On the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, I attended a Prague tribute to New York City. The concert featured NYC avant-garde music and composers, whose creations were performed under the auspices of the US Embassy in Prague.
At the time of the 9/11 attacks, I was living in San Francisco but visiting with my parents in the Midwest. I woke up to find my mother and father glued to the TV watching 9/11 play out!
“Steve Reich’s 9/11 memorial composition is almost unbearably haunting.” Classic FM
The Prague 9/11 remembrance was held at Archa Theatre, new to me and in a part of Nové Město I hadn’t visited before. The concert featured the music of noted New Yok composers Steve Reich and Elliot Sharp. Local performing musicians included:
- fama Q String Quartet – Violins, Viola, Cello
- Štěpán Filípek – Cello
- Jana Havláková – Violin
- Michal Nejtek – Piano
- Martin Debřička – Sax
- Michal Wróblewski – Sax
- Štěpán Janoušek – Trombone
- David Daniel – Violin
- Ondřej Martinovsky – Viola
The tribute was organized by the Archa “Music in Context Project”, featuring “works by composers central to the New York avant-garde music scene”. The music spotlighted Steve Reich’s dramatic composition WTC 9/11, working with “authentic audio recordings of the events of September 11, 2001” and Elliott Sharp’s latest creation, Feedback 21, which premiered this year.
The program included these five innovative compositions:
- Steve Reich: Triple Quartet (1998) – fama Q
- Steve Reich: Different Trains (1988) – fama Q
- Steve Reich: Cello Counterpoint (2003)– Štěpán Filípek
- Steve Reich: WTC 9/111 (2010) – fama Q
- Elliott Sharp: Feedback 21 (March 2021) – Jana Havláková, David Daniel, Ondřej Martinovsky, Štěpán Filípek, Michal Nejtek, Martin Debřička, Michal Wróblewski, Štěpán Janoušek
In my opinion, the compositions performed were extremely complex. They consisted of several elements and layers, including string quartet and orchestra music, taped sounds, and spurts of human voices. While performing Reich’s compositions, musicians wore headsets, tuning into recorded sounds.
Although brilliant, Sharp’s Feedback 21 seemed extraordinarily complex – like life in 2021! The YouTube version of Reich’s WTC 9/11 below illustrates his presentation, where recordings, graphic music, and crescendos tell the story.
Steve Reich Composer
American composer Steve Reich is “known for his contribution to the development of minimal music in the mid to late 1960s”. His work is “marked by its use of repetitive figures, slow harmonic rhythm, and canons”. Reich won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2009, for his work Double Sextet.
Reich’s style “reflects his explicit rejection of Western classical traditions, serialism, and indeterminacy”. During his impressive career, he’s “sought to create music in which the compositional process was discernible in the music itself”. Reich’s composition style “influenced many contemporary composers and groups, especially in the US”.
Reich graduated from Cornell University in 1957 with a B.A. in Philosophy and minor in music. His B.A. thesis was on Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian-British philosopher considered one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century.
“Steve Reich is one of a handful of composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history.” Andrew Clements The Guardian
“Reich’s found-sound compositions took on a whole new purpose when he composed WTC 9/11, a piece in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.” His composition “recreates the chaos and terror of the event – with a backing track playing panicked recordings taken from the day itself”.
“Of all the artistic responses to the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11th 2001, Steve Reich’s is surely one of the most affecting.” Classic FM
“The string quartet reacts to these recorded sounds and imitates them throughout, something that Reich has done before, but rarely to such devastating effect. We hear the sound of a phone left off the hook, air traffic controllers talking, firemen on the streets below – all creating that unique and terrifying atmosphere through music.”
Elliott Sharp Composer
A multi-instrumentalist and performer as well as a composer, Elliott Sharp is “a central figure in the experimental and avant-garde music scene in New York City”. His recordings range “from free improvisation, contemporary classical, avant-garde, jazz, experimental, and orchestral to electronic, noise, and no wave”.
“Steve Reich has been called America’s greatest living composer (Village Voice), the most original musical thinker of our time (The New Yorker), and among the great composers of the century (The New York Times).” Boosey & Hawkes
Sharp pioneered “the use of personal computers during live musical performances”. He plays guitar, saxophone, and bass clarinet, and has led several ensembles, including Mofungo, Bootstrappers, and SysOrk.
“Sharp’s compositional strategies have encompassed the use of fractal geometry, chaos theory, algorithms, genetic metaphors, and new techniques for graphic notation to yield work that catalyzes a synesthetic approach to music making as well as functioning as retinal art.” Roulette
His impressive education includes classical training in piano and studying anthropology, music, and electronics at Cornell. He received a B.A. degree at Bard College, where he studied composition, improvisation, ethnomusicology, physics, and electronics. In 1977, he received an M.A. from the University at Buffalo, where he studied composition and ethnomusicology.
Sharp established himself in New York’s music scene, and his compositions are performed and featured at concerts and festivals worldwide. He releases music under his own label – zOaR music – and others.
Sharp’s distinguished career includes composing scores for feature films, documentaries, and television networks, and creating sound installations in art galleries and museums. He’s received worldwide recognition, prizes for his compositions, and served notable fellowships.
New Music Experience
I wasn’t sure what to expect at the concert, but it wasn’t what I pictured. It was my first experience with “avant-garde” music, and I’ve never heard anything quite like it. The small, mostly Czech, audience loved the music! I kept thinking how difficult it must have been for the musicians to perform the extraordinarily complex compositions, especially Reich’s Feedback 21 which involved ten musicians.
After the concert was over and I had left the theatre, I felt calm, like my brain had been massaged – a more thorough job, than say the pacifying effects of Buddhist om chanting. Someone who better understands this kind of musical composition might be offended at that analogy, but I’m trying to wrap my head around the music.
As briefly detailed in this blog post, both Reich and Elliott are extremely talented, intelligent, and well-educated composers who explore and experiment with this unique genre of music. It’s fascinating to say the least!
The Archa Theatre is in a busy part of Nové Město, where lots of new construction is in process. I took the C Metro and got off at the Florenc station. It was a 15-minute walk from the metro to the theatre, passing interesting clubs, restaurants, and shops. Prague is lively on Saturday night!
Archa isn’t as grand as Prague’s elegant national theatres, but it worked well for the concert. It’s a basement venue and part of a small mall in an older building across from Starbucks. You walk down two flights of stairs to reach the theatre and its adjoining bar. I was required to show my covid vaccine record to enter. The crowd was interesting, comfortable company.
Manifesto Market Florenc
On the way to the concert, I stopped at Manifesto Market :o). It’s a popular hip open-air market with music and every kind of food and drink known to man – tacos, sushi, Thai, schnitzel, vegan, vegetarian, coffee, tea, smoothies, fancy cocktails – and it was packed. I may visit again. It reminded me of holiday markets in Berlin, with merrymaking and lights everywhere.
I’m still contemplating the anniversary of the horrific 9/11 attacks, as well as the entertaining “avant-garde” evening in Prague. Minimalism and experimental music may be a cultural phenomenon beyond my grasp, or should I say gasp!