View From the East: Music in a Time of War



Greg Sandow

In the wake of our disaster, I want to ask why music moves us so much. “Music is the nutrition of the soul,” I heard Zarin Mehta say about a week after the events as he introduced a memorial performance of the Brahms Requiem by the New York Philharmonic. “Music is the soul of civilization,” said another speaker at the same event. I don’t think people talk the same way about other arts. Is theater the soul of civilization? Is dance the nutrition of the soul? Maybe we once thought of poetry like that, but we don’t now. Movies are everywhere, but we don’t talk of them as consolation. “A trip to the movies, the celluloid cave, offers escape; theater provides the ritual of repetition. But live music at its best absorbs the listener in every next step.” This was the wonderful Ann Powers, pop critic at the Times, writing on September 18 about a marathon indie rock event.

Why does music absorb us so firmly? I can imagine some reasons. Nearly all of us like it. Not everyone reads novels. But nearly all of us have music that we love. And almost all of us participate in music. We sing, at least in groups (“God Bless America” at vigils the week of the shock).

Music, besides all this, is physical. Sound grips our bodies more tightly than our other senses do. Loud low notes can shake us. At Glenn Branca‘s eleventh symphony this summer (played in the canyon that echoed between the two lost towers), sound hardened in the air. At a dance club, near the speakers, the bass pushes wind at you. In classical concerts, dissonances hurt. An orchestra sounds like it surrounds you.

And then at concerts, we share the music that we hear; an audience is a community. Finally, music grows through time. It’s an experience, not an object, a living thing that makes us breathe with it. Even a simple pop song takes a journey, through verses, chorus, and a bridge.

Which shows that music isn’t simply pure emotion. In romantic myths, and in old movies, artists vent their feelings in their art. And yet a pianist has to practice, to perfect the notes that carry all the feeling. Composers find those notes; they nourish them and shape them. Music, like all art, is a construction, a work (we use the word without thinking what it means), something someone built.

Which suggests another way that music helps us (and that all art does). Its construction is part of what’s absorbing and also reassuring. You hear that even when you think you don’t, or when you don’t know anything about it. You hear the finely wrought detail. “What the hell difference does it make if the comma goes here or there?” said novelist Ward Just, quoted in the Times, reacting to the attacks. But that sentence I just wrote offends me. “Reacting…attacks”: that jingles, noisily. I’d rather write: “reacting to the horror.” By fixing this, I make a tiny bit of art. I put my world in order. I set a standard that I wish the larger world could meet. It could be orderly, and could be responsive; it could connect its parts.

“Art can’t help but seem at best child’s play, at worst perverse self-indulgence and part of a different, distant, artificial world.” That’s from an art review by Holland Cotter, in the inescapable Times, written in the painful days. I don’t agree. I like much better something by Rebecca West, written when the First World War began, in an essay called “The Duty of Harsh Criticism“:

…if we want to save our souls, the mind must lead a more athletic life than it has ever done before, and must more passionately than ever practice and rejoice in art. For only through art can we cultivate annoyance with inessentials, powerful and exasperated reactions against ugliness, a ravenous appetite for beauty; and these are the true guardians of the soul.

Here are some reactions I’ve had to music since September 11. Music in a time of grief and war; what do we want from it? I’ll only answer for myself.

Haydn, one of the string quartets, played by the Emerson String Quartet on The Haydn Project, a new DG release. Stephen King, a man who seems to wish that he had no illusions, said (once more in the Times) that his writing had no meaning in our crisis: “We get paid to play for other people.” That, put less savagely, is how Haydn struck me. His quartet was entertainment. I didn’t need that.

Paul Simon, “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” on the big celebrity telecast. I got chills when the song began. They came from memories of how it moved me when it was new and I’d hear it on the radio (more than 30 years ago); the chills came also from my gratitude that Simon chose it now, one of the most consoling songs I know, when I needed consolation. These associations held me till the performance ended. They weren’t spoiled by Simon’s blank rewriting of the melodic hook, by his vocal difficulty when the song ranged high, or by some empty scales his pianist played. (They were the worst things in an ambitious, blank arrangement, whose parts didn’t at all connect, either with each other or the song). Some of our emotions about a piece of music come from thoughts and memories. Sometimes we think we’re hearing what our thinking makes us feel. I didn’t do that here, but I choked up as if I had.

