Speaking to tragedy: 9/11 in music and memory
CultureMap recently asked a group of Houston arts community leaders to explain "why the arts are important." Their answers, all concise and heartfelt, were beautifully condensed in the form of a photo essay. Among those interviewed was John Breckenridge, president and CEO of Theater Under the Stars, who says, "Art has the ability to convey a message that speaks for entire communities."
But even in the context of a collective ritual experience — several hundred people listening to a symphony for instance — how an individual experiences a work of art is always going to be particular and personal. One of my favorite quotes in the essay comes from Houston Symphony horn player Julie Thayer, who says, "The irony is that when we retreat into our own personal memories and emotions through the arts, we are not more isolated, but more unified with our fellow man."
On Sept. 11th, 2001, my wife Lainie and I were living in New York in a six-unit building in Long Island City, just one subway stop away from Grand Central Station. My memories of the day of and the days after the attack are fuzzy, due probably in part to shock and the fact that my mind was unable to immediately process what had happened. Some of what I can recall with some clarity borders on the absurd.
I remember calling my then-boss shortly after the first plane hit and leaving a voicemail message where I calmly explained that I wasn’t quite sure if I could get to work that day, but that I would certainly try to be in on time the next day. I was temping at the time, and if you have ever "temped," you know how important it is to record your hours worked on your timesheet.
After the towers went down, our television signal was reduced to one local channel broadcasting a 24-hour montage: Footage of the attack, live feeds of shell-shocked reporters wandering into buildings on the verge of collapse, and updates from then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Every few hours we would turn off the television, maybe spend some time on the Internet, and then turn the television back on to see what was going on. Every morning after waking up, we immediately checked the news for updates. It was nerve wracking to think that something else could happen in the days after the attack on the World Trade Center towers. We were hunkered down in our apartment, waiting until we felt safe again.
One evening when the television was back on, I was in another room talking on the phone with a friend when I heard a familiar singer and song in a new arrangement. It was Stevie Wonder performing with the great vocal group Take 6, singing “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” from Wonder's classic 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life. I still get chills whenever I hear, in my mind’s ear, the chorale of voices that begin this song, followed by Stevie on his own, singing: “Good morn or evening friends / Here’s your friendly announcer / I have serious news to pass on to everybody / What I’m about to say / Could mean the world’s disaster…”
"...could change your joy and laughter / to tears and pain."
Stevie and Take 6 were performing on a broadcast fundraiser for, if I’m remembering correctly, the victims of 9/11. I honestly don't recall what or who exactly the money being raised was for. But I am sure that until that broadcast, I hadn’t listened to any music since the attack. I speak only for myself, but “Love’s in Need of Love Today” was the perfect song to hear at that moment. I still remember vividly hearing it from a room or two away, mingled with the voice of my friend on the phone who was watching the same program at home in New Orleans.
In times of collective trauma, human beings need music, whether in the form of a great song or a piece for chorus and orchestra. Music in any and all of its forms will speak to us individually and as a community. And again, our always hard-to-define and very personal responses to music (or any kind of art) somehow, as Julie Thayer points out, brings us closer to the people around us.
Hearing in a new way
In the weeks and months after the September 11th attack, I heard music in a new way, especially music composed in times of war. Works like composer George Crumb’s 1970 string quartet Black Angels, which references the metaphysical battle between good and evil as well as the Vietnam War. But I also found myself gravitating toward music that had no direct reference to war. Moby’s 18 became my evening “chill out” CD, and its sole function was to simply calm my nerves and help me get to sleep.
In the wake of 9/11 the New York Philharmonic, under the baton of Kurt Masur, chose to present Johannes Brahms’ German Requiem, a major work for mixed chorus, soloists and orchestra. For its seven movements, Brahms chose texts from the Bible emphasizing a non-denominational faith in resurrection. For the performance, Masur asked the audience to refrain from applause at the end so that the music might resonate within each person’s heart and mind. It was a simple change to the typical concert hall ritual that allowed people to feel this 19th century classic in a new way.
The New York Philharmonic gave composer John Adams the unenviable task of composing a work to commemorate the first anniversary of 9/11. Adams describes his conflicted feelings about the commission in his autobiography Hallelujah Junction. “There was no escaping the iconography of the event and its aftermath,” says Adams. “Composing any kind of music to amplify these tortured emotions could only be an exercise in the worst possible taste.” The completed work, On the Transmigration of Souls, for orchestra, chorus, children’s choir and pre-recorded soundtrack, premiered Sept. 19th, 2002 at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall.
As a member of the New York Choral Artists, my wife, a mezzo-soprano who also sang in the chorus for the Masur-conducted German Requiem, sang in the chorus for the Adams premiere — the recording of which went on to win three Grammy awards. She told me that members of the chorus were indeed very moved by the text Adams had chosen to set, an amalgamation of words and phrases he’d seen written on little signs at Ground Zero or published in a series of memorials in the New York Times:
“She looks so full of life.”
“He used to call me every day.”
“I wanted to dig him out.”
The fragments of words passing between the chorus, a separate children’s chorus and a multi-channel recording that played in the hall created an atmosphere similar to that of a being in a cathedral full of voices, both living and passed.
“If pressed, I’d probably call the piece amemory space." Adams has said about the work. “It’s a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions.”
Alone, and yet somehow connected to the humanity that surrounds you.
Why are the arts important? Because the arts are how we speak to tragedy. And if you don’t have the arts — and more specifically, a structure that supports musicians, composers, conductors, administrators, grant writers, social media coordinators, etc. — this language is in danger of extinction, along with our means for transcendence.