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 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.


The Jay S. Bybee Memo Considered as a Pop Tune

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months. Now that everything had returned to normal, he was surprised that there had been no obvious beginning, no point beyond which their lives had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension. With its forty floors and thousand apartments, its supermarket and swimming-pools, bank and junior school – all in effect abandoned in the sky – the high-rise offered more than enough opportunities for violence and confrontation. Certainly his own studio apartment on the 25th floor was the last place Laing would have chosen as an early skirmish-ground. This over-priced cell, slotted almost at random into the cliff face of the apartment building, he had bought after his divorce specifically for its peace, quiet and anonymity. Curiously enough, despite all Laing’s efforts to detach himself from his two thousand neighbors and the regime of trivial disputes and irritation that provided their only corporate life, it was here if anywhere that the first significant event had taken place – on this balcony where he now squatted beside a fire of telephone directories, eating the roast hindquarters of the Alsatian before setting off to his lecture at the medical school.

That is the opening paragraph of J.G. Ballard’s ‘High Rise,’ my personal favorite novel by one of my favorite writers. I pulled it off the shelf this morning as I organized my thoughts – more like urges – into hopefully this coherent form. Rereading it, I noticed for the first time the key to it all: “Now that everything had returned to normal . . . on this balcony where he now squatted beside a fire of telephone directories, eating the roast hindquarters of the Alsatian before setting off to his lecture at the medical school.” Welcome to the New Normal.

I can understand the inclination to think that Everything Happens For A Reason, as information and events specific to this past week have dovetailed into a more specific focus and understanding, but what really has been happening is the ceaseless search for some personal understanding and coherence (revelation?) that allows for the explosion of some kind of critical mass of thought, once that relevant particle hits. News of Ballard’s death brought together questions I’ve been asking myself about orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and my deep feelings of anger and outrage over something that has been lost and seems likely to never return.

Ballard is more notorious than appreciated, going back over 40 years to the ‘The Atrocity Exhibition‘ and titles like ‘Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan’ and ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race,’ which seem designed to offend every possible sensibility and viewpoint. Considering the state of our culture and its attention span, Ballard’s sole point may apparently be to offend. But Ballard is simultaneously a satirist and a surrealist, and his point is actually to have us see, dear readers, that we are the ones who want to fuck Ronald Reagan, we are the ones who endlessly watch the news footage of a disaster for some kind of mindless, material comfort. He is unkind, and necessary. He is the heterodox man in an orthodox culture.

What would seem unexpected and jarring is that Ballard was a good, suburban bourgeois, neatly dressed, thoughtfully and clearly spoken, a bit bland in person and readings. I feel that generally those who are most publicly demonstrative about their heterodoxy are actually the most orthodox, while the ones who focus their attention on their ideas and their work, not their clothes, hair and lifestyle, have the questions that are the most upsetting. Ballard was the latter, an artist who clearly spent a great deal of time and effort, with complete dedication, thinking through his ideas to their absolute ends, no matter where it brought him. He was involved in a car crash, and using the experiential material and thinking it through to the end (as composers naturally do) produced ‘Crash,’ his notorious and I think strangest novel. The experience of a car crash can be transformative, at least for a brief time (I myself once had to crawl out of the shattered back window of an upside-down car, and the memory of that whole day seems like part of a separate and secret life I’ve had, the one moment connecting the consciousness of what I know in my mind and an entire unexplored, parallel universe), and Ballard pushes that unimaginably far, to the point where the wounds from a crash become new sexual organs, the human body itself becomes something different – the survivor of a crash becomes a new species. It is pornographic, but not erotic, and misapprehended. David Cronenberg’s version is a disappointment, surprising since his own idea that biology is destiny (his own sensibility expressed in ‘Shivers,’ which is contemporaneous with ‘High Rise’) seems to elide so naturally with Ballard. But the movie is dull, exceedingly literal and superficial, seeing the essence of ‘Crash’ as nothing more than some sort of kink. Aside from the tremendous theme by Howard Shore, it is utterly forgettable.

Focusing on sex in Ballard’s work is unfair to his art, since he easily produced as much work, if not more, about dreams, environmental and man-made disasters, and what happens when we mix technological progress with mankind’s inherent atavism. That is the conceit of ‘High Rise,’ with its tribes of bourgeois professionals roaming the hostile floors of a state-of-the-art condominium development. It’s also the core idea that brings us to ‘Crash,’ where the most important part of the book – and what is sorely missing from the film – is the confluence of three salient features of Western, especially American, society; car culture (and the sexualization of the car) as a centerpiece of society, the worship of celebrity, and the underlying and pervasive acceptance and thrill of violence. The characters watch slow motion film of car crashes, the very experience allowed by technology, as they themselves experience their bodies in new ways due to technology; the characters seek sexual fulfillment (although this is never actually achieved, crucially) by crashing their own cars; and finally, and most important, one character is obsessed with driving his car head-on into that of Elizabeth Taylor’s, the logical culmination of the fetish of the car, the fetish of celebrity, the fetish of the capabilities of technology and the fetish of voyeuristic violence.

