Ten Marches ago the United States entered Iraq to disarm weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. The resonance of the occupation of Baghdad a few weeks later was not lost on people across the Arab states. Baghdad is, together with Cairo (now destabilized) and Damascus (now in flames), one of the central cities of reference and longstanding cultural importance in the Arab World. Broad parallels were drawn between the American-led invasion and the Mongol siege of 1258. Iraqi anthropologists and artists lamented the looting of their National Museum as a crime that "affects the heritage of all mankind." In this first decade of the 21st century, the role of the artist in engaging the world seems particularly difficult and especially vital. This is a little of what's running through my mind as I go to Carnegie Hall for the premiere of In the Shadow of No Towers, my latest symphony.
The symphony starts at the outset of the decade and the century roughly a few minutes before the first plane crashed into the North Tower of New York's World Trade Center on September 11th 2001. The terrorist attacks and their aftermath are seen through the lens of Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers, the comic book that inspired my symphony. The discursive back and forth between Art and me saw us commenting on one another's work but also unraveled the complex (often traumatized) relationship we both seem to have with the decade that followed. The first movement of the symphony, The New Normal, is painfully literal music that stays faithful to the three-part form of Art's corresponding panel from the comic book. It depicts the lethargy of a slumbering family on a couch watching TV. They are briefly woken up in the second panel when they witness the attacks on their television screen only to immediately return to their sleep in the third panel but not before mounting an American flag on their wall. The proliferation of nationalistic rather than humanist symbols was one of the most striking visuals of the days following the attacks (Art mentions that he expected to see globes rather than flags start to pop up).
Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, it's clear that we missed the opportunity to come together as a human race for the common cause of humanity, the sanctity of human life and humanitarian advancement. In 2013, we are able to get from any point on the globe to anywhere else in less than 24 hours and yet people, especially those who are closest together, seem to be very far apart from one another. One Nation Under Two Flags, the third movement of my symphony, is an example of this on a local level. The point of departure for this movement is a detail in Art's comic book on the polarization between red and blue American states. I wrote the movement for two bands playing simultaneously and against each other: "The United Red Zone of America" and "The United Blue Zone of America" make for a divided score. It's a socio-political satire caricaturing the childishness of political infighting and bickering.
There's a tragedy under the caricature, an underlying tumultuous anxiety to the music of In the Shadow of No Towers that gives voice to some of the questions in my head as to why, in our bickering, so much of the world's paranoid discourse has to do with domination, misunderstanding and the gross exaggeration of our differences at the expense of our shared humanity. All of this shifts the focus away from the emphasis on advancements in the humanities, the sciences and the arts that we desperately need. This may sound like hopeless optimism but I do know there's a vast universe that we need to continue exploring (in fact it's likely to be vital to our future). There are human bodies that need to be cured through advancements in medical research and whole human beings that need to be inspired by a new poem, sculpture or piece of music.
Opening his 1963 address at Amherst College (and speaking in the heat of the Cold War), JFK noted that while our national strength matters, "the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much." Later in the speech he concluded that he saw little of more importance to the future than "full recognition of the place of the artist". The role of the artist in these first hard years of the 21st century is a trying and complex one. Many artists will tell you that Kennedy's vision of "an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft" hasn't come to fruition. But important works of art don't always come out of times of peace and prosperity. It was in the darkness following World War I, after all, that Yeats chillingly anticipated the following decades in The Second Coming.
Art Speigelman first characterized my symphony as "scary, sober and seriously silly." While In the Shadow of No Towers has its comic, cartoonish moments, it is unmistakably one of my most socially critical musical works. Just like in Art's book, this criticism comes from the perspective of a sympathetic artist aiming to work for the betterment of society rather than alienate audiences with arbitrarily scathing criticism. "If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society," says Kennedy, "it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential."
I've been called an "idealist" and an "optimist" and I guess these aren't unusual descriptions for an artist who regularly engages social issues. After all, we continue working quite hard with no real guarantee of results "in the real world" as far as moving people or engaging them in thought. But the alternative (underestimating the potential for human growth and missing opportunities to nourish the creative spirit) is unacceptable. The world's artists are raising their voices inspiring us to do better. All we have to do is listen, and if we listen with open ears, Yeats' rough beast "slouching toward Bethlehem to be born" may not come round once again.