Reliving 9/11 Through Melissa Hui’s Reaction

August 22, 2017

By Frank Horvat

This month marks the 16th Anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. While the attacks are increasingly distant in time, the memories are vividly etched in my mind and heart.

As composers and artists, one way that we deal with heartbreaking and emotionally complex moments is to create—myself and many others generated works in the months immediately following the 9/11 attacks. I am thankful for these creative expressions as they have helped me to comprehend and move past the trauma experienced that day.

One composition that I feel effectively accomplishes this is Melissa Hui’s And blue sparks burn (2002). As Hui notes in the comments accompanying the piece, “I was haunted by the images of dust and eerie calm that permeated the news coverage in the aftermath of the disaster.”

What I appreciate most about this piece is its simplicity, both in composition and presentation. And blue sparks burn is written for modest musical forces, violin and piano, and is relatively short at seven minutes. The violin’s melody is made up of limited pitches. The piano executes an accompaniment made of delicate chord changes. There’s little or no change in dynamics throughout.

An excerpt from the score of And blue sparks burn, which demonstrates the self-described "economy of means and shifting reiterations" defining Hui's work at the time. Copyright Melissa Hui.

So simple, and upon hearing the piece I felt strongly compelled to pause, listen, and reflect, ultimately feeling a greater sense of peace. The sonority between the two instruments achieves this effect as the violin and piano are never in competition with each other. The violin’s harmonics convey a feeling of isolation and tenuous calm, as though we are wandering through the toxic dust in a numbed state. The piano chords trace figures that appear and take shape before they are once more enveloped in the miasmic cloud.

The recording of And blue sparks burn—available through the CMC online audio archive— features Marie Bérard (violin) and Lydia Wong (piano). They did such a fine job of just letting the piece unfold. They are both exceptionally gifted musicians technically, I’m sure it must have been challenging to remain subtle in this performance.

An excerpt from the score of And blue sparks burn, the final faint climb by the violin which concludes the piece. Copyright Melissa Hui.

In my own journey, I’ve found that achieving subtlety in music can be a creative challenge. However, I react more viscerally to the sound I create when it is relatively understated—coincidentally, those are the works that get more of a reaction from my audiences as well.

We are constantly exposed to suffering, hardships, and traumas. Many artists create as a reaction to these moments. Sometimes a reaction is planned and executed in a measured way, at other times it gushes out in a flurry of emotion, and often creation resides somewhere in between.

It is a challenge to articulate the precise effect that Hui’s composition has on me, as it comes to possess an almost magical quality: it conjures the tangible and intangible about 9/11. The haunting images made immediate by ongoing media coverage, and the uncertainty and helplessness which coloured every thought. Through And blue sparks burn the immense sense of loss that I felt on 9/11 is given an emotional outlet and escape as I experience it through a beautiful musical language and performance. I can only imagine Melissa Hui’s effort to get into this emotional creative space—I always find it difficult psychologically to write about such tragic events. For any artist, a piece will be part of our reaction and we can only hope that others connect to our piece too.

It’s important for me that Hui, Bérard, and Wong know their work on And blue sparks burn brought me back to a day of epic tragedy and sadness, but this was achieved with dignity and respect through a piece that was filled with so much beauty and grace. I feel lucky to have experienced this poignant musical moment.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting about other composers who have put impactful global events or current issues into music, while reflecting on the impact of their pieces on me as a listener.

Frank Horvat is one of several contributors who has taken part in the CMC Library Residency program, which profiles works from the CMC collection. Visit the community page on the CMC website regularly for new features in the series. And blue sparks burn is the title track from a Centrediscs recording featuring the music of Melissa Hui, available through the Canadian Music Centre—click here!