R.E.M., “Everybody Hurts.” After my mistake of playing Haydn, I jumped away, like someone who’d been burned, and tried to hide in music that I knew I loved. I’d first heard “Everybody Hurts” in 1992, when it came out. I was driving; I had an advance tape of the album it’s from; after I heard it, I kept touching the “repeat” button on my car stereo, to listen again and again. Like a desperate child, I wanted now to feel that way again. But first came trouble; I couldn’t find the album. When finally I spotted it, and played the song, the memory of 1992 jumped up, now joined by feelings of dismay, because I couldn’t love the music as much I did then. I still heard everything I loved in it. But these things, too, are tangled in associations, because “Everybody Hurts” (a striking non-ironic song by a once-ironic band, recorded in an ironic age) itself trades in memories, of music more unabashed than it quite dares to be, arena rock, and ’50s rock. And yet it has its own emotion, especially when the bridge rolls in on a current of strings, bearing the music toward its richest harmony (and strongest ’50s recollections, when Michael Stipe sings “uh oh,” as if he thought for a moment that he was the lead singer of the Platters). But coupled with all this intensity is great restraint, when the song states its title, for just an instant there’s nothing in the music but a tiny rhythm click. The title now of course is devastating. The music still is powerful. But I was expecting both these things, and maybe that’s one reason why the song didn’t hit me as it first did. And yet here’s another tribute to the power of memory: my dismay at not feeling what I wanted was itself a strangely powerful experience. As I groped for comfort, the song still found a way to get to me.

Mozart, Così fan tutte, Act 1: “Di scrivermi ogni giorno” and “Soave sia il vento.” Old entries in the tattered scrapbook of my musical emotions… Tricky, too, because Così is a comedy. The first of these pieces is a quintet mocked by one of its singers; the four others totter on the edge of parody. But the wonder of the opera is that Mozart can make fun of passion, while acknowledging its power. “Acknowledge”—what an empty critic’s word. Mozart, as instinctive an artist who ever lived (on the big things; on smaller matters, he could be shamelessly calculating), doesn’t engage in dialectics, or in reasoning of any kind. He just gives us two separate things at once: the ridicule of passion, and the passion itself, untouched by any thought or mediation. That’s why his music seems to rise from seas of feeling, and then subsides into standard cadences. I can’t do anything about the feeling, except be overwhelmed. And now I see a link to how we felt that first week after the attack, those of us who had no danger or discomfort, and didn’t know anyone who died. What we saw around us didn’t connect with what we knew had happened. We were damaged, but couldn’t see the hurt. Così tells a frivolous story, but the people in it are as lost as we were.

Bach, Partita No. 1, first movement. I came to this in a shameful way. I was looking for a bad performance, to use as an example in my Juilliard music criticism class. I tried the Bach keyboard works, played sometimes strangely on the piano by João Carlos Martins. But when I heard the first Partita, I knew I’d judged too quickly: Martins gets the flow and feeling of the music, gets its logic and its heft, stands in awe of it, but molds it firmly. I liked the movement on the piano; the warmth and freedom of its sound made it more comforting than any harpsichord performance I could find. But what was most comforting was Bach. He was the antidote to terror of the heart and mind; a universe in perfect order, and yet free and unpredictable. Many Bach pieces have one wildcard, one moment that doesn’t fully track with the rest; here I think there are three, three cadences more ornate than the main stuff of the piece, and each one freely ornamented, differently from the others. There’s also freedom in the way (apart from these three cadences), the same few elements combine and recombine to spin the music out. Soon I heard (as Martins put things in their proper, joyful place) that the opening theme, very simply harmonized when it first appears, later shows up only over dominant pedal points. It can’t stop the music, or restart it. Instead it pushes forward, until it finally recurs in the original key, which seems to bring the piece back home. But the theme isn’t any more the surface of the piece; instead it’s in the bass, a force pushing from the depths, itself now shaped into a dominant pedal, so still the motion doesn’t stop. Things keep on moving toward their ultimate conclusion. In this needy time, the balance here of order and excitement gave me more comfort than anything else I heard in any music. Everything surprised yet; yet everything was in its place. What’s strangely modern—much atonal music works this way—is how the piece itself, avoiding traditional forms, itself defines the places everything is in. That’s how Bach creates a universe.

Stephen Vitiello, Bright and Dusty Things, a new CD from New Albion. I liked these drones and sometimes scratchy mutterings, lighted here and there with fluorescent clarity. The sounds could be by animals, busy with their lives, focused on them, undistracted, sometimes playful. Or else the sounds could be like processes in nature. They attracted me because they’re not emotional, because they don’t try to speak to me, though (in the animal analogy) they speak to each other, about things either too big or too small to touch our panic and our sorrow. This consoled me. Then I read the liner notes. I learned that the music is partly made with photocells, hooked up to a computer, which turns the light they measure into sound; the rest is softly improvised. But what I read before that made me shiver. Two years ago, Vitiello had a residency, which gave him a studio in the World Trade Center, on the 91st floor. One of the artists who had that grant this year died, when the buildings did. Again I found myself gripped by memories. I’d loved this music for its detachment; I heard it now as a memorial.