Music Versus the Hurricane (Part 1: Katrina) | Teddy Niedermaier
Teddy Niedermaier, composer, pianist, educator, professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago
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Music Versus the Hurricane (Part 1: Katrina)

We all watched in horror as Hurricane Harvey dumped 27 trillion gallons of water on Texas and Louisiana in late August, flooding Houston and other Gulf Coast cities, leaving behind a wake of human misery and suffering. It already ranks among the “most damaging natural disasters in U.S. history,” and together with Hurricane Katrina (2005), it stands as one of the two worst disasters to hit U.S. soil this century. 


As a professional musician, I ask myself, what can music do in the face of this tragedy? How will musicians respond? Perhaps we can gain insight into this question from the way that composers and performers have reacted to that other great storm, Katrina, over the past 12 years.


Flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey, August 30, 2017 (source)



Composers and Climate



Composers have been writing music about weather for centuries. Typically these pieces fall into three categories. First, you find pictorial or symbolic depictions of weather, as in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (in the first movement of “Spring,” Vivaldi even marks specific weather references such as thunder and wind). One might also mention the “Storm and Stress” (Sturm und Drang) style (1760s onward) infused into the minor-key symphones of Haydn and Mozart. Second, you have instrumental programmatic works in which weather plays some part in the extramusical narrative. Two good examples would be the thunderstorms in Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony no. 6 and Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Finally, and most vividly, are weather events that explicitly impact the plot of a dramatic work (opera or oratorio). Examples here include the sea tempest in first act of Britten’s Peter Grimes, the terrifying wolf’s glen scene in Weber’s Der Freischütz, and the importance of rain to Mendelssohn’s Elijah. 


For living composers, however, addressing weather and climate has become a different matter entirely. Since 1980, weather-related compositions overwhelmingly carry activist, political, and scientific warnings about the dangers of climate change and global warming. 


An early, mesmerizing example would be Philip Glass’s score for the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio (Reggio and Glass later teamed up for two sequels: Powaqqatsi in 1988, and Naqoyqatsi in 2002). Lacking a narrative or named characters, Koyaanisqatsi is an experimental film, essentially a montage of landscapes (both rural and urban) showing the destructive effects of unchecked human growth and industrialization upon the environment. The title is taken from the Hopi language, meaning “life out of balance.”


More recently, Mason Bates (born 1977) has taken on the issues of climate change and Hurricane Katrina in Liquid Interface (2007), a four-movement symphony for orchestra and electronica. The opening movement, “Glaciers Calving,” leads off with “huge blocks of sound drifting slowly upwards through the orchestra, finally cracking off in the upper register,” and utilizes actual recorded sounds of glaciers cracking in the Antarctic. The third movement, “Crescent City,” is a clear nod to post-Katrina New Orleans, a city “which knows the power of water all too well.” Here Bates draws influence from Dixieland swing. We read in his program notes:


“At the peak of the movement, with an enormous wake of figuration swirling behind the soaring melody, the orchestra is buried in an electronic hurricane of processed storm sounds. We are swept into the muffled depths of the ocean.”


Another 2007 work for orchestra and electronics belongs to John Luther Adams (born 1953), perhaps the leading voice on climate issues from among today’s top American composers: Dark Waves is a single-movement tone poem composed for the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra. Adams, a Mississippi native, first moved to Alaska in 1975. Long an advocate and activist for environmental issues, Adams envelops his listeners in overwhelming sonic environments, constructed from several overlapping layers. Alex Ross considers Dark Waves to be a preliminary study for the Pulitzer Prize-winning orchestral tour-de-force Become Oceanpremiered in 2013 by the Seattle Symphony. As Ross puts it,


“The 2007 orchestral work ‘Dark Waves,’ among others, evokes mighty, natural processes through the accumulation of gradually shifting patterns. ‘Become Ocean’ is his most ambitious effort in this vein: its three huge crescendos, evenly spaced over the three-quarter-hour span, suggest a tidal surge washing over all barriers.”