A great deal of his work hints at the possible ways in which we may cause our own extinction, especially ways in which our technology creates a world uninhabitable to humans. After writing about it for decades, this is now something fairly pervasive in the public mind. Ballard examines this on both the small scale – ‘High Rise’ – and large – ‘The Drowned World,’ ‘The Crystal World.’ He also thinks about the remnants that we would leave behind, and has said that the literature of the future would be made up of billboards, pamphlets, take-out menus (we can add government memos to the list, more on that below) And so ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ is written in the form of a clinical study. Ballard does not write about sex per se, but how we feel about sex. He is not promoting any particular idea, he is not a propagandist, he is a moralist. Where he is misunderstood is in our own perceptions. We are inclined to not just consider an idea that is offered to us but to assume that the person offering it is an advocate, we are so inundated with slogans, awareness raising, public advocacy and the fiction that there are two sides to every argument and one must prevail. We have a decadent ruling class that offers opportunities for professional, public scolds, and we confuse this with actual morals and values. Ballard is a Socratic Moralist, he is showing us the implications of our own impulses and actions, and then leaving us with the responsibility to consider the questions. He means to upset us.

Which of course brings me to Rock Cookie Bottom, specifically this song:

In the form of a pop song, this is the literature of the future, a government memo, seeking to essentially say that the government can do whatever it wants to human beings and it is never anything less than completely lawful. Setting it to song shocks us anew and makes us think about just what is being said here. Note how the author is at pains to determine what suffering is, and that torture has no component of suffereing. Is he a human being, or a cyborg sent from the future? It’s not reasoning we are listening to by psychopathology, from the pen of a Federal Judge, Jay S. Bybee. A respected member of the American ruling class – I doubt Ballard ever got to hear this, which is a bit of a shame.

Are you upset? You should be. We have had eight years in which our ruling class – politicians, professional scolds and ignoramuses, self-identified journalists, corporate leaders, media propagandists – have not bothered to ask anyone, especially themselves, the fundamental question: “why am I afraid?” Why were they afraid? They were soft, pampered, unchallenged, unquestioned, their values limited to the consideration of how much money a person was producing and who won the narrow, limited, shallow argument of the moment. They saw and know nothing of the world and the people in it except for themselves, each and everyone a peer and/or colleague of some sort and, lacking knowledge, imagination and especially empathy, they thought this was the whole world in itself. So when they saw the spectacle of 3,000 mostly anonymous and mostly middle-class people murdered on the screens (and their whole world is what’s on that screen) they thought, I’m next and pissed their pants – I’m talking about you, Christopher Hitchens. Then they looked for comfort and safety. Unfortunately, the man towards whom they turned their gaze and aspirations was a coward, and one so full of unearned self-esteem that he considers his cowardice, and ignorance, the pinnacle of aspiration. Even worse, he surrounded himself with those just like him – no surprise really considering that this is norm for the ruling class, the Political-Media Industrial Complex. And since they were fearful, they explicitly and implicitly encouraged fear among their ruling class peers – not so much of a challenge, really – then throughout the rest of the country. The last is a tragedy, and certainly people are responsible for their own courage and convictions, but the ruling class did everything in their power to encourage this fear, for which none of them, even the very few who admit being wrong about things that were obviously wrong at the time, have ever admitted responsibility in this. They seem unable to consider that there is anything other than fear, that this country is a set of beliefs and values, not a geographic region formed through various tribes and feudal states through the centuries, that our home is in our documents, and not our “homeland.” They use the term “existential threat” and then set about destroying America. There are no good guys in this story, those supposedly on the right side of values, like Johnathan Alter and Nancy Pelosi thought torture and spying on all Americans were acceptable. Because it happened – not to them, of course – but with me watching, all history is now different, because it’s about me. They are atavistic. They are atavistic, and they have technology.

Consider this argument; Paul Wolfowitz is one of those principally responsible for this country waging war against Iraq. He has indicated that his motivation, which to him was sincere, was based on information showing that Saddam Hussein and Iraq were politically and operationally responsible for 9/11. This indication came to him via technology, what I wager is some sort of data-mining concordance, a count of the number of certain words captured in communications intelligence and stored in a database. The tally, whatever it was, proved the point to Wolfowitz. The technology gave him an answer, and he trusted it. This is the “chatter” that is presented to us but never explained; the number of certain words. Of course there’s little context and no understanding – technology has neither. We do, if we exercise them, but technology is an object of worship, and so not to be questioned. The bridge from atavism to technology means relinquishing the wearying burdens of thought and responsibility. The machines, having answered the tough questions, provide a sense of comfort and safety.

