The destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 had a deeply personal resonance for composer Kenneth Fuchs, who had lived in New York City for 20 years.
“Even though I wasn’t living in the City at the time of the attack, I needed to find a way to respond to 9/11 in music,” says Fuchs, professor of music composition in the School of Fine Arts.
After reading Don DeLillo’s post-9/11 novel Falling Man, the composer found the path he was seeking for creating a new work paying tribute to the victims of the terrorist attack. Fuchs’s latest recording, titled Falling Man, was released in late August by Naxos, the world’s leading classical music label.
The disc is Fuchs’s fourth collaboration with the world-renowned London Symphony Orchestra and JoAnn Falletta, one of America’s leading conductors and Fuchs’s Juilliard classmate, and features Naxos recording artist baritone Roderick Williams. The recording was made at Abbey Road Studios in London and was produced by Grammy winner Tim Handley. Grego Applegate Edwards’s Classical-Modern Music Review blogsite describes Falling Man as “a masterful work.” BBC Music Magazine describes Fuchs as “a master of orchestral writing.”
“When I read the novel in 2007, I knew I had found the creative impetus for what I wanted to write,” Fuchs says. “DeLillo’s unflinching prose, describing the terror and chaos at Ground Zero, immediately inspired musical ideas. The novel’s protagonist becomes everyman, as he experiences the burning twin towers tumbling around him. That character suggested a single human voice collectively supported by a symphony orchestra.”
Fuchs says he was “astonished” that the famously private author quickly agreed to his proposal to use the novel as the basis for his composition. He also found a collaborator in J. D. McClatchy, the editor of The Yale Review and an experienced opera librettist, who adapted the novel’s prologue and epilogue to describe the collapsing skyscrapers for the composition’s text.
While Fuchs is known for his melodic and tonal orchestral works, he decided to employ a non-tonal style of writing for Falling Man, an 18-minute composition he describes as “a dramatic scena for baritone voice and orchestra.”
“Tonality is about resolving dissonance, but the tragedy of 9/11, which called into question all the norms of Western civilization, is still unresolved,” Fuchs says. “Tonality by itself would have been too limiting to express the enormity of this tragedy. There are elements of tonality in the music, but DeLillo’s text required a more complex and nuanced musical language. The austere contrapuntal textures act to deflect the drama of the text, in effect highlighting the drama by contrasting rather than competing with it.”
The disc also contains compositions inspired by other literary works Fuchs has admired for many years that the composer felt would work with Falling Man – poetry of William Blake and John Updike.
Fuchs originally wrote a series of compositions based on Blake’s iconic 1794 collection of poems “Songs of Innocence and of Experience,” as an undergraduate composition student at the University of Miami, in Coral Gables, Fla. The works are among a few of his earliest compositions still performed today.
“When I read John Updike’s new novel Rabbit is Rich in 1982, I knew I had come upon a writer whose words would inspire me for a very long time,” says Fuchs, who first composed music for a seven-poem cycle “Movie House” in 1987, and revised his work several times over the years. “Updike’s observations about American life and the objects and desires of the American sensibility spoke directly to me. It took 25 years and considerable life experience to be able to express in music the subtlety of Updike’s words. The Blake and Updike cycles, taken together with Falling Man, suggest a journey through a particular period of life in America.”
The CD booklet cover for Falling Man features a painting by Helen Frankenthaler, one of America’s leading Abstract Expressionist artists. Frankenthaler paintings have been used as cover art for all of the composer’s recordings on the Naxos label.
Fuchs met the artist in 1983 when he was a graduate student at Juilliard and wrote her a letter expressing his admiration for her work. Frankenthaler invited him to a gallery exhibition of her work and they began a friendship and correspondence than continued until her death in 2011.
“Helen generously gave me permission to use the images as a way of supporting my work,” Fuchs says. “She’s been a part of my creative life for more than 30 years, and her wonderful creative spirit is never very far from me. The cover of the Falling Man disc features her stunning 1967 canvas ‘The Human Edge.’ Take one look at the painting and you will immediately sense what the music is about even before you hear it.”