Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Decade in Music #2: Samuel Barber and John Adams

2001. I'm the editor at the ill-fated Network Of The World in lovely Chiswick. It's basically a TV station producing daily music packages. Being a TV station, our open-plan office has massive plasma screen everywhere. Normally they're showing our own output: sports shows, tech, games, something called life which consisted of, um, whales. It's all a bit blurry.

So I'm working at our ridiculously high-powered PCs, fighting the temptation to get back on Napster, when I become aware that the office has emptied. Then I see that’s not quite right: everyone's gathered around the chief designer's dual monitors. Not being one of nature’s joiners and sort of just assuming they're all watching some viral video or other, I ignore the commotion.

My interest is only piqued when some sort of collective laugh or gasp issues from the group. OK, you've got me, I think. I get up and go take a look. I’m confused: I don’t immediately see what’s so interesting about a plume of smoke billowing from the World Trade Center.

And so it was that the afternoon unfolded, surreally, nightmarishly, numbly. Back at my desk, IMing friends and paranoically imagining highjacked planes crossing the Atlantic, we watch the iconic collapse on the huge plasma screens. That night, on the way to something or other, conversation is stilted: we’re numb. Only the debut of Blue Planet on the BBC is some kind of respite. The permanence of nature is a comforting message. But beyond horror, emotion was hard to come by.

It was, of all things, the Last Night of the Proms that helped unfreeze me and bought some measure of cathartic sadness. It so happened that Proms that year had been especially dedicated to American music. Leonard Slatkin, an American citizen himself, was conducting a hastily revised programme, dropping the jingoism for something more reflective. In tribute to the victims, there was a minute’s silence. Then played Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Slatkin’s face says it all.

Some years later in Sydney, I went to the Opera House to hear a performance of John Adams' On The Transmigration of Souls. Especially composed to commemorate the attacks, the piece featured speakers set around the auditorium playing verbal fragments from letters found in the wreckage. The effect was to give a human face to those otherwise incomprehensible weeks.

So, not pop music. Nevertheless, two of the most intense musical experiences of my decade.

Buy On The Transmigration of Souls
An interview with John Adams on the composition of the piece.

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