Musical Perspectives on September 11th

Introduction, Sakata, Jairazbhoy, Questions

Responses to Roundtable

Discussion Board


Music Humanizing Our Visions: Reflections on September 11
Ali Jihad Racy
  1. I would like to begin with an excerpt from the Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, a poet who came from Lebanon, the country where I was born:

    And a woman spoke, saying, Tell us of Pain.
    And he said:
    Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

    In the wake of the painful and utterly shocking events that occurred on September 11, we ponder as well as mourn. Those of us who study people’s musics and cultures may wonder about the relevance of what we do. We may doubt our roles or feel helpless and marginalized. However, I wish to propose that amidst a climate of violence, pain, and mistrust, the substance of our study can both uplift us and deepen our perceptions of ourselves and the world we live in—or, to quote Gibran again, break “the shell that encloses our understanding.”

  2. Events of the magnitude we experienced on September 11 tend to intensify our feelings and reactions—that is understandable. This intensification may occur through the different phases we supposedly go through under such circumstances: namely, disbelief, shock, rage, grief, and finally reflection. As we look back, we notice that what happened in September led to bad stereotyping and, in some cases, to terrible hate crimes; but it also led to remarkable stories of compassion. During the few days following the attack, I hesitated to go out jogging—fearing insult, or even worse—for reasons that are beyond my own creation. However, I was also heartened by numerous phone calls from concerned friends, neighbors, former students, and fellow musicians. I am reminded of a story that I heard recently about a Native American grandfather who was talking to his grandson about how he felt in the wake of the recent tragedies. He said, “I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart; one is the fearful, angry, revengeful one; the other is the compassionate, peace-loving one.” The grandson asked him: “Which wolf will win the fight in your heart?” The grandfather answered: “The one I feed.”

  3. As an ethnomusicologist and Lebanese-American, I have tried to bring about a better understanding of a specific world region. Through my research on funeral laments in Lebanese rural communities, including my own village and birthplace, I know well how sadness affects people, how music and poetry enable human beings to cope and come to terms with their fragile existence. In my lectures on the role of music in Islamic mysticism, as represented by various Sufi sects, I have highlighted two underlying universal principles, namely, Unity of Being—or that holiness is in everybody, and Divine Love—or that love as a primary link between humans and the Divine, and among humans themselves. Similarly introduced in my lectures, is music’s transcendent power and its key role in achieving the mystical state; or, as the eleventh-century mystic al-Ghazali stated, its ability to soften the soul and cause it to yearn. Furthermore, in my various writings on secular Arab music, I have spoken extensively on tarab, the ecstatic state that music evokes in listeners, an aesthetic experience that seems both abstract and visceral.

  4. In this country, the aftermath of the attacks prompted numerous noteworthy developments. As it seems, there has been a new interest in the world around us, as shown, for example, by the numerous television reports and documentaries on Islam and Muslims. Some books on the Middle East, especially on the Arab world, have been among the nation’s bestsellers. The media seems a bit more willing to listen to academic specialists, including those who have had direct experience with the cultures concerned. More individuals are becoming interested in global issues, and are trying to understand and critically assess our country’s foreign policy.

  5. However, these events have also highlighted music’s role in our lives, and led to a certain discourse on the role of the arts at times of crisis. After the attacks in New York, National Public Radio interviewed the host of a music radio-program about listeners’ subsequent musical requests. In the interview it was made clear that music occupied a primary niche in listeners’ psyche, although for a couple days right after the attacks music programming was discontinued. Musical choices were both personal and subjective; yet, some patterns were obvious. For example, many requested music to fit their state of mourning—Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings was listened to again and again. Quite a few wished to hear Beethoven’s music, which they treated as a sort of prayer, while some listeners requested works by Mahler, among other composers. But others also found solace in Beatles’ songs, in jazz, and in various popular genres. Meanwhile, a special CNN report entitled “Terror and Art,” documented the arts’ focal position in the wake of the attacks. A female singer, Sherry Watkins, was interviewed about a song that, we are told, “just poured out of her the day after the terrorists struck.” The singer notes, “Those words didn’t come from me. They just came through me. I was just a gate.” Others interviewed in the report stress that artists are sometimes motivated by the most horrific occurrences. It is similarly shown that after the shock, school children expressed their feelings by painting the images they had seen repeatedly, a creative process that served an important cathartic purpose.

