"The fate of Persian music-Persian culture, for that matter-may be
determined solely by political events to an extent never experienced before."
Hormoz Farhat, 1990
It took about two months, but I have now begun to realize that the United States, and New York in particular, may have overreacted domestically to the attacks on September 11. This revelation came to me when I heard that the Guggenheim Museum was exhibiting the magazine covers and paintings of Norman Rockwell as if they were fine art. Comfort has replaced controversy in the city’s artistic consciousness just as mashed potatoes have supplanted couscous in the eateries of Gotham. The triumph of kitsch over taste is a sure sign that a nation is off its center and a long period of healing awaits.
I visited the Metropolitan Museum about two weeks after the tragedy and observed two surrealistic phenomena. Firstly, the great paintings hanging there actually do not contain the backs of tourist’s heads; under these new wartime conditions, there are very few onlookers in attendance to get in the way of a pristine view of the world’s treasures. Secondly, and much more frighteningly, the institution’s Islamic Art section is closed and under heavy guard, as deserted as the Afghan kabob house in my neighborhood which is mysteriously shut down “due to construction”, its plants, visible in the windows, withering badly for lack of care. Even the cartoons in the New Yorker magazine have lost their insouciance.
Musically, there has been a ripple effect. The Brahms Requiem is everywhere, its universal message of solace for the living, unencumbered by organized religion, particularly appropriate. After the initial horrible image of Lincoln Center barricaded and defended by armed police, New York concert-goers have become used to a spectrum of security procedures. Some concert halls search bags and portfolios, one even confiscates them for the duration of the proceedings. Most places have uniformed security present, even if they don’t seem to actually do anything. But many venues have no provisions for high alert, everyone is able to attend their events with whatever paraphernalia they choose to carry. I myself have been the recipient (please note that I do not use the word “victim”) of racial profiling: my natural swarthiness and profusion of facial hair causing me to be pulled out of a crush of patrons attempting to enter one of our major musical venues and forced to open up my suit jacket for inspection (I found the incident particularly amusing as several of the students who hang about the entrance to the hall employed this diversionary opportunity to enter the auditorium sans tickets). And if one was in need of an aural example of cultural Armageddon, what about the playing of “God Bless America” by the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall?
There has been a polarized response to the attacks depending on from which side of the pond one’s musical ensemble originates. American orchestras, after an initial Barber Adagio for Strings mini-festival, have heeded the call of our political leaders and attempted to get on with their musical lives. European ensembles, on the other hand, seem to feel the need of a consolatory opening number (if not an entire change of programming) to assuage the sufferings of the inhabitants of our native soil (now, by the way, officially christened “the homeland”). Even the rock band Anthrax is contemplating a name change.
By far the strangest case in this whole maelstrom is that of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Not even able to enjoy his Warholian fifteen minutes of fame, the now passé avant-garde composer may or may not have made a statement whose gist was that the attack on the World Trade Center was the greatest work of art of the new millennium (after all, only eight months old at the time). Professor Stockhausen, an extremely gentle man with whom I have had the pleasure of an acquaintance, immediately issued a contextual denial of the story on his website. His claim is that at a press conference he was speaking about his belief in the existence of Satan and used the aforementioned statement to illustrate the Hadean presence in our midst. But any denials were too late: the New York Times brutally condemned the man as if he were the unveiled lover of Osama bin Laden (while pompously and self-righteously defending the freedom to present his works of music) and, on American television, talking heads, who wouldn’t know the difference between Beethoven the composer and Beethoven the cinema St. Bernard, clamored for a ban on Stockhausen’s entire output (CD storeowners would be hard pressed to find any examples on their shelves to excise). Strange days indeed.
What is especially ironic in all of this is that the entire mess was precipitated by a man and an organization who wholeheartedly oppose art in any form. I am still furious at the Taliban for exploding those giant Buddhas (even in the darkest days of World War II, all of the warring parties agreed not to bomb the Ponte Vecchio). The systematic destruction of a musical culture is eerily reminiscent of the events in Iran in the 1970’s and ‘80’s. Here the formidable classical tradition of Persian music was virtually wiped out by the fundamentalism of the Ayatollah. At least on the borders of Afghanistan there is a rich musical tradition, although it too is threatened by the internecine cultural wars between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (I live in the neighborhood which houses many of the refugee musicians from these campaigns) and is mostly kept alive in an underground fashion by Bokharin Jews. In May, Yo-Yo Ma is due to present his Silk Road Project, an attempt to integrate the music of this troubled region into mainstream Western concert life. It remains to be seen how this noble endeavor will be affected by world events.
What is harder to quantify but omnipresent in New York this season is a general erosion of musical performance quality. Normally steady artists seem nervous on stage, precise entrances and exits are hesitant and their sloppiness contagious. Understandably deep emotions have unfortunately translated themselves into mawkish displays of schmaltz from performers who would previously have rather died than display their lack of discipline in this manner. I have witnessed incidents in the concert hall as embarrassing as Liza Minelli attempting to sing and dance with the police at the first Mets game after the unthinkable brutality. I sincerely hope that this suspension of good taste is a temporary symptom of mass hysteria. I would hate to think that the beginning of the 21st century marked a sea change in the evolution of serious music (although there is the Yanni problem…).
Missing in all of this is any potential for a great composition or two to emerge from the ashes. From Haydn’s Mass in the Time of War to Prokofieff’s Alexander Nevsky, music has risen to the occasion and expressed the greatest qualities of strength and unity at the moment when they are the most necessary. In our troubled musical times, however, there is literally no one out there ready, willing, or capable of producing such a memorable work. Place the blame wherever you like, but the systematic destruction of art music is, in its own way, as inexorable in the West as it is in the most reactionary areas of Central Asia.
A constructive show of patriotism might be to revive much of the shamefully neglected repertoire of fine American classical music. I don’t expect a concert of Charles Ives at the Bush White House, but a program of Cowell and Schuman, Riegger or Persichetti, Piston or Creston (and yes, even Copland) by an adventurous orchestra might lift our spirits a bit. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, there was an entire weekend of classical music on television (admittedly because the new president, Lyndon Johnson, had decreed that there should be no “entertainment” for a few days). In just 38 years, serious music has become so irrelevant to American life that a thoughtful program led by someone qualified, say Tilson Thomas or Slatkin, on mass media today is clearly unthinkable.
By all indications, we are in for a long siege. One corollary phenomenon will most likely be a provenance attached to live recordings from this period. There is no doubt that historical broadcasts under Furtwaengler from the about to be destroyed Philharmonie in Berlin have an extra layer of emotion to them. In generations to come, some archivists may emphasize the thickness of feeling surrounding performances from the New York of 2001. I suppose ultimately this depends on which side prevails in the conflict. In a show of steadfast resolve, our president has already authorized the barbarous act of dropping junk food on the suffering Afghanis. If we really want to win this war and are willing to do whatever it takes, perhaps our ultimate weapon will be to open a EuroDisney in Kabul.
Frederick L. Kirshnit