And consider this; fearful rulers, knowing and feeling only fear, can think only of creating fear in others. What better way to do this than to torture and kill? Instead of thinking strategically and tactically, instead of using imagination and realizing that, having succeeded once, there will be no more planes flown into buildings, that the scientific and engineering challenges in producing nuclear or biological weapons are so great that the only people we should fear in that regard are ourselves, we tortured. They scared us, we’ll scare them, they hurt us, we’ll hurt them, they killed us, we’ll kill them. Pure atavism. And we’ll torture them until they confess to what our technology already proved. This is a double and compounded bit of insanity. The technology proved nothing, it just provided an opportunity, and excuse, for fearful people to remain fearful, while torture does only two things; confirms the utter power of the state over the victim and elicits the exact language that the torturer wants to hear. As Elaine Scarry points out so brilliantly and chillingly, torture only produces pain, for which there is no real language, and so that pain destroys the victim’s language, leaving him with only the empty, meaningless reproduction of the words the torturer gives him. To say torture is immoral doesn’t even begin to describe just how deep and inhumane an evil it is. Torture only destroys, and so torturers are purely barbarians.

Atavism, worship, barbarism, and finally the idea that Bush “kept us safe.” By the 2004 election, it was no secret that America tortures anyone, spies on everyone and was waging a war against Iraq for no other reason than to make other people hurt and fear. Yet, because Bush “kept us safe,” he was re-elected. Like Arthur with Excalibur, there was some magical thinking going on. Of course, the facts that Bush did nothing to prevent 9/11, despite ample information and warning, and that terrorist attacks continued in the country afterward is conveniently forgotten, for it doesn’t fit into the received and revealed wisdom that worship requires, and the worship of the Presidency and its magical powers is now a prominent feature of the ruling class. If the shrinking, frightened Bush kept us safe, than just try to comprehend the fear in the ruling class. The feat that a terrorist was coming to get them, as individuals! The bizarre consensus was that al-Qaeda was made up of some kind of supermen, eight feet tall, able to teleport from place to place, able to appear in the guise of regular “folks,” able to broadcast secret messages via grainy, incoherent propaganda and, of course, able to both destroy the existence of the United States and also to conquer the world, or at least restore the Caliphate. Why this consensus? Well, they told us, and who are we to actually think critically about it. And after seeing the “chilling” video of scrawny men in pajamas clambering on the monkey bars, who would doubt them:

Under grave, existential threat from a Kindergarten recess class, the ruling class turned to the only people who could protect them, Kindergartners. And Excalibur was technology. Who needs Knights, certainly who needs thinking, when we have magic? It was all so comforting, so safe. These are the people Ballard warned us about.

As human beings we desire comfort and safety, and we all should have it. Let’s just be careful of where we seek it. We seek recreation; the Cubs Scouts and youth baseball are two places we could find comfort and safety, but would you really want Jay Bybee around your kids? We seek it in art as well, which I also understand but find I accept less and less. I want to say here that I am not necessarily right, but these are my thoughts. A lot of the enduring art of the past is comforting in that we can understand that people in very different times and situations had the same thoughts and desires we have, that humanity endures and can be enduringly sympathetic. I personally find Brahms tremendously comforting at times, because he gives me the sense that he has experienced life and it is part of his art. But Brahms is a part of the past, and for everything that confirms his experience to me, there are things about my experience that would be totally alien to him. My era, society and country are different than his in real ways. He would think of being German as in some ways being part of a race, a language, a specific culture. I think of being American as being part of a shared idea that accepts a huge variety of races, languages and cultures. He would think of state power being exercised by brutal fiat, responsible to no one and amoral as the natural, enduring state of affairs. I think of it as the antithesis of the idea of what this country is and is meant to be. That idea was waterboarded, it was drowned (and let’s be honest, waterboarding simulates dying by being actual drowning). This country was placed in the hands of pathetic, weak-willed, ignorant cowards who were completely unworthy of it. As to whether the idea will recover and return, it’s an open question, and I’m not completely confident in it. So to think that this idea, which I deeply and implicitly cherish, has been tortured to death, and that I, by accident of birth and history, witnessed it, is lastingly sickening and tragic to me.

Yes, I want my safety and comfort, and I make art as well, and in no way can I imagine making comforting and safe art, where that is both end means and the ends. I will make art that asks questions and offers possibilities and, especially, hope, and there will be moments of comfort and safety, but there is such a greater context to my life and our times that it must seek to encompass the expression of so many other things. And I do not want the art of my time to offer only comfort and safety, or to put it another way to offer only answers. I want art that is sincere and self-questioning, that is certain about the questions but not about the answers, that understands it is part of a vast community of other artists and that it belongs to a deep tradition, but that seeks to make its own way in the world as well, that wins us over by it’s qualities without attempting to ingratiate. I want it not to “seek itself outside itself,” and never stop seeking. I want it to strive further, to fail and regroup and once it finds itself finding a settling place, to flee and start the journey again. Rock Cookie Bottom is a great example of what I mean, as is this song from Sufjan Stevens – the form and style and familiar and pleasing, and the content is unexpected and provocative. There is no danger in listening to these songs, but they don’t leave us with the normal sense of neatly limited satisfaction, they stimulate to much to be simply ‘consumed’ like a product. In the superb “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” there is a profound and welcome ambivalence about technology, which is used to protect and most also be destroyed. The show has the question that no member of the ruling class ever bothered to imagine after 9/11. I admire these works, this is my particular taste and values, and the reason for my critical judgments – it’s not because I hate anything, but because I want to love everything.