4.62. Robert Normandeau, electronic composition ‘Chorus: To the Victims of September 11th, 2001’ (2002)

The electronic composition Chorus: To the Victims of September 11th, 2001 was written in 2002 by the Canadian composer Robert Normandeau (born 1955). The composition was a response to the attack of Islamist terrorists on the Twin Towers, which as the writer Ian Buruma and the philosopher Avishai Margalit put it, were “filled with people of all races, nationalities, and creeds, working in the service of global capitalism, [and] represented everything that was hateful to the holy warrior about the greatest modern City of Man.” *Buruma and Margalit, Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies 21. The subject of Chorus is not only the attack itself, but also the confrontation between the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and moreover, the longing for peaceful coexistence.

Normandeau composed Chorus for the International Competition of Sacred Music in the Swiss city of Fribourg in 2002, which he won. For Chorus, he interrupted his work on incidental music for Sophocles’ Antigone. Without entering into detail, Normandeau stated that certain elements of Antigone—in which both Antigone and her antagonist Creon identify their disastrous plans with the will of the gods—ended up in Chorus. *Normandeau, Interview on Chorus. CKUT 90.3 FM Montréal. Perhaps the title was also inspired by the play, because the chorus in Greek tragedy is a group of singers delivering a wise comment on the action.

Normandeau drew also inspiration from another play, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (1779), in particular its parable of the rings. This parable, an episode in Act III, Scene 7, is of medieval origin and taken from Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353). In the Jerusalem of the Third Crusade, Sultan Saladin has financial problems; he wants to extort money from the rich Jew Nathan by embarrassing him with a difficult question: which is the best religion? Judaism, Christianity, or Islam? Nathan’s answer is the parable of the precious ring which is an heirloom given by a father to his son. Because the father cannot decide to which of his three beloved sons he will leave the ring, he has two copies made; then, he takes each of his sons aside and gives him a ring. When the sons, after their father’s death, discover that all three of them possess a ring, they become furious and bring the case before the court. The judge says that he cannot pass judgment without their father and that the real ring makes the wearer beloved by God and man. When asked which of them is the most beloved one, the sons remain silent. The judge concludes that all three rings are imitations and sends the sons away without a judgment, but with a good piece of advice:

If each one from his father has his ring,
Then let each one believe his ring to be
The true one.—Possibly the father wished
To tolerate no longer in his house
The tyranny of just one ring!—And know:
That you, all three, he loved; and loved alike;
Since two of you he’d nor humiliate
To favor one.—Well then! Let each aspire
To emulate his father’s unbeguiled,
Unprejudiced affection!

*Lessing, Nathan the Wise 234-5. In Scene 9 of Lasker-Schüler’s play Arthur Aronymus 163, which deals with the tension between Jews and Christians, one of the characters mentions Lessing’s Nathan. Cf. Chapter 4.17. The musical material of Chorus consists of the “sound signatures” or authoritative discourses of the three monotheistic religions: the shofar blasts represent Judaism, while the ringing of the church bell represents Christianity, and the call of the muezzin, Islam. *In Ben Shahn’s painting Third Allegory, there are the “pictorial signatures” of Judaism and of Christianity (the church spires). Chapter 4.33. The relationship of these sounds with the parable of the ring and the chronotope of the Twin Towers is indirect and abstract; Normandeau uses only the shofar’s characteristic timbre and not its traditional blasts. To the three sound signatures he adds the voices of two actors from the above-mentioned production of Antigone, and these sounds are digitally manipulated as well. The duration of Chorus is 13:58 and the composition consists of seven sections:

1. Overture (duration 2:00);

2. Judaism (2:01), 3. Christianity (1:18), 4. Islam (1:44);

5. Confrontation (1:20), 6. Sorrow (1:55), 7. Peace (3:40).

After the Overture, the sections 2, 3, and 4 represent the individual religions. All sections begin with a loud, muffled thud. They all have a static and, at the same time, dynamic character; static because they are massive, fortissimo sound blocks and dynamic because of the energy of the fast moving little motifs which constitute the sound blocks. These three sections are relatively homogeneous, as each of them is built from the “sound signature” of one single religion, with the sounds of the human voices added.

The second set of three sections, which consists of the Nos. 5, 6, and 7, is devoted to the relations between the three religions, and as a result, each section is more heterogeneous. Though the three sound signatures from the shofar, the bell, and the muezzin are cut up, edited and mixed, they do not lose their compelling force. “Confrontation” is the only section with both rushing motifs and a slow pulse (32 BPM). The texture is rough and battered; sighs of a female voice are heard and the section ends with a slowly downward glissando resembling the nosedive of an airplane. “Sorrow” is a predominantly vocal section with muffled screams of a male voice and a unison choir, slowly increasing and then decreasing. “Peace” still sounds intense but less threatening than “Confrontation.” The extremely slow upward glissando is the inversion of that in “Confrontation” and after a long diminuendo, it disappears into nothingness. It may be a coincidence that Alvin Curran’s Crystal Psalms (1988), *Chapter 4.47 which commemorated the terrorist attacks of Kristallnacht (1938), also ends, after sounds of breaking glass, in a slow upward glissando.

Chorus is not a tonal composition, though it has a reference point; the tone A—or, more precisely, frequencies around the A—dominates a large part of the composition and is the frequency of the church bell too. This central A is figured or decorated by the B and C of the shofar and the E and D of the muezzin. The notes and motifs of the shofar and the muezzin have no recognizable rhythms, nor are they developed melodically. The overall impression is one of micro-polyphony as in compositions by György Ligeti, polyphony within agile clusters with a much higher density than those in Berio’s Shofar, *Chapter 4.54 the shofar episode in Fleischer’s Symphony No. 5, *Chapter 4.63 or Savall’s Fanfare of Jericho. *Chapter 4.68. The dynamic, and at the same time static nature of Chorus could be related either to the chronotope with the deadly confrontation of the airplane and the tower, or to the experience of the spectator, who has palpitations of fear, and at the same time stands as if pinned to the ground.

Though Normandeau was inspired by Nathan the Wise, he abandoned Lessing’s calm, optimistic Enlightenment thought. Chorus demonstrates that “Peace” between the three religions can only be achieved in a long and painful process of “Confrontation” and “Sorrow.” Moreover, Normandeau looked beyond the three religions and considered humanity as a whole as his superaddressee, as he dedicated his work not only to the victims in the Twin Towers, but to all victims of violence in the world on September 11th, 2001.

In Chorus, the dialogue with tradition is threefold. The Present is directed by the Past, because Normandeau’s musical point of departure consists of the traditional shofar blasts, which are radically transformed. The Present is indirectly directed by the Past through the inspiration from two other works, Sophocles’ Antigone and Lessing’s Nathan the Wise with their relevant respective themes of the fatal justification of violence and the desirable tolerance towards other religions. Finally, the Past is directed by the Present through Normandeau’s political point of departure: his indignation over the attack on the Twin Towers and his longing for peaceful religious coexistence.


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