America is gone

Musical Misremembrance & 9/11

What kind of music should accompany commemorations of 9/11? If that strikes you as a ridiculous question, than you are already sympathetic to my critical aims.

In the abstract, there’s nothing strange about it. Music, when made by more than one person, is originally a social art, a way to bring non-kinfolk together in peace and pleasure. Music has also been used, since before the dawn of recorded civilization, to mark tragic occasions, like deaths. No one blinks an eye over the catalogue of musical Requiem Masses in the classical repertoire, from the liturgical tradition to the explicitly social and political ones from Haydn.

Perhaps this may be the mistake of assuming that I, and we, are special observers, but things are not the same this time around. Ten years ago, a group of fanatics engineered a violent attack on civilians for a political purpose, the definition of terrorism. It succeeded beyond their wildest dreams – they never imagined that the twin towers of the World Trade Center would completely collapse. Much of the rest, though, they did imagine; drawing the United States into a needless, mindless war against a Muslim country in the Middle East, secondarily draining the military, social and economic resources of this country. That was the tactical plan, the strategic goal being, by default, become the political organization the Islamic world would be drawn to, in a Manichean struggle against the West that would result in a restoration of the Medieval Caliphate.

The tactical brilliance was matched only by the strategic looniness, but perhaps in the thinking of bin Laden the two were inseparable. He was a con man, blessed by history to have, in George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell and their truly useful idiots from Christopher Hitchens to Andrew Sullivan, from The New York Times to The New Republic to The National Review, the perfect mark. He also seems to have recognized the nature of the American Political/Media Industrial Complex: twenty-four hour cable news focussing obsessively on repeating the same images, the same endless stream of phrases needed to fill up time when information is wanting; a political propaganda machine that would take the frozen fearfulness of a puerile President and sell it as courage; the pundits, by profession shallow, ignorant generalists, who, in order to deserve their paychecks must studiously show a lack of independent or critical thought, and in their inherent callowness and egotism felt that they were the targets, that they were in personal danger, and so were afraid, and so cleaved to the dauphin, and, unready and afraid together, they held each other in a death grip orgy of fright, reeking of flop-sweats, spinning like a ball of sardines, willing to sacrifice those on the edges to predators.

Of course, the predators never came. Death in the towers, the Pentagon, a field in Pennsylvania was mostly for the middle class and those below, the types of ‘folks’ that no one in the Political/Media Industrial Complex ever thinks of except as a rube to sell some bullshit to. And the things that might disturb their lovely, delicate minds were quickly disappeared down the Memory Hole, starting with any reminder of people who had to face the worst of the terror, and leapt from the towers. When was the last time you saw those images? Ten years ago, likely. And then, anthrax! Who died from that? Nobodies, accidents of fate, people who didn’t deserve it. That anthrax was first an important piece of evidence in the false indictment of Saddam Hussein and then was Something That Must Be Forgotten is a tribute to how the construction of Magical Thinking, the spell that Bush Kept Us Safe, was far more important, both directly to his reelection campaign and indirectly, in that the bargain that too many acquiesced to, the one that sold out that fundamental features that made this country what it was, hinged on the concept that it was acceptable to no longer be America and allow the government to freely spy on all of us because those same government organs would, again, keep us safe. Questioning the competence of the FBI would put that into question, and might lead American to realize that they were already safe, that the country was under no Existential Threat (pundit speak for ‘I’m a quavering coward and want Big Daddy to protect me’). No one must question the Establishment Conventional Wisdom, because no one must show up the Establishment.

What we got instead was exhortations to go shopping, free wars to make Thomas Friedman feel like he was some sort of tough guy, and “God Bless America.” It’s no surprise that the worst of all events would be sentimentalized by the Political/Media Industrial Complex – that’s the main way that important and difficult problems are explained away and then dismissed – but the speed of it, on the same day, was breathtaking. And that it emanated from Congress itself, spontaneously, one voice at a time, made it clear on that day, in that moment, that our leaders would act like children, and that the passionate intensity of the worst would be the way forward. But America had it’s new theme song for the Global War on Terror. Death Metal would have been more appropriate.

And now it’s been ten year, an arbitrary number that has the seemingly magical even-ness to round out the entire poisonous, sentimentalized, violent passage of time since. For ten years, America has been like “Gladiator,” a bill of goods of fake, rote emotional styles and state sponsored viciousness. A country founded on ideas – rather than extended family relations, religion or language – especially the idea of individual liberty as the highest moral aspiration of the state, is now a country defined by blood, religion, language, borders and, worst of all, the desire to ferret out Wrongthink and to debase ourselves by torturing other human beings, people with souls, simply because we have both the power to do so and the atavistic desire for revenge. But it made Thomas Friedman happy.