  6. As I watched and heard recent broadcasts from the local media, and from the Middle East via satellite, I was interested in finding out what music does amidst the climate we are experiencing today. As I saw it, during the five weeks or so following the attacks, music operated on at least two broad and closely related levels. The first can be characterized, in general terms, as psychological transformation. The second follows the dictum of “e pluribus unum,” or “out of many comes one,” which underlies the repeatedly shown television advertisement in which members of different ethnic groups utter the expression, “I am an American!” in their own English accents and mannerisms of speech. On the first level, or that of “psychological transformation,” music addresses three emotional domains: a) mourning, or the exteriorization of the painful sense of loss or grief; b) the need to be emotionally uplifted or reconnected mentally and socially; and c) a sense of reassurance, recovery, and strength. On the second level, namely of “oneness in diversity,” music has been used to evoke an encompassing sense of “us”—as a union of diverse ethnic, religious, and cultural groups, and globally as a world community with basic ties and commonalties. In both cases, however, music’s efficacy stemmed not only from its acquired symbolic connotations, but also from its inherently flexible or even abstract message. In light of such flexibility and abstractness, musical expressions were often recontextualized, reoriented, and reinterpreted in creative and highly affective ways.

  7. My observations are inspired by several music related highlights. In an official ceremony in London a few days after the tragedy, the Buckingham Palace guards, whose bright red uniforms contributed to their unmistakably British image, were ordered to play the “Star-Spangled Banner” before the British anthem as a gesture of support for the American people. [Click here for Quick Time example, 6 MB download size; click here for Real Audio example.] Some Americans among the spectators wept, and as soon as the performance ended the tearful listeners applauded with tremendous enthusiasm. In a large outdoor ceremony that New York and its mayor organized as a tribute to the victims, the program presented a religious, ethnic, and artistic microcosm of our nation. Placido Domingo’s performance of Schubert’s Ave Maria was followed by a variety of presentations, including a call to prayer by an African American Muslim. The local musical mannerisms through which this religious expression was rendered, added to its symbolic significance. This was followed by chanting from the Qur’an, delivered by a Philippino reciter. The ceremony ended with Mark Antony’s “America the Beautiful,” a finale that roused dramatic enthusiasm, a surge of ecstasy that caused the thousands of flag waving spectators to rise in thunderous applause. By and large, this ceremony appeared to evoke both a sense of individuality within unity, and to create a gradual but dramatic feeling of emotional transformation.

  8. Global statements were also made. For example, the use of U2’s music video “One” as a closing segment for a Larry King CNN program about a month after the attack, brought to mind a statement made by Bono (U2’s frontman) in Time Magazine: “Rock music can change things. I know it changed our lives. Rock is really about the transcendent feeling. There is life in the form” (53). U2’s music video presented a sound track accompanying a collage of some twenty-eight film shots taken in different parts of the world: including Washington, DC, Beijing, Tijuana, Marakesh, Tibet, Jerusalem, Cairo, Sidney, and ending in New York City. With such expressions as “We’re one, but we’re not the same,” and “You got to carry each other, One!” the text is set to a melody that seems symbolically fitting through its active harmonic movement and its consistent dynamic flow.

  9. A comparable statement came from the Middle East. A short music video broadcast from a major Lebanese TV station in Beirut during the few weeks following the attacks, expressed sympathy with the American people. It displayed two separate small frames, subtitled “New York, 2001,” and “Beirut, 1982,” both captions superimposed upon the image of a flowing American flag. The two frames simultaneously showed black and white film scenes of the New York attack and of Beirut during the civil war, a few years following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The graphic and strikingly shocking depictions of destruction and suffering victims in both frames were accompanied by an excerpt from “Fragile,” a song from Sting’s new CD recorded on September 11 and dedicated to the memory of the attack victims. We hear, “That nothing comes from violence, and nothing ever could. For all those born beneath an angry star, lest we forget how fragile we are.” The music video closes with the following written statement: “We are joined in sympathy for the innocent and in our condemnation of the deeds beyond imagining …” Underneath it says, “the People of Lebanon.”

  10. Such musical manifestations allow us to understand the importance of music in our lives, even when we feel threatened, distressed, or alienated. Certainly, music can serve a wide variety of agendas. Examples from different historical periods and from contexts familiar to us today show that music is frequently used toward selfish, antisocial, and belligerent ends. Yet we also link music to aspects of our existence that are most universal and most human, including our fears and vulnerabilities, our hopes, and triumphs. In this latter sense, music can humanize the world’s visions of us, as well as humanize our visions of ourselves.

, Sakata, Jairazbhoy, Questions

Responses to Roundtable

Discussion Board

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