Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Tragic Link in My Playlists

I remember 9/11/2001 very well.

A school friend, horrified, called me early that morning, so Carolyn and I were watching live when the second plane struck the tower. It was the most alarming, most horrifying thing I had ever seen in my life.

That is, until the towers fell. There's been nothing like that in my life, before or since.

I have no personal connection to the tragedy, but I saw the faces of those fleeing the rubble and dust; I saw the expressions of those hoping to find their loved ones whole and well; I heard the shock and fear of those reporting on the events. No one could live through such a horror, even at a distance of 2000 miles, and not be affected. Millions of lives, my life included, took a new trajectory that day, changed in numberless ways, both large and small.

We had tickets to see the Phoenix Symphony on September 14th, 2001. Yoyo Ma would be performing, and almost on a whim--I was no particular fan of classical music, or the symphony--I had bought tickets. Then, because of the recent events, and the restrictions on flying, the concert was nearly cancelled. Fortunately, Ma was able at last to get a flight, the concert went ahead. I remember none of it except the first piece played, added at the last minute to commemorate the tragedy--Barber's Adagio.

Barber's Adagio

I feel like I can remember every note from that first hearing. For the only time ever in my memory, I wasn't listening to the music--I was feeling it. It was the perfect expression of our mutual experience, of our national grief. Sorrowful. Slow. Majestic. Heartbroken. It built gradually, with the imperfect resolutions that somehow echo the emotional ache of tragedy. Every note spoke of grief, and regret, and remembrance, and pain, but it was beautiful. Awesomely, touchingly, transcendently beautiful.

I didn't want it to end, though of course it had to. But from that moment on, I have loved that piece of music.

Some time later, searching for anything that made me feel like Barber's Adagio, I found modern Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Famous for writing sacred choral music as well as orchestral pieces, Pärt has a genius for emotional expression. Perhaps the best example is his "Cantus in Memorium Benjamin Britten," written on the passing of a fellow composer.

"Cantus in Memorium Benjamin Britten"

I fell in love not only with this piece, but his astonishing choral works, and for a time I played everything I could find composed by Arvo Pärt.


Eventually, I searched for music that was similar to his. This led me to older classical composers, and then to soundtracks, and then to ambient music, and then back to classical. Not everything appealed to me; I haven't learned to enjoy Mozart, or Tchaikovsky, or others that I perhaps should feel something for. But it led me in a widening search for music similar to this music or that music that I had already made my own. It led me to Juan Gutierrez de Padilla, and Francesco Durante, and Wassenaer, and Gorecki, and Weill, and Penderecki, and then most recently to Vivaldi and Telemann and Purcell.

Purcell's Ten Sonatas

Eleven years after the tragedy of 9/11, and the shockwaves it sent through society and culture and politics and private lives, it is easy to see that our country is profoundly different than it might have been. Much has been lost, and much has been suffered.

But separate from the tragedy, and apart from any present awareness of the incalculable suffering of my fellow humans, I have to look at this tiny ripple in my life--a ripple caused, initially, by ugliness and cruelty and unreasoning hate--to see what it might mean.

I look at it, and wonder.