Symphony No. 4, “In the Shadow of No Towers” (2012)
Commissioned for The University of Kansas Wind Ensemble
and made possible through the funding and gracious support of Reach out Kansas Inc.
The Wall Street Journal
Feature: One Man’s Memoir of 9/11 Becomes Another’s Symphony
Article: In the Shadow of No Towers
Note from Steve Smith:
“On Tuesday night one of America’s most esteemed concert bands, the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble, came to Carnegie Hall to introduce a commissioned work with the potential to resonate well beyond the usual college circuit, Mohammed Fairouz’s Symphony No. 4. Mr. Fairouz, a versatile, prolific young New York composer, based his piece on “In the Shadow of No Towers,” a graphic-novel memoir by Art Spiegelman about the personal impact and wider ramifications of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
The notion of an Arab-American artist addressing Sept. 11 with an ostensibly lowbrow mix of band music and comics might have seemed paradoxical, but what resulted is technically impressive, consistently imaginative and in its finest stretches deeply moving. Rather than adapting Mr. Spiegelman’s narrative literally, Mr. Fairouz uses a handful of potent images as a starting point for his own idiosyncratic elaborations.
In the first movement, “The New Normal,” Mr. Fairouz uses a comfortably mundane opening theme to evoke a triptych of panels depicting a family watching television before, during and after the attacks. Bombast erupts midway through, after which the initial theme resumes, warped with dissonances and crowned with a funereal trumpet solo (played eloquently here by Janis Porietis).
“Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist” sets gentle, melancholy strains on piano, harp and double bass against scraping, skittering percussion, meant to suggest workers digging through the wreckage. In “One Nation Under Two Flags” the ensemble splits into separate groups. A marching-band configuration plays garish, jingoistic fanfares inspired by those in Stephen Sondheim’s score for “Pacific Overtures”; they clash with the urgent, angry strains, redolent of Philip Glass’s cinematic style, played by the rest of the musicians.
“Anniversaries,” a concluding movement calculated to last 9 minutes 11 seconds, evokes memories simultaneously fading and swelling; over a steady ticktock rhythm on woodblock and claves, a melancholy theme on saxophones wanders through various soloists and sections, building to a more controlled reprise of the opening movement’s outburst.”
— Steve Smith, New York Times
Note from Art Spiegelman:
“Mohammed Fairouz and I are both from different tribes (though we are both thoroughly Rooted Cosmopolitan New Yorkers). He belongs to the Composer Tribe (a group that devotes itself to keeping time, while we comix artits find ways to represent time spatially). Composers often don’t share Mr. Fairouz’s interest in narrative (something that’s just part of the job description for us Cartoonists) but he and I seem equally obsessed with structure in our respective mediums—and clearly we both were shaken by the tumbling structures that struck Ground Zero back in 2001.
Though my idea of a wind ensemble is something often made up of kazoos and jugs, I’m moved by the scary, somber and seriously silly symphony he has made (especially that martial schizo-scherzo he built around “One Nation Under Two Flags!”) I’m honored that the composer found an echo in my work that allowed him to strike a responsive chord and express his own complex responses to post 9-11 America. He emerges from the rubble with a very tony piece of highbrow cartoon music.”
— Art Spiegelman
Note from the composer:
In the Shadow of No Towers (Symphony #4 for Wind Ensemble) takes its inspiration from details in Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel of the same name. Like Poems and Prayers, my Third Symphony for Chorus and Orchestra, the work engages serious ideas. In this case each movement takes as its point of departure a graphic detail from Spiegelman’s book.
The first movement, The New Normal, takes us back to September 11th 2001 and, in its three large sections, literally depicts the events of that day as Spiegelman explores them in the following sequence.
The events are not seen but they are understood. The music begins by depicting the electronic monotony of the first panel. When the calendar turns to 9/11 in the second panel the music explodes reflecting the sense of shock and awe that wakes the “anyone” viewers from their complacent sleep. After a cold and quick funeral march, the music does not stay “awake” but is lulled back into the repetitive sleep of the opening. But in the final panel, the calendar is replaced by a flag, the effects of the shock are still apparent on the people and the music is not quite “right” with a dissonant trumpet line that is decidedly out of place. It seems that nothing has really changed. Everything is the same, but not quite.
Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist (below) is the inspiration for the second movement of the work. Like the graphic sequence, it relies on limited colors that are selected from the larger ensemble. It is music of deep reflection and, like the sequence, reads in descending order. Much of my music has dealt with issues of self-representation and this mournful movement captures this poignant and conflicted sentiment that I felt in the aftermath as a New Yorker and an American of Arabic heritage.
The third movement, One Nation Under Two Flags, serves the role that a traditional Scherzo would in a symphony. This movement responds to Spiegelman’s commentary on a divided nation in the detail to the right. He draws a portrait of the United Blue Zone of America versus the United Red Zone of America to which I responded by literally breaking the wind ensemble into two different bands (I’ve reproduced the score layout to the first page of this movement in my manuscript below it).
In this movement which begins with grotesquely Souza-esque gestures from the Red Zone dovetailing into a resistance from the Blue Zone, the music of each band is pitted relentlessly against the other with the two sides not listening to one another. This develops themes of political satire that I also incorporated much less explicitly in Poems and Prayers.
There’s a generally quick and outraged feel in the music of the urban Blue Zone and a jingoistic, fanfare-y thrust to the music of the Red Zone. The two musics sometimes comment on one another while sometimes they shout over each other to form a cacophony. This is my most explicit critique of loud nationalism.
There is a moment in this movement however where the two sides come together to sound as one in an over-the-top exultation of patriotism (complete with sounding bells and whistles) before diverging again to the same rhetoric and finally spinning out of control to a tumultuous conclusion.
The final movement of the work, Anniversaries, starts with a ticking that will stay with us throughout the movement. It is, in its first part, inspired by the following graphic detail about the passage of time and the ticking of a time- bomb. There is a general anxiety that underlies this music and the constant ticking of the movement. This is music that is unable to mourn, instead concerning itself with the passage of time and the commemorations of each anniversary.
Throughout the movement the music grows louder and louder and the memory of the towers come to loom far larger than life. With each anniversary, there is both a fading of the true memory and an enlargement of mythic status.
— Mohammed Fairouz (2012)
I. The New Normal
II. Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist
III. One Nation Under Two Flags