before a bomb explodes in his face, “you go back to thinking you might live forever after all”.

Fairouz’s body of work frequently draws from the textual and the literary.  His chamber opera piece “Sumeida’s Song”, which premiered this past January at HERE Arts Center, was adapted from the Egyptian play “Song of Death” by Tawfiq Al-Hakim.  Earlier symphonies, composed for orchestra, drew inspiration from sources as diverse as the modernist poetry of T.S. Eliot, and the music criticism of Edward Said. While the graphic novel may seem to some a comparatively more prosaic genre from which to draw inspiration, there is an undeniable aesthetic integrity to Fairouz’s choice of source works, and the messages he seeks to convey through his adaptations of them. For all the aggressive counterpoint and minor scale dissonance of Towers, Fairouz composed this work with reconciliation in mind, even if this reconciliation isn’t necessarily one of a tonic nature.

Spiegelman describes both himself and Fairouz as “thoroughly rooted cosmopolitan New Yorkers”, a self-description which brings to mind Saul Steinberg’s legendary New Yorker cover in which the rest of the continental United States, looking westward from Ninth Avenue, is reduced to one giant condensed rectangle lodged between the Hudson River and the Pacific.  That even Kansas City (less than an hour’s drive from the University of Kansas) is accommodated for in Steinberg’s rendering (at the very center of it, within eyeshot of Las Vegas) speaks as much to New Yorkers’ overall bewilderment with the nation off whose coast they reside, as it does to their somewhat blinkered understanding of “Flyover Country” in general.  The 9/11 attacks flipped this dynamic on its head, with America now reaching into New York from its flat, rectangular enclosure to claim the city’s wounds fully as its own.  While New York recovered, buried its dead, and slowly began the process of rebuilding, it was called upon at the same time to serve as a vessel for the nation’s anxieties about its role in the world, and ultimately (however abstractly) as a cause for war.  The geographic demarcation lines for this dynamic are not easily drawable ones: Iraq War supporters could just as easily be found among the political and cultural leadership of New York, as opponents of the war could be found in the prototypical red state of Kansas.

But much more than a political reconciliation, In the Shadow of No Towers is also an attempt at reconciliation across generations in time. Though most of the performers on stage at Carnegie Hall would have only been of grade school age at the time of the attacks, the legacy of 9/11 is as salient to them as it is to anybody who witnessed them contemporaneously. For this cohort, 9/11 symbolizes not a violent disjuncture from a frivolous, frothy era of stained blue dresses, sock puppet dogs, and spiky-haired boy bands, but the very backdrop against which America’s current entanglements with the rest of the world (and, it could be argued, with its own domestic politics) must be understood.

Meanwhile, for those New Yorkers who experienced the attacks firsthand, the memory of them has become an increasingly private domain; less the stuff of patriotic bellicosity or civic-minded grievance and more the fount of esoteric remembrances, like the impossibly blue sky that morning or how “those arrogant boxes” (as Spiegelman calls them) used to frame every downtown view from as far north as the Flatiron. It is memories such as these that are perhaps the last to reconcile, even as new towers go up and troop levels draw down. “The towers have come to loom far larger than life”, Spiegelman writes in the end, “But they seem to get smaller every day.” In his final telling the towers disappear from view, carbonized and ashen, behind a panel reading “Happy Anniversary.” But now over a decade past, their shadows continue to loom long across rivers and oceans, memory and time.

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