15 years later, composer Kevin Puts newly released Symphony No 2 reflects on 9/11 atrocity

After New York's Twin Towers fell, the composer wrote Symphony No2/Flute Concerto/River's Rush in the hopes it would help him and others to cope with the tragedy.
Composer Kevin Puts likes to try to process tragedy through his writing, which is exactly what he has done with his newly released piece of music Symphony No 2, written seven months after 9/11. David White
Composer Kevin Puts likes to try to process tragedy through his writing, which is exactly what he has done with his newly released piece of music Symphony No 2, written seven months after 9/11. David White

It was the moment that defined an era, so it was natural that in the days, weeks and months immediately after two hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center in New York on that seismic September day in 2001, artists struggled to make sense of the carnage.

Mohsin Hamed, for example, wrote The Reluctant Fundamentalist, while filmmaker Paul Greengrass made United 93. Composer Kevin Puts wrote a symphony.

“In the United States, it was all anyone could think about, so to write music was completely a natural response for me,” says Puts.

Although his Symphony No 2 debuted in Cincinnati just seven months after 9/11, and has been performed many times since, it has taken more than 14 years for a recording of the 44-year-old American’s composition to be released.

The 21-minute Symphony No 2 is the lead work of three by Puts included on a new album performed by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, conducted by long-time collaborator Marin Alsop.

Fittingly, it was released just before today’s 15th anniversary of the attacks. Does it frustrate him that it took so long?

“Well, it’s so difficult and expensive to record these days,” he says. “But a recording is so important for the life of the piece, if only in terms of people wanting to programme it in the future.

“Symphony No 2 is a piece that a lot of people ask about so, really, I’m just happy it’s out there now, even if it has taken a long time.”

This time between composition and recording is interesting, not only in terms of how Puts has developed as an artist since then – he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his opera Silent Night – but also as a reflection of how we look at 9/11, 15 years on.

A period of quiet is often necessary for great art that comes from traumatic events – and so perhaps it is only now that Puts’s graceful symphony can truly be appreciated and interpreted.

“Some people said it was a dangerous thing to try to write music so immediately after an event like that,” he says. “But I just got on and did it, because Symphony No 2 was never supposed to be a memorial, more of a look at how things had changed. We went – and the music goes – from being naive and blissful into something a whole lot darker. You had to look at the world completely differently after 9/11.”

Puts was no different to any other horrified onlooker grappling with the aftermath of 9/11 – he retreated to the writers he loved in the hope that they could contextualise and offer some kind of succour, and he found a kindred spirit in Jonathan Franzen.

“There was a line in a piece he wrote for The New Yorker,” Puts says. “‘In the space of two hours we left behind a happy era of Game Boy economics and trophy houses and entered a world of fear and vengeance’. And it stuck with me.

“You’re always trying to find a way in to a piece, so I thought it would be interesting to take a very simple idea and alter its parameters, so that it has the same shape and texture but the notes and harmonies are different, which hopefully heightens the emotion. Franzen helped crystallise that for me.”

Encouraged by Symphony No 2, Puts continues to use news stories for inspiration. Clarinet Concerto (2008) was written after he saw a documentary about Iraq and Afghanistan. How Wild The Sea (2013) has its genesis in the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

“I do seem to want to try to process tragedy through my writing,” he says. “But that’s because I often feel very powerfully for someone else’s terrible situation and I want to deal with the emotion I’m feeling.”

What helps Puts to stand out is that he doesn’t correlate these momentous events with overbearingly grand orchestral gestures. In Symphony No 2, it is the solo violin and gradual crescendos that provide the emotional heft, while in Silent Night, he zeroes in on the interaction between two people in the midst of war.

Not that Puts is always so tied to current events. Elsewhere on the new album, the busy arpeggios of River’s Rush are an energetic interpretation of the power of the Mississippi, while the Flute Concerto is a love letter between two patrons of a Californian music festival, which makes reference to Mozart’s Piano Concerto K 467.

“I write these things, and I think, ‘I don’t hear anyone else doing this stuff, so why not’,” he says with a smile.

It’s this devil-may-care attitude that might stand him in good stead for his latest aim – to write the music for a film.

“I was watching The Revenant recently and I thought, ‘I could do this’,” he says. “It’s not so far from opera, which is basically a film score with singing. The score to Interstellar was beautiful, too, so I’d love to do a big drama – something with a lot of space.”

If Puts can take on 9/11 and succeed, then Oscar-winning films should be no problem.

Symphony No.2/Flute Concerto/River’s Rush by Kevin Puts, recorded by Peabody Symphony Orchestra, is out now on Naxos Records


Published: September 10, 2016 04:00 AM


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