After ten years of this, what is the right music for the occasion? We are, in a way, commemorating not only those who lost their lives, but the sentimentalized fear that anyone, even in the immediate aftermath, might actually think about what happened. “It’s too soon,” “it’s inappropriate,” “I don’t want to see that,” these are responses of fear. Better to sing “God Bless America,” shop and support our troops and let bin Laden escape at Tora Bora then actually face what happened and do something about it. A good response is always to find some simple answer that wraps it all up, but after 9/11 the ‘best’ response was to … ignore it. Most egregious was the Boston Symphony canceling a performances of choruses from John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer, because of possible sensitivity to the subject matter (keep moving folks, nothing to see here), an excercise in sentimentalized fear that Richard Taruskin characterized as ‘noble,’ claiming that the opposite was ‘sentimental complacency,’ in a neat bit of intellectual jiu-jitsu that made facing a difficult issue wrong and, even worse, impolite. But the ubiquitous Brahms Requiem, the ultimate in classical comfort food, is not much better, telling everyone it’s going to be all right. Comfort, yes indeed, let us comfort each other as people, but to tell each other, as adults, that everything is going to be alright? No, it’s not, and it hasn’t been, and it maybe never will.

Music is everywhere, still, especially in New York City and probably everywhere in the country. What is the right kind of music? There are pieces already made for the occasion, an honorable but difficult task. Adams’ On The Transmigration of Souls is a terrible piece; it’s a poorly written pastiche of his own techniques, coming to no effective musical resolution, it’s expression is obvious and it falsely wraps treacle in the garb of aesthetic soberness and objectivity. Why did Taruskin never pick up his pen against it? It won the Pulitzer, of course, because a piece on 9/11 is supposed to win the Pulitzer. Now we have Steve Reich’s new WTC 9/11, available already before the entire new CD comes out. It is also a bad piece of music, bad in the same way that Adams’ is bad. In contrast to Reich’s City Life, a vibrant, complex work that includes sampled communications from the early World Trade Center bombing, the new work is based around communications for 9/11. It’s easy, and lazy, he seems to have put no effort into crafting an interesting musical accompaniment to his samples and while the Kronos Quartet gamefully tries to impart depth to the square, chugging rhyhtms and the watered-down vinegar of the dissonant harmonies, they have no real material to work with.

Again, what is the right kind of music? My answer is that it is honest music, music that doesn’t simplify the complex, doesn’t manipulate, doesn’t prompt a specific, ‘correct’ emotional and intellectual response. Saturday evening, The New York Philharmonic is doing the city a true service of goodwill by offering a free concert of Mahler, his ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. While I would have chosen the Sixth, I cannot quibble with their desire to present a work full of anguish as well as pleasure. The two works are perhaps opposite numbers, following similar paths but ending in very different places. There is nothing wrong with the living feeling a sense of triumph at having made it through. Musically, perhaps the greatest strenght of the work for this use is that it has a choir, and the sound of massed voices singing is one of the most deeply humane things in music. Trinity Wall Street is also hosting choral music, in five different concerts on Friday, all streaming live on medici.tv. The next afternoon, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus sings in a memorial for the FDNY at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and those not in attendance will be able to witness it via broadcast as well.

At home, listening in private, you will find what is right for you. WQXR will be streaming a listener curated playlist for the day and will be webcasting a Kent Tritle choral performance Friday at 7pm.. Do read Frank Rich’s piece in New York Magazine, and Joan Didion’s essential counterpoint to all the huffing and puffing of group-think and ignorance. There is also a DVD work from guitarist Marco Cappelli, a musical realization of Art Spiegelman’s great “In the Shadow of No Towers“. Spiegelman’s book expresses the horror, anguish and frustration that are the essential responses to 9/11, and he never bothers to try and resolve the unresolvable and the ongoing. There are also stories on other music being made for the commemoration.

But for New Yorkers, those who wish to be out amongst their fellow man, there is Music After, a winning marathon of personal responses and experiences; non-dogmatic, humane, real. America Opera Projects is presenting a free concert, 4pm, at the Irondale Community Center in Brooklyn. And there is also an event at the Metropolitan Museum which strikes me as something that might be the most personally meaningful: in the Temple of Dendur, Wordless Music is presenting a concert (free with Museum admission, and streaming live via this link starting at 3:30pm), featuring William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. Basinski’s piece is an accidental one, the sound produced from the process of old magnetic tapes literally falling apart on each pass by the play head on a tape recorder. The composer says the project ended on the morning of 9/11. It’s a piece about physical decay, dissipation, the loss of records and memories. Ten years later, that’s what we have left.

UPDATED: Adding links to Rich and Didion.