Ad nos vix tenuis famae perlabitur aura

It was this year, ten years on, that I noticed that my vague skepticism regarding commemorations of the 9/11 attacks had become unusually acute. I am habitually skeptical, which is both virtue and fault; and I’ve always had a little bit of skepticism about all kinds of such public memorials. In America especially, large public commemorations like the annual remembrance of 9/11 are, to use a metaphor appropriate to the country’s history, land grabs of a sort, a staking out of mental/emotional/political territory. For a long time, the almost instantly customary observance of 9/11 has made me think of two quotations. One (which I already had quoted on 9/11 a couple years ago) is from Willa Cather’s My Ántonia:

Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines, Mr. Shimerda’s grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft gray rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence — the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.

Mr. Shimerda, a presumed suicide, had been buried—as superstition dictated—at a crossroads, but instead of the grave being lost to traffic, it is almost as if the world itself shifts its grid to allow the spot to remain claimed. I like to think that Cather, who grew up as the country was taking stock of its post-Civil-War self, was both acknowledging and gently rebuking the frenzy of memorials to the war, especially the proliferation of Civil War cemeteries. In her study This Republic of Suffering, Drew Gilpin Faust summed up the cemeteries this way:

The establishment of national and Confederate cemeteries created the Civil War Dead as a category, as a collective that represented something more and something different from the many thousands of individual deaths that it comprised. It also separated the Dead from the memories of living individuals mourning their own very particular losses. The Civil War Dead became both powerful and immortal, no longer individual men but instead a force that would shape American public life for at least a century to come.

Mr. Shimerda’s grave both insists on its own very individual circumstance and rights, but also wryly comments on the 19th-century American colonization of real estate, both figurative and literal, by the dead.

The other quote is pithier, a Garry Wills description of Richard Nixon on the campaign trail in 1968:

[T]he entire American topography is either graveyard, for him, or minefield—ground he must walk delicately, revenant amid the tombstones, whistling in histrionic unconcern.

Nixon grew up in an era when the country was becoming increasingly obsessed with its heritage, the topography becoming more and more crowded with its own past. The anniversary of 9/11 is, too, graveyard and minefield—the only difference being that the whistling must be uncontroversially solemn.

So that’s my usual vague skepticism. But this year, I found myself skeptical specifically about the musical content of the plethora of 9/11 ceremonies to the point where I really started to wonder about the purpose of such music. There is an interesting disconnect that happens between music and commemoration; it comes, I think, between such events’ tendency towards ignorationes elenchi and certain merelogical assumptions about musical qualities. Aristotle included ignoratio elenchi among the rhetorical fallacies he classified in his guide De sophisticis elenchis; it has come to mean any sort of red-herring irrelevant argument, but Aristotle’s use of the term was a little more precise; he used it to mean an argument which, “though it is valid, only appears to be appropriate to the thing in question.” Mereology is the logical study of parts vs. wholes; the particular problem that I think applies here is whether a given quality of music—”musical integrity,” say—is part of the music itself, or whether it is the music that is part of a larger idea of musical integrity.

The conflict was made patently clear in the recent kerfuffle over the originally-proposed cover to the Nonesuch release of Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11. The original image—a news photograph showing United Flight 175 about to strike the south tower of the World Trade Center, the colors manipulated to a sepia-toned grime—caused fairly widespread reaction: it was in poor taste; it was unduly sensationalistic; it was, at best, irritatingly obvious. The subsequent defense of the first cover by Nonesuch president Robert Hurwitz brought Aristotle’s category into play by (mostly) insisting that the music itself was an honest response, that Reich was a great artist, and that to object to the choice of cover was to put Reich’s integrity into question. Again: Hurwitz was defending the cover by, instead, defending the music. (It only appears to be appropriate to the thing in question.) That’s a classic ignoratio elenchi—and, moreover, one based on the assumption that musical integrity is a larger quality than the piece of music itself, one that also encompasses its physical packaging and marketing.

9/11 is hardly unique among periodic memorial commemorations for being fertile ground for this sort of sophistry, essentially a good-intentions defense with the volume turned significantly up. Good intentions are nobler than the truly cynical would have us believe; but, in such cases, the mereology of good intentions can get pretty murky, leading to conclusions that are equal parts depressing and alarming. Here is where Hurwitz’s ignoratio elenchi led him:

Whether or not a work offends people is a question that artists have had to contend with from time immemorial, and I hope that, in our quick-to-respond, politically correct world, artists will not let fear of a Twitter campaign prevent them from standing up for what they believe in. Artists with whom we have worked through the years… have made extremely strong political statements through their compositions, songs, and recordings, or for the causes to which they have dedicated themselves. Many have taken a lot of heat for doing just that. What message does this send out to younger artists who might have something to say that makes people uncomfortable? That they’d better be careful not to offend anyone?

