What Are We Waiting For?

What Are We Waiting For?

In the media gorging many of us engaged in during those peripatetic days immediately following September 11th, 2001, I remember a curious article, though I know not where I read it. It wondered, less than a week after The Events, what the artists were waiting for: where were all the Guernicas in response to the tragedy? It encouraged them as a community to get busy, to respond, to react. The writer seemed to think it was their—our—responsibility to explain September 11th, to rise, Phoenix-like from the ashes of this unspeakable tragedy and sew great art from its scattered, singed threads. Being artists, we no doubt had some strong opinion on the matter, and he or she seemed to think that these opinions needed, expediently, to be expressed through The Healing of Art. I was stunned. I was shocked. Because of the collapse of the Towers in the neighborhood in which I happened to be living at the time, less than two blocks away from WTC-cum-pile of rubble, I had been shunted violently out of my home and onto the ashy streets of downtown Manhattan. I exited into a cloud of dust, repairing for a month to a friend’s couch and my new life of nightmares, panic, breathless recollections, therapy, sleeping pills, overeating, and thoughts of suicide. At the time, I needed fresh clothes, an apartment, sanity, anti-depressants, maybe some explanation of the huge dust through which I had walked; I was not sure if I would live or not. But about the last thing I needed was some cobbled together faux-Guernica. Art was worthless to me then. Flash forward four years: the menacing bitch that is hurricane Katrina has put untold thousands of evacuees in a similar position to me then—only worse. Their situation, as did ours four years ago, bears some examination, and as the anniversary looms, the timing could not be more appropriate—or more personally painful.

There were those who took my misguided writer who put out an open Guernica call to heart, and in the coming year responses poured in: a whole farrago of memorials, country songs, requiems, threnodies, piano pieces, photographs, plays, poems, articles, whatever—all aimed at codifying the expression of grief for…not sure…future generations? (Grant committees? Their un-salved conscience?) It seemed that just about everyone who was not in New York on that day felt compelled to weigh in on our experience. A friend of mine who ran a new music series said that just about all of the submissions the following April had been written In Commemoration Of…. I felt sickened. How could they begin to understand? Granted, this was my oversensitized perception. I am sure many tastefully avoided the ghastly compulsion to compose pieces called, for example, Twins: A Two Part Musical Edifice or to write works favored by a lot of downward motion (glissando strings, wouldn’t you know) to represent bodies falling from the towers—bodies I both saw and heard hit the ground, a sound no instrument can (or should try to) match, a sound that will never leave my head no matter how much time passes. But for the coming year, dedications to The Heroes and The Fallen and The Victims and The Families of the Victims were rolled out in an endless parade of farcical attempts to understand. Everyone was scrambling to make sense of something that could not be explained—certainly not by a piece of music, a painting, a poem, a country song. Nothing could put it right again…but this did not stop many from trying.

No doubt intentions were only good; no doubt nobody wished a victim like myself to suffer any further; no doubt people just did what they knew how to do in a time they did not know what to do. But recent wounds are easily opened, and a difficult moral line exists between reaction and exploitation, between honest emotion and ghoulish fascination, between writing from the heart and cashing in. This, of course, is a matter of freighted, complex opinion, one that in my case is tainted by a heightened, charged experience. But moral decisions like this—and it is a moral decision—are never made in a vacuum. Sometimes tasteful restraint and negative capability outweigh the need to respond. And in these matters, I am more entitled to an opinion on the matter than someone who felt it deeply from the comfort of Texas or some other far off place.

I thought it was the end of the world. Feelings ran hot (as they still do), and I am sure we all said and did things we can only vaguely remember. The ensuing weeks and months became a proper noun: The Days that Followed the Tragic Evens of September 11th. We all thought nothing would ever be the same again. While all this was happening, the reactions of artists became a cottage industry, amounting to what seems to be a sort of Disaster Porn, part of a cottage industry around narrow-focused—and sometimes offensive—emotional response. I was offered, in one extremely high-profile composition a year following, a broad temple in which to meditate. I was told that the work was a chance to heal, a chance to mourn, a chance to think about the very thing that occupied my every waking thought for the preceding year. How, I wondered, was this supposed to help me? Was I soothed? Not at all. Did it help The Fallen? They were unavailable for comment. Am I overreacting? How could I not?

