Art Can Move Us Forward

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Composer Mohammed Fairouz (photo by Samantha West)

COMPOSER MOHAMMED FAIROUZ’S latest large-scale work, In The Shadow of No Towers (Symphony No. 4 for Wind Ensemble), will receive its world premiere at Carnegie Hall on March 26, with the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble conducted by the group’s Artistic Director, Paul Popiel. The concert, which benefits the 9/11 Memorial, also features the New York premiere of the wind ensemble version of Philip Glass’s Timpani Concerto, with soloists Gwendolyn Burgett and Ji Hye Jung.

Based on Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novelist Art Spiegelman’s book of the same name, In the Shadow of No Towers was catalyzed by discussions between Fairouz and Spiegelman. The forty-minute, four-movement work begins with the disasters of September 11, 2001, and explores what the composer describes as “the unfolding of a post-9/11 reality."  Balancing serious reflection and satire, In the Shadow of No Towers plays on the martial associations of the wind band genre while slyly subverting them with sardonic wit and unmistakable emotional impact.

•  SPECIAL VIDEO:  In The Shadow of No Towers: The Composition  Acclaimed young composer Mohammed Fairouz explains each of the four movements of his fourth symphony, In the Shadow of No Towers. It is inspired by panels from the comic book of the same title by Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novelist Art Spiegelman.

A CHAT WITH MOHAMMED FAIROUZ

CLASSICAL TV:  This work has clearly been inspired by some strong emotions.  Can you speak about those emotions and describe how the idea for the work grew out of your conversations with Art Spiegelman?

MOHAMMED FAIROUZ:  Like most works of art that engage in social commentary and satire, outrage is clearly one of the emotions that exists in both Art Spiegelman’s comic book and my symphony. As the work progresses, the emotions become more conflicted: there’s a sense of outrage, of course, that so many people could be so senselessly murdered and, on the other hand, outrage about the way that politicians used the attacks to further their own political agendas.

The symphony is in four movements but it’s really divided into two large parts. The first part, made up of the first movement (“The New Normal”) and the second (“Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist”), really deal with the immediate reaction to the unfolding of the events and the direct aftermath while the second section deals with the years that follow and brings us to the present day.

From the early part of composing the symphony (and from the first samples I sent to Art) we both identified a clear common ground between us even though, as Art points out we are “from different tribes”. The first is that we are, in his words “both deeply-rooted cosmopolitan New Yorkers” and the second is that we seem “equally obsessed by structure in our respective mediums.” Both of those observations colored my approach to the work and my reading of his comic book.

CTV:  Have you always been an admirer Spiegelman’s work? Can you say some of the aspects of it that most strongly engage you?

MF:  Like most people, my first entry into Art’s work was through Maus when I was a kid. When I was little, it seemed strange to me that anyone would take on such a seriously heavy topic as the Holocaust in a comic book. But Art has a skillful way of interweaving text and image and the result is a powerful experience.

Of course, when I set out to create a serious and deep piece for wind ensemble I was aware of the parallel to Art articulating serious and deep ideas through the comic book. The repertory of the wind ensemble, with some notable exceptions, is dominated by “occasional” music (played at ceremonies) and a large amount of marching band music. So the idea of writing a piece for wind ensemble that articulated serious emotions and a real narrative seemed a lot like doing it in the comic book medium. There’s a lot of uncharted turf and that made a clear connection to Art’s work in my mind.

Having said all this, my symphony is really based on panels from Art’s book. It takes details from the book as its point of departure rather than try to translate the whole book into music. In fact, one of Art’s suggestions to me (that we later discarded) was to title the symphony Panels from In the Shadow of No Towers, with the word “panels” representing both comic book panels and panels that fall off of buildings. I’m not a huge fan of long titles for musical works though so we kept it as In the Shadow of No Towers.

CTV:  So much orchestral and other new music, though often thematic or programmatic in nature, is not precisely political.  Do you see In the Shadow of No Towers being a political work?  Were there special challenges or opportunities for you in resonating with an event that has been politicized by so many?

MF:  I’m not a politician by any stretch of the imagination and I’m not out to make explicitly political statements but I think it would be naïve to say that a work like In the Shadow of No Towers doesn’t have strong political and social resonance. I’m less concerned with the politics itself though, than I am with the way that political and social trends affect us all on a human level. In that way I don’t really think that it’s even possible for a work of art to exist as something separate from the world that we live in. I’m famously against the “ivory tower syndrome” of artists creating specialized works primarily geared towards each other within a specialized ecosystem (like the university or academy). Works of art should engage people and the world we live in.

One of the special challenges in writing a work related to 9/11 was specifically not to take advantage of all that political baggage that comes with the territory and to really comment in a critical and honest form on the way that society has dealt with the aftermath.  

From the very start, I was also aware that I would have to search my own emotional reaction to the attacks-- despair, confusion, sadness, loss, etc.-- and not indulge in those emotions or create a sentimental piece of music. A certain degree of detachment was in order. It would’ve been very easy to create a thoughtlessly rousing and overly sentimental piece of music in reaction to 9/11-- or any similarly huge tragedy--  but that seems like profiteering to me. One of the roles for an artist (that makes us unpopular at times) is to challenge and provoke thought rather than just peddle emotions. That’s especially true of a subject with as much emotional baggage as 9/11.

CTV:  What kinds of thoughts or feelings would like audiences to take away from performances of In the Shadow of No Towers?

MF:  The audience will always take away something different depending on where and when it’s performed and who the individual audience members are, but one thing that I aimed to do in the symphony was to create an extremely clear, even literal, piece of music. There’s no real ambiguity about it even though it is instrumental music and I wouldn’t consider it to be program music. In the first movement there’s no mistaking the moment when everyone sees the attack… the metal against metal scraping of the percussion in the second movement is lucidly eerie and the third movement is the most obvious critique of mindless nationalism I’ve ever composed. I think there will be people moved by the symphony and others who are offended by it; it’ll resonate with some and repel others but no matter what the reaction, my hope is that it helps engender a conversation that we need in order to move forward as a society.

For information about the upcoming performance of In The Shadow of No Towers at Carnegie Hall, go here.