As best I can tell, this is that paragraph’s logical essence: in order to preserve artists’ right to offend people, it is necessary that no one ever get offended. Such is the logical conclusion of commemoration-based ignorationes elenchi. The landscape of 9/11 remembrance is strewn with eggshells; what’s amazing is how many of them have been deliberately strewn.

One might ask what, exactly, music can contribute to a commemoration, what part it contributes to the whole of an actual memorial event itself. The best I can come up with is its potency as a blank slate, as a screen onto which each listener can project their own emotional narrative. The New York Philharmonic is marking this year’s 9/11 anniversary with Mahler’s Second Symphony, which is not an uninteresting choice (for one thing, it confirms the success of Leonard Bernstein’s campaign to make Mahler the unofficial composer of American neurosis), but one surmises that Mahler got the call mainly (and oddly) because something like John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls (which the Philharmonic commissioned, after all) is too specific in its programmatic qualities, too likely to interfere with commemoration’s role as a benign, neutral canvas. (Likewise, one of the reasons that Music After seems like such an exception to most 9/11 musical commemorations is that, unusually, it curates strong individual voices in such quantity that it kind of erases the gap between specificity and assembly, the quiet insistence of Mr. Shimerda’s grave refracted onto a variety of tiny plots.)

Besides, the very nature of music, in a way, conflicts with this kind of commemoration. Monuments are supposed to be permanent reminders; music, though, is about remembering and forgetting, permanence and impermanence, palpability and insubstantiality. Half of it fits the occasion; but the other half is constantly, gently cancelling out the first half. To mark an occasion permanently appended with the phrase “never forget” with an art form that is essentially temporal, essentially fleeting, only works if one doesn’t listen too closely.

One of the rather minor occasions that 9/11 has crowded out of its memorial territory is the birthday (well, the baptism day, the closest thing we have) of William Boyce. This Sunday also happens to be Boyce’s tercentenary—he was baptized on September 11, 1711. Boyce was one of the most accomplished English composers of the 18th century, Master of the King’s Musick to Georges II and III, organist at the Chapel Royal; but he is mostly forgotten now, except for a few church anthems and some occasionally-revived symphonies. But I like to think Boyce had at least a little sense of the uneasy fit between music and monumental commemoration. He composed what was at the time a fairly well-known setting of the Rev. Dr. Thomas Lisle’s poem “The Power of Music,” which turns the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice on its Offenbach-like head: the denizens of the Underworld are astonished not only that Orpheus should brave the journey, but that he should do so in search of his wife, of all people. Deciding that hell lacks “torments sufficient” for Orpheus’s temerity, Pluto decides that the only proper punishment is to give him back his wife—that is, until Orpheus’s lyre works its spell, and Pluto changes his mind:

But pity succeeding soon vanquish’d his heart,
And pleas’d with his playing so well,
He took her again, in reward of his art;
Such power had music in hell.

Boyce does the jest the honor of an elegant melancholy—

—a wistful acknowledgement, maybe, that music is forever slipping away, dodging the well-defined roles we would have it play.

It’s in that spirit that one could categorize one of the only really appropriate musical memorials I’ve ever found. It’s Frederic Rzewski’s ”A Life,” a short piano sketch written the day after John Cage died. It’s gnomic and quirky in a recognizably Cagean way, but there’s also a tribute hidden in the playing, one that only emerges at the right tempo:

It’s a conspiratorial joke—in conventional performance practice, one shared only between the composer, the performer and, somewhere (if you happen to believe in that sort of thing) the dedicatee. But it’s also built into the most essential feature of music, it’s fleeting temporality. It risks the wit of mixing the idea of a memorial with music’s constant but constantly evanescent immediacy. Perhaps in contrast to a lot of commemorative music, it knows exactly what it is, what all music is: a tenuous breath, an inscription carved on the surface of a running stream.

(Boyce score via.)


  1. I've felt this way for years. 9/11 is mental/emotional property I'd like reclaim. Personally, I do mourn the loss of life and innocence, but I refuse to buy the “bundle” – that is, a commemoration that includes nationalistic songs, inane cliches, forced sentiment, and political prayers.

    Thanks for the Cather quote – I'd nearly forgotten why I loved her so completely.

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