I do not want to engage the pseudo-smartboy discussion of “what can art mean?” which lies somewhere between mock existentialist cigarette-and-coffee talk and a tender dorm-room epiphany. Everyone has—and should have—strong opinions, and I am not here to persuade you. Of course it goes without saying that artists’ reactions are important—eventually. But there are reasons for making art, and it always needs to be done responsibly, particularly in the case of an event that is so recent, so searing, and caused so many people such an inexplicable amount of pain. Art can certainly help us through the painful but ultimately quotidian upsets like heartbreak, longing, desire, frustration—even the death of a loved one, because we have templates for that. But if you are setting out to give the victims of a massive globally resounding tragedy their own private catharsis, you will fail; it simply cannot be done, and you may even end up hurting those you sought to help in the process.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there are three viable definitions of catharsis, which is the high-toned aim to which most art-that-addresses-big-tragedy aspires. The first—”the purification of the emotions by vicarious experience, esp. through the drama”—means that a person watching Oedipus might well purge himself of his atavistic need to marry his mother and consequently kill his father—a need, Freud believes (and is probably right in some way) that we all have in the abstract. It says nothing about music because music, though dramatic, does not resonate as true to life like drama. Even with words, it is abstract—with the possible exception of opera: Doctor Atomic, a story of the men who built the bomb, is at this writing poised to set the world alight (though again, it might not have been so effective in 1946, without the benefit of perspective). The second definition is, “The process of relieving an abnormal excitement by re-establishing the association of the emotion with the memory or idea of the event which was the first cause of it, and of eliminating it by abreaction.” Again, it’s a deep trauma exercise if done at all, hardly our job, as it is too delicate a process for us non-psychotherapy professionals. The third, quite graphic, says: “Purgation of the excrements of the body; esp. evacuation of the bowels.” I would likely skip any concert that offered me this.

This is not to say that good, effective, important art cannot come from tragedy. There is no dearth of spectacular examples. But most, if not all, of the works that endured have done so because they started by responding at a local level, one that happened to have global resonance—or they addressed, in a subtle-but-persuasive way, some important aspect of a tragedy, forcing a laser eye on a sliver which was emblematic of a huge injustice. John Corigliano’s First Symphony, written commemorating his friends who passed from AIDS but ultimately outlining the rage behind the entire crisis is an effective example. David Lang, in response to 9/11, finished a commission (one he had before the Tragic Events), writing a slow, menacing march of a piece which he titled simply Men. Use your imagination. George Crumb wrote Black Angels “In tempi belli,” in time of war; Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d is a moving tribute. And of course, reactions to social injustice, from Weill to Dylan to Arlo Guthrie to “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” to Pete Seegar to Frederic Rzewski to Dave Matthews, can be effective tools for galvanizing, alerting, or calling to action. But these never aim at catharsis; they aim to inform, to inspire, to prick ears. This sort of art should—and does—make us uncomfortable.

Catharsis is simply not within our ken as composers: we can make people think, but we cannot make them recover from events. (And hopefully none of us out there has ever re-traumatized anyone to the point where they emptied their bowels.) Hence: Disaster Porn. Art that is rooted in tragedy can often serve as a shortcut to an actual emotional response to the work, as tragedy allows, a priori, for a visceral reaction. Stories of the Holocaust still haunt us because the event haunts us, not because the stories are so well done. The same is true of 9/11: just remind someone like myself of the day, and I am going to have a nascent, atavistic reaction—one in which I am certainly not alone—whatever music plays beneath it. In a way, it is too easy a thing to do. To make people cry by invoking the Holocaust in 4/4 time is not to make them weep over your music, but over the horrid memory you have invoked—even if your invocation was done with the best, most sensitive, most careful intentions.

