… and so the day is done, another year until the next September 11, at which, since politicians, celebrities, and media conglomerates are less interested in the prime numbers, there will be little on TV, few public events, maybe no concerts. There should probably be some more concerts though. The experience of the Wordless Music performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (available here for streaming and download for a few more days) was so ideal, unexpectedly so, that some or all of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops should be heard whenever there is something for which we seek and answer, but for which there is none.
What I mean is this: we know how 9/11 came about, and we know why it did, in the sense of what motivated al-Qaeda. We also know what has happened since, in all its sad, destructive details. But we don’t know why, as in why such things happen, why someone goes off to work in the morning and, through no fault of their own, never come home again. We hear supposed reasons, like “everything happens for a reason” and “it was God’s plan,” but these are just excuses with which to forget the question and keep walking, like Peggy Noonan likes to say whenever she’s confronted with something that spoils the sensibility of her beautiful mind. Peggy wants some parts of life to be mysterious, but for her it means maintaining that the emperor does indeed have clothes. I don’t think even two pitchers of martinis would help her engage the mystery that I’m concerned with.
It’s the real mystery, the one that a few hardy souls are willing to incorporate into their lives, but only a few. It’s that we will never know why things like this happen, because they happen for no reason at all. That’s how the universe that we all live in functions. The physical laws to which we are all subject can’t account for, and aren’t interested in, our souls. We suffer, often, because these laws allow for an incomprehensibly vast array of random things to occur, for no reason whatsoever other than they can, and given the right circumstances do. Other than the origins of the universe and its ultimate end, if there is one, there is no plan. Things happen for no reason at all.
Robert Moran produced a truly lovely work to commemorate the occasion, the title piece of his new “Trinity Requiem” CD on Innova, but I don’t care for it. There’s nothing much wrong with the music, which is a simple, focussed and ethereally beautiful requiem mass, although I do find his interpolation of Pachelbel’s “Canon” into the piece to be a mistake, as it jars the memory back into the real world. The context means that I want something else, something that doesn’t neatly circumscribe the idea, something that doesn’t have a goal of leaving the real world. The mass is a liturgical work, meant to encapsulate a religious mystery and then, with finality, return us to the profanity of life. But 9/11 was and is the profanity of life, and treating it in any way at all with music means accepting that.
It’s an enormous challenge of aesthetics and meaning when we use art of any kind to bring us together and contemplate memories and events. Music-making (which includes listening), is the fundamental social activity in society, the origin of civilization. We gathered in the Temple of Dendur on 9/11/11 to hear music. And the music that mattered most of all, that transformed the experience socially and emotionally for everyone who listened, was Basinski’s accidental piece. He didn’t make this piece, he found it. He found it originally by recording a loop of music he liked, then again by listening to the decaying physically media, and finding something else he liked. Maxim Moston’s precise orchestration made it into an intentional work, but one without the usual form and expectation of music, especially ceremonial music. It just was, a sound, repeated, gradually decaying, disappearing. The music is an accident, that we, with our souls, can find beautiful and moving. And it is astonishing how fascinating and moving it is. Basinski’s ears rely on what is clearly a humane soul.
[This is the second time this year I have heard social/ceremonial music in the Temple. The experience this time cemented together an earlier performance there from Chanticleer with a springtime concert from the Tallis Scholars as part of Miller Theater’s Early Music programming. At the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the Scholars sang a program by Victoria, including his great Requiem, while Chanticleer did an excellent program mixing Palestrina’s Assumpta est Maria in caelum with Renaissance and contemporary madrigals, some excellent pop music, like “Cells Planets” by Erika Lloyd, and an astonishing arrangement of Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, that revealed even more craft and imagination than the composer’s symphonies display. The core of these concerts were sung masses, heard in a secular way even at the church, and secular music presented in a gathering of the flock way in the pagan Temple. Regardless of what one thinks of religions, they are features of human society that came about fairly late in the game, and without people gathering together to hear music, witnessing and worshipping in a way, it’s impossible to imagine temples and churches and symbolic rituals. Religions, including of course the Catholic church, all go through periods, or have sects, that despise music, and that surely comes from envy, because the composer, musicians and audience together achieve in fact what religions promise but rarely deliver – brotherhood.]
Other events shared the same general idea, bringing together people to experience something. The Music After event was a series of individual and personal responses to the experience of 9/11 for the audience to witness and share. The New York Philharmonic’s free concert of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony was a civic good, though one with a strange subtext. As Seth Colter Walls pointed out to me, the music is the point where the eschatologies of Mahler and Mohammed Atta meet, the further point being that a huge number of people believe, like Mahler and Atta, in a glorious hereafter, the ultimate reason for which “everything happens.” A new disc I’ve been listening to strikes me as a better choice for such an occasion, if one needs classical music. The Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 [a good SACD recording from Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra, that must suffer from the competition of Mravinsky’s extraordinary recording) seems to follow that common eschatology of classical, especially Romantic, music, a journey from darkness and to light. The music moves through many harrowing moments, before it seems to culminate in one of the great, triumphal orchestral marches, one that always has audiences cheering before the piece has come to an end.
Tchaikovsky denies all our expectations with a weeping, desolated final adagio lamentoso. The pathos may be too much for all tastes, and certainly sentiment in America is against something that will bum you out, but the music does something important. It consoles itself with the inconsolable, lamenting in the fact that at times terrible things happen for no reason at all. It is not pleased by this, but accepts it, as we must accept that neatly tying off terrible things does not happen. We endure them, and live with that endurance, and life goes on. We keep walking, we must, but we carry these things, and eventually they become much less of a burden. They become part of our steps, and our lives.