I was only ten years old on September 11th, 2001, yet I recall every detail of that day with arresting clarity: waking up to the brilliant blue sky; learning from a friend of the first plane crash, the news of which didn’t fully register with me as it marked the first time I’d ever heard of the World Trade Center; trying to come to grips with what was happening as my sixth-grade teacher calmly explained the situation to my class; feeling my heart thump in my chest as I learned that downtown Chicago, where my Dad was in rehearsal with the Lyric Opera, was being evacuated (the musicians ended up voting in favor of rehearsal); arriving home and seeing the horrific images of the attacks on television; and finally, watching President Bush’s address from the Oval Office as a crimson sunset gleamed through my kitchen windows, the fiery ball at its center gazing tragically upon a changed world.
Thirteen years later, these images remain impressed upon my memory, and I doubt I’ll forget them for as long as I live. But the most poignant and emotional experience I recall from 9/11 did not actually occur on the day of the attacks, but on the following evening of September 12th, 2001. The church my family attended at the time had scheduled a special prayer service for that night, and my father (who, like myself, is a professional cellist) was asked to play something. He chose the first movement of the Eccles g minor sonata-an introspective, elegiac melody that plumbs the depths of the cello’s expressive potential. In retrospect, I think it was the perfect choice for the occasion-the first half of the relatively short movement begins in the mournful tonality of g minor, expressing a sense of despondency not unlike that felt by the congregants in attendance that night, but the second half suddenly switches to the relative major of B-flat, conveying an undeniable sense of hopefulness-a hopefulness that we all yearned to feel. That memory, of sitting in the darkened pews and listening to my father play from the choir loft, is one of my most powerful childhood recollections. Even today, if I sit back and close my eyes, I can still hear that Eccles, echoing somewhere in the depths of eternity.
Music’s ability to heal is possibly its most awesome power. It is one of the more telling aspects of our humanity that in our blackest hours, we almost always turn to music as a source of expression and comfort. This seemingly innate tendency is not confined to performance, of course; some of the most powerful works in existence were born out of a disparaging darkness. Few pieces can match the emotional intensity of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” written while the composer was imprisoned in a concentration camp; Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet, written while Shostakovich was contemplating suicide in the midst of a volatile political climate; or the Elgar cello concerto, which was composed in the horrific aftermath of the first world war. It is often said that music expresses what words cannot; I think it is also very true to say that music expresses when words cannot. Sometimes, not even the most poignant metaphor or pitch-perfect description are enough to capture the uncontainable joy or overwhelming grief experienced by an individual, a family, or a nation. Instead, we require something far greater-something that expresses a clear and incontrovertible meaning, even if we are incapable of describing what that meaning is.
Recently, I asked my Dad what it felt like to play that night, shrouded in the darkness of the choir loft above a sea of grieving parishioners. He told me it was unlike any performance he’d given-that it seemed as though he was being listened to with a greater intensity than ever before. As a performer myself, I know exactly what he was talking about. We’ve all had experiences where, even if an audience appears perfectly interested in what we’re doing onstage, it really doesn’t seem as though we are holding their attention; while other times (like in jurys or auditions), we feel an almost uncomfortable sense that our every note is being subject to a penetrating scrutiny. I used to think this was all a purely psychological phenomenon-obviously, in an audition situation, we are well aware that we’re being judged, and thus might feel more nervous or tense-but I think there might really be a cause for this sensation that stretches beyond our own perceptions. Philosophers spend what I can only assume to be delightfully frustrating hours contemplating the notion that everything we experience only exists in our minds, because it is our minds that comprehend our surroundings in a way that is unique to each of us. The classic example of this concept is the query, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” But considering this undeniable phenomenon that performers experience, of being able to sense their listeners’ energy and attention, I wonder if the concept could actually work in reverse-where this almost extra-sensory communication between the performer and listener influences the performance itself.
Obviously, we are getting into some very abstract thought here, so I’ll shirk my capacity as an armchair philosopher and conclude with an assertion that I know is definitely true, even if I don’t quite know the explanation for it. I truly feel my Dad’s performance that night seemed so powerful because there was such a great, raw, human need for it-and it wasn’t just my need, it was the need of the those in that church and those beyond its walls. We needed that music to acknowledge our grief, to assuage our fears, and to remind us that, as impossible as it might have seemed, life would go on, and happier days were to come. Many things were taken from us on 9/11: our sense of security, our treasured landmarks, and over three thousand innocent lives. But no one can ever take away the power of music to heal-a power far greater than any act of evil.