According to Adams, “The weather and the landscape has been at the core of everything that I have done the last 40 years.” He is “a composer whose life and work are deeply rooted in the natural world.” Here’s a great interview by NewMusicBox wherein Adams details the relationship between his life and his music. In a Facebook post dated August 23, Adams linked to a New York Times interactive article on the thawing of the Alaskan permafrost, adding, 


“My old cabin is a little farther north, in the spruce forest on the outskirts of Fairbanks. The cabin is slumping into the thawing ground. Trees around the cabin are beginning to topple. And large sinkholes are appearing throughout the forest.”



Composers and Katrina


As nasty as Harvey was, this article from NPR reminds us that Katrina was far more devastating. After Katrina, 80% of New Orleans’s below-sea-level land was under water (the post-Harvey statistic for Houston is between 25% and 30%). “For many days after the storm, New Orleans ceased functioning as a modern American city. Its civic infrastructure dissolved.” The police department lost control, and New Orleans’s Emergency Operations Center was flooded (they relocated to the Hyatt Hotel). “Downtown hotels, fearing the rule of law had disintegrated, hurriedly shut down and ejected guests. Evacuations were chaotic. Some panicked residents stood on front porches brandishing weapons.”



Side-by-side comparison from Katrina (left) and Harvey (right). (source)



I remember post-9/11 New York City. Then a freshman at Juilliard, I remember peering down from the school’s entrance to West 65th Street, watching as memorial processions for fallen first responders solemnly passed by, bagpipes ringing across the Upper West Side. Four years later, in September 2005, I watched New Yorkers on the very same street loading semi-trailers with emergency supplies to be driven down to New Orleans.


This is an area where “classical” composers have been outpaced by artists in pop, rock, jazz, rap, and other genres. Here’s a top-10 Katrina playlist, a top-5 Katrina rap song playlist, a list of top Katrina benefit songs,  and a master list of 78 Katrina songs.


I will now briefly highlight two compositions written in response to Katrina: Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads (2007) and Stuart Folse’s Beyond the Walls and the Water (2015). These two works capture the unique spirit and cultural diversity of New Orleans, as well as unresolved anger for a city that was utterly destroyed, abandoned (as some might say), and still not fully rebuilt. Both are exemplars for creating urgent, relevant works on a pressing modern crisis.



Beyond the Walls and the Water


“I was angry,” Stuart Folse told me in a recent conversation, “I was really angry for 10 years… in order to let that go, I had to do something.” A native of southern Louisiana, Stuart is my colleague at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he serves as Associate Professor of Core Music Studies and Composition. There was “anger and guilt” over Katrina, he explained, “because I wasn’t there, and I didn’t go down afterwards.”


Beyond the Walls and the Water was completed in December 2015, and premiered in February 2016 by conductor Stephen Squires and the CCPA Wind Ensemble in Chicago’s Ganz Hall. You can listen to their premiere performance here and download the score for free. (Yes, this is the same intrepid conductor and ensemble that commissioned by piano concerto in 2015!) Stuart’s piece is in one-movement, lasting roughly 11 minutes. It’s a raucous, boisterous, probing, serious, and challenging 11 minutes that alternates between groove-driven “Mardi Gras” reminiscences of New Orleans, and chaotic, dystopian visions of seeping water. Bursting with musical influences from New Orleans, Beyond the Walls also requires the ensemble musicians to sing and whistle. From Stuart’s program notes, 


“The work is introduced by a percussion section replicating the sound of a barge breaking through the walls of the Industrial Canal (measures 1-4) on August 29, 2005. What follows are two “water motives” that come back to interrupt the “Mardi Gras” sections later in the work. The first represents gushing water (measures 5-6), the second depicts relentlessly seeping water (measure 7-16).”



