SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIFeatures Archives

October 1, 2001

 

Music as Solace

I'm still finding it hard, in the wake of the horrific events of September 11, to concentrate on hi-fi, much less write about it. Somehow it seems so trivial, so beside the point. I'm still having a hard time coping with it all.

My friend John Atkinson has described New York as a city composed of mugging victims, and I think he's got it about right. We were savagely attacked -- all New Yorkers -- and we're going through the post-traumatic-stress mood swings and depression that go with it. Not to mention a healthy dose of survivor syndrome. Like me, 6000 New Yorkers went to work on September 11 -- they'll never come home and the only difference between them and me is that I work at home, while they worked in what some warped mind conceived of as a target.

The reality is that there's no way to make an event such as that one make sense. To anyone not totally inured to horror, it's a tragedy too big to wrap one's mind around. So we have all chosen strategies, consciously or not, for dealing with its incomprehensibility. The television networks chose to repeat the footage of the two airliners striking the towers, running it over and over practically in a loop, as though somehow sheer repetition could somehow make sense of it all. Some newsreaders retreated into formulas -- the loss of life was greater than the sinking of the Titanic and the attack on Pearl Harbor combined. I even received e-mails "explaining" how United States policies over the last fifty years made the attacks inevitable. (I don't deny the wrongheadedness of many US policies, I simply don't see them as an excuse for the attack.) And, of course, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, illustrating that vicious religious extremism knows no borders, blamed us for angering God to the point where he allowed such events. None of which surprised me, actually.

What did surprise me, however, was that I stopped listening to music for nearly two weeks. Why? I don't really understand it. Music has always offered me solace in my pain -- what made September 11 different?

Perhaps it was an unconscious sacrifice -- like giving up a favorite vice for lent. I suppose I'll never know for sure. But as much as I believe that music puts us in touch with that divine spark at our core, listening to it just didn't feel right in the first days following the destruction of the World Trade Center.

Eventually, however, life had to go on. But I found myself at a loss when it came to which music to listen to. Child of the rock'n'roll era that I am, I wasn't much interested in listening to it after the tragedy. Nor did jazz beckon to me. Somehow, only classical music seemed up to the task.

But what? You might think that classical music offers an obvious form for dealing with death in the requiem. But I had no desire to listen to requiems -- my problem wasn't musical, but liturgical. And I'm not referring specifically to the religious content, although I take no comfort there, but to the way that requiems are tied to specific texts. As Mendelssohn said, "People usually complain that music is so ambiguous, that it leaves them in such doubt as to what they are supposed to think, whereas words can be understood by everyone. But to me it seems exactly the opposite." Ambiguous or not, what I needed from music was precisely a respite from the constant stream of words I'd endured since September 11.

And also, quite frankly, I needed a rest from the cheap emotion with which so many responded. I cry easily myself, so I mistrust facile emotional intensity. I resented the way the networks kept foisting "God Bless America" on us (and never more than when Celine Dion was caterwauling it during the Concert for America). I was somewhat more tolerant of Barber's "Adagio for Strings," which has become symphonic shorthand for tragic loss over the last twenty years, but I have to admit that I prefer it as part of the spiky second movement to Barber's string quartet rather than as the separate symphonic treatment that has made it popular.

What I needed, however, was music that helped me cope with my grief.

First -- and no surprise here -- was Bach. The austerity of Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations [Sony 37779] seemed perfectly suited to the occasion. The backstory to the piece, of course, maintains that it was music intended to be heard from another room, but what it seemed like was music overheard from another world -- a sunny place where logic prevails, perhaps.

To my surprise, I found myself totally uninterested in listening to either Mahler or Buckner, two composers who normally bring me great satisfaction. No, I went about as far as you can go in the other direction. First, I found immense comfort in The Lark Ascending [Argo ZRG 696]. That it is beautiful is no surprise, what astonished me was how heroic its beauty seemed after the events of the 11th.

Vaughan Williams, of course, served in France in the Royal Army Medical Corps, so he must have seen the butcher's bill for many battles at close hand. Thus, it's no surprise that his Pastoral Symphony [EMI Classics 64018], for all its beauty, is undercut by a brooding sense of tension. On its surface, the music is gentle and, yes, pastoral, but the dark undercurrents that surge to the surface challenge the prevailing opinion of RVW as a composer of country airs. There's something deep and dark hinted at here -- and at the moment, while I find myself unsure of so many things, I find that ambiguity appealing, if not reassuring.

Actually, the Pastoral Symphony breaks almost all the "symphony" rules. It contains little dynamic contrast, it's amazingly of a piece regarding tempo and it doesn't even use melodic material in the way symphonies normally do. Aaron Copland likened it to "watching a cow graze for forty minutes."

Perhaps so, but to my ears, Copland's music, especially the martial and grandiose Fanfare for the Common Man, seems more like 19th-century music (and emotions), while the placid surface and roiled depths of Vaughan Williams' symphony express my feelings perfectly. The world is a beautiful place -- and I am so grateful to be alive in it -- but not all is what it seems. You never know when something dark and disturbing will bubble to the surface.

Eventually I'll return to my old listening habits, I'm sure. I'll value rock for its spit-in-your-eye defiance, jazz for its complex beauty, and even country for its brooding fatalism. But September 11 changed things -- even the way I listen to music. Before that, I never could have imagined this happening, so now I am left wondering what else I believed will be proven wrong.

Only time will tell.

...Wes Phillips
wes@onhifi.com


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