Eventually we will be able to hear direct statements about 9/11, in a different world, after we have sorted the fallout from the Tragic Event. But there are, today, possible reactions through the form of parable, of similar story, of plus ca change. It is possible to speak, through metaphor, about recent events. Think Threepenny Opera, think The Crucible. Several months later, I personally found that the song cycle I was writing about spring seemed insignificant to a world at war, so I found texts that were, to me, close but yet again far off. I set words about a bridge that fell in 1714: they were apt, they were beautiful—written by Thornton Wilder—they fulfilled my need to comment without falling into the threnody trap. At the premiere, I chose not to reveal the secret meaning of those words—let others figure it out, I thought. But at least I had some recourse to comment, however obliquely: I was there. I saw everything that happened out my window, from the first plane hitting to the cloud that was once a vivid set of commercial towers. It was all I could do to move on, so I understand the impulse to react.

Art can help us through awful times. I personally felt, after 9/11, that certain pieces of music—the string quartet in G major and quintet in C major by Schubert; Radiohead’s OK Computer (particularly the line “pull me out of the air crash/pull me out of the wreck); Beethoven’s C-sharp minor string quartet; Blood on the Tracks (encouragement to “keep on keepin’ on” was never more needed); Bach’s St. John Passion; Barber’s Adagio for Strings—helped me through what continues to this day to be the most difficult time of my life. They did not hold answers, but were comfort—albeit cold comfort, as nothing could pacify me then. I am certain everyone who loves music could concoct a similar list for the same evil times. But none of these were designed to allow me the catharsis. They just helped, for whatever reason, and I am certain those artists might be shocked to hear it. It’s a beautiful coincidence, nothing more.


As I write this, Katrina has ravaged our sister city of New Orleans, wreaking untold havoc on the gulf coast—where, incidentally, I visited for the first time, about three weeks before the storm. I feel sick daily for this beautiful part of our country, and am engaging in yet another media gorge to the end of some unreachable semblance of understanding. Once again, the spin machine has taken hold, though this is a tougher sell to the people (despite former first lady Barbara Bush’s comments that these “refugees” were “better off” now that they’ve had a taste of good ol’ fashioned Texas hospitality). I presume the artists will rally to help just as they did four years ago—and the onus is heavier on musicians as New Orleans is the repository of all the roots of any indigenous American music, the last outpost of an unblanched tradition, and many musicians will die, have died, and so a portion of our heritage has already been washed away. By a dumb piece of timing, this devastation happens to overlap with the fourth anniversary of the Tragic Events—to which our government has offered, by way of comfort, a spectacularly inappropriate “Patriot’s Day” concert of country music to take place on the D.C. mall, a concert which, we have been repeatedly assured, “will go on” in spite of the near 10,000 that are possibly dead down south. I feel helpless. It is a recognizable feeling; I spent days at FEMA and the Red Cross trying to get a few thousand dollars to help me pay for my apartment. I was refused. (The only help I actually ever got was a recovery grant from the Liberty Initiative administered by the American Music Center.) I understand the deep maw of the helplessness, and, as I am a composer, I would love to be able to express that through music, to help someone out of grief or desperation with a few million flicks of my pen. But I realize this will help nobody but myself. No matter how brilliant my piano concerto or opera or electronic piece (or whatever) might be, there are living people who need my help, a city that desperately needs to be put back together again.

To all those reading, I urge you with all I can muster to respond in kind to the actual events, not to your personal flailing aches, no matter how severe: down in New Orleans they do not need a symphony; they need bottled water, food, clothing, money, diapers, dry goods. Put down your pen and take up your wallet—there are thousands of musicians who, like me four years ago (but worse), find themselves suddenly without a home. Send them trumpets, not trumpet sonatas, as these are gigging musicians who have no means by which to make a living. Buy their records. Give to help organizations. You cannot help them heal with your music—not yet, maybe not ever—but you still can do something. They need your help, not your attempt at catharsis.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.