The infamous loose barge still floats in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward on Sept. 10, 2005. (source)


Tension builds as the “Mardi Gras” and “water” sections continue to interrupt each other, until they are finally combined in the work’s final section. Using polytemporal scoring, the ensemble’s five percussionists persist in their upbeat “Mardi Gras” rhythms, as the high woodwinds overlay their smearing, disorienting motives in a slower tempo.


The main rhythmic idea, present throughout, is a 3+3+2 pattern known as the New Orleans shuffle or the “second line” shuffle. Second line “refers to the rhythms of a black parading tradition originating in nineteenth-century New Orleans,” a mixture of “native and imported musical traditions that include features of standard marches, African-American church music, Caribbean rhythms like the son and the rumba, and black slave dances both sacred and secular.” Stuart was influenced by many New Orleans works bearing these characteristics, here juxtaposing two types in particular: Spanish rhythms (more strict, in simple time) and Afro-Caribbean rhythms (looser and in compound time). Ultimately, it’s the second line shuffle that reigns supreme, carrying off into the distance as the piece fades away.


Stuart applied the numbers of key dates to derive pitch materials using pitch class sets: the dates of Katrina’s arrival and departure, and also the date of another Gulf disaster, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon-BP oil spill. Other pitch sources include paraphrases of three New Orleans-based songs: “Do Whatcha Wanna” (Rebirth Brass Band), “Hey Pocky A-Way” (The Meters), and “Big Chief” (Professor Longhair). Another recurring melody links the “Mardi Gras” sections: the chanting at the opening, the saxophone tutti in the middle, and the whistling at the end. “This is sort of my anger motive. Literally a ‘screw you’ motive.”


When I asked Stuart if Beyond the Walls was a personal statement or a bit of activism, he replied, “both,” adding that things “are still not together” in New Orleans. And the rebuilding that has occurred since 2005, with concomitant gentrification, has uprooted communities and cultures that may never find a proper home again. Taken altogether, Beyond the Walls is packed with refined technique and elegantly shaped formal structure; its local references and personal touches make it an immediate and relevant monument to post-Katrina New Orleans.



Katrina Ballads


When an interviewer asked Ted Hearne (born 1982) how Katrina Ballads came about, this was his reply: 


“It came about, really, from a lot of anger, and frustration, and sadness about the actual events. After 9/11 I felt like what I was doing had to be relevant for me. I felt a call to activism, in a way. I didn’t understand why, I guess I do understand why, but it was very upsetting that everyone wanted to go to war so fast. People were being victimized here and abroad. I wanted to be a sort of activist, and music is a very powerful way of doing that.


“I think that Katrina was definitely the worst disaster in this country that I’ve ever seen, maybe since the Civil War. It was so f***ed up. I could not believe this happened. For a long time it was bottled up within me. The idea to set the primary source texts came a few months later. Initially it was something that was cathartic. Now that I look at it I realize that it was the first time I was able to integrate the music and the activism successfully. Before that it was more naïve, for me, this was the first thing I’ve done as a composer that I can really stand behind, in terms of the melding of the two ideas. The piece is about the events, ourselves, and the country, but it’s also about the media. How the media woke up. Sometimes people confuse the ideas, [and think] that it is inauthentic. That I’m saying I was a victim of the storm, and it’s not about that. We were all witnesses to what happened in the media, how there was this call to responsibility.”


Best described as a modern oratorio, Katrina Ballads is an hour-long work in 12 movements for five voices and large mixed ensemble. It was released in 2010 on New Amsterdam Records. You can hear it here. Performances are accompanied by a film by Bill Morrison showing footage of New Orleans after Katrina, much in the vein of Koyaanisqatsi. Unlike Beyond the Walls, Hearne’s piece deliberately avoids musical references specific to New Orleans: 


“It doesn’t represent New Orleans culture literally. It’s not that particular. None of those styles scream New Orleans to me… Unless you look at it in a very broad way and extract that here is the blues, or jazz. I can see that. But it’s more about the fact that all sorts of things exist in New Orleans, but they exist in this very broad, but beautiful way. On top of that, music is so important there. That’s why it’s stylistically the way it is. That’s something I’ve found that is being misunderstood. People saying,  ‘Well, this isn’t like New Orleans music.’ That’s too easy. And it would be completely inauthentic if I tried to do that. I’m not from New Orleans. I don’t play a brass instrument. I could write something that maybe sounds like that, but it would be hack. It’s more about an American perception of music, the ways styles are pushed together in American music, oppression being expressed in music.”


