In her recent Washington Post piece, Anne Midgette (a grown-up critic whose pant leg is my favorite to tug at ineffectually from down here at blog level) notes that Denyce Graves was last heard in the Washington area “at a concert commemorating the battle of Bull Run.” In the next paragraph, Midgette wonders, “How many commemorations do we need before we’re ready to move on?” In the case of the battles of Bull Run—the first and second of which each resulted in the loss of more American lives than did the events of September 11, 2001—the answer seems to be that even after 150 years, there’s room for one more.
Unlike those bloody days in the early 1860s, 9/11 is fresh in our national consciousness and in the memories of the bereaved, and it hasn’t lost its power over us as a menacing geopolitical omen—the “terminal crisis” of American hegemony, to borrow from Giovanni Arrighi. Like the battles of Bull Run, however, 9/11 is something people will gather in a concert hall to think about while music is played, given the chance. This is where I depart from Midgette: Why commemorative concerts?
There’s no danger that anyone will forget about 9/11, whose consequences—and the consequences of the propagandistic uses to which its appalling devastation has been put—we live with every day. Personally, I have no trouble recalling the image of a burning Pentagon which, as a college freshman in Baltimore, was my first inkling of the trouble to come and the certainty that my friends and I would be immediately drafted and summarily mowed down by AK-47s. Conversely, there’s only one affect that musical commemorations of 9/11 are allowed to convey, namely a kind of reverent solemnity. Who can object to that? There’s only one way to feel about 9/11 if you’re an American. That’s precisely why the notion of a commemorative concert seems wrong to me: Art, at the most basic level, is about different ways of feeling about things. Everyone had a different experience of 9/11, no question, but the point of commemorative concerts is to melt those particularities into a universal. I’d rather remember that day in silence.