Instead, Hearne employs sound bites taken from mainstream media, political figures, and celebrities, crafting a work of “musical journalism” that New York Times critic Alann Kozinn likened to the songs of John Lennon. There’s quips from Barbara Bush, Kanye West, CNN host Anderson Cooper, and former Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu. In the eighth movement, there’s that infamous line from President George W. Bush to then-FEMA Director Michael Brown: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” It’s highly political music, but it’s “good” political music, according to this 2010 feature by Politico. “It’s hard to write classical music about current events,” Politico opines, “The traditional idea of serious music was that it should somehow transcend such transient concerns as politics.” Kozinn explains, “What he was after was not a documentary about Katrina as the people of New Orleans experienced it, but rather an inflected, interpreted record of how the rest of the country watched it unfold — that is, as the news media presented it, complete with resoundingly famous sound bites.”


“I was so angry,” Hearne told Politico regarding the first performance of the Brownie movement, “I don’t think I realized the extent to which the anger would come out in performance. That was a real lesson for me. It was the first time I was really able to emote as a performer. I still think about that, I try to get that back, I try to remember that when I’m composing. ‘Cause that was real. I felt connected to the world I was in.” The “Brownie” quote serves as an “emotional center” for the work.


On top of these real-world sound clips, Hearne incorporates a variety of musical sources and styles. One hears coarse vocal riffs, drum sets and electric guitars, swooning snippets of the blues, minimalist tendencies, inside-the-piano techniques, recitative, and pop syncopations. Hearne’s ambitions lie in multi-genre synthesis. As a composer, Hearne is not very interested in limiting himself to established, traditional genres such as the symphony orchestra, a prospect he considers too comfortable, “old fashioned,” or “correct.” When blending genres such as classical and jazz, however, it must be done thoroughly, and not in a casual or superficial manner. In the end, Hearne’s effort reads like an edgy, operatic news magazine.


In 2015, on the 10th anniversary of Katrina, Hearne teamed up with Columbia professor Colleen Sears to develop the “Katrina Ballads Educational Initiative,” a “2½-hour discussion group in which students engage with an interdisciplinary, multi-media curriculum that explores issues of race and class, media literacy, and the politics of crisis.” Discussion centers around Hearne’s work and Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke (2006-7), followed by a live performance of Katrina Ballads. The curriculum is highly mobile, flexible, and can be staged with minimal resources.



Images from Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke (source)



Three Perspectives


How can composers respond when a hurricane strikes? Here we see three robust models: works that address climate and nature directly (Bates, Adams); a work that celebrates the resilience and local culture of New Orleans (Folse); and a politically-tinged work that expresses general frustration and incredulity at elected officials and the national news media (Hearne). In these pieces we see a blend of techniques, ensembles, and musical references that are at once traditional, contemporary, and specific to the New Orleans region. There is a balance of specific and general, local and universal, conventional and unexpected.


How will musicians react to the fresh horrors wrought this August by Hurricane Harvey? Will these responses follow the three-pronged model seen after Katrina? How can composers best express the local beauties of Houston and its surrounding areas? Time will tell; stand by for Part 2 of this post, which will focus on musical responses to Harvey’s aftermath.


copyright 2017 Edward Teddy Niedermaier

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1 Comment
  • You are my inhalation , I have few blogs and occasionally run out from to brand.

    December 21, 2017 at 11:49 pm

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