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Music and Memory: Listening to 9/11

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Music has always been a part of the rituals of human experience - weddings, funerals, parties, memorials, birthdays, holidays - the list goes on and on. But for me, it's always gone far beyond that. I quite literally have music either playing in my head or on my iPod or stereo almost all of my waking hours. I can't remember the last time, for example, that I took a bath and didn't pick a piece of music that I thought would best match the book I was planning to read in the tub. Or took a jog without picking a piece that would fit the mileage I was planning to do. And beyond such "day to day" musical selections, I have a huge number of days throughout the year set aside for special musical celebration, such as my annual first day of summer party, which has included listening to Mahler's Third Symphony each year since I discovered the piece back in college more than 25 years ago.

Friends who know how much I like to program my day with music in this way frequently ask me what I listen to on 9/11, but it's not easy to answer. Not because there's not a wealth of appropriate choices - including any number of Requiems (the humanistic ones by Brahms or Faure being particular favorites), dozens of works by Bach, and, today, a work written expressly to commemorate the occasion: John Adams' Transmigration of Souls.

What makes my musical selections on 9/11 so challenging is a biographical fact: by a twist of fate back in 1998, my partner Brian and I selected September 11 to be the date of our anniversary. We didn't have a party and invite people to our special event, but instead the two of us checked into a swank hotel in Soho and expressed our thanks for having found each other and our determination to make a life together.

Three years later, celebrating our anniversary - and just about everything else in the world - changed dramatically. Brian was working downtown and saw the second tower fall; I watched it on TV from the Upper West Side. And since that day, every time this double-anniversary date approaches, the conflicting emotions I feel creates a tension in me that I find both unsettling and yet strangely life-affirming.

On the night of the tragedy I remember being in our living room in the early evening - in the state of shock all New Yorkers were feeling - and wanting desperately to do something - anything - that would remind us that life really would go on despite how heartbroken we were. And I decided that playing some music might be one thing that could help. Before 9/11, a typical anniversary night would have included a soundtrack of Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz masters and a bottle of champagne. But what could I put on the stereo now that would be remotely appropriate as the smoke choked the air in and around Manhattan? I remember first reaching for Brahms's Requiem, but some deep feeling - tinged with a terrible sense of resentment - sprung up in me and said that no matter what had happened, I just wouldn't listen to such a Requiem on the day of our anniversary.

Having worked in the music industry for nearly a quarter of a century, I have an absolutely huge CD collection. So I started rifling through the vast number of titles looking for something to play. It wasn't easy, and it took more than an hour to finally find something that I thought might be appropriate. My choice was Anton Bruckner's Seventh symphony, which I would never listen to on a "normal" anniversary night because it's just too big and intense and not particularly fun. But looking back, I realized why it worked so well to help lift my spirits on that terrible night.

Bruckner, a 19th century Austrian composer and organist, was a devout and mystical Catholic - and, according to most accounts, something of a country bumpkin. His huge symphonic works encapsulated both his religious faith and his profound love of nature. I had listened to his Seventh dozens of times before listening to it on September 11, 2001 and knew it as well as any other orchestral work, so just hearing something so familiar a piece was like being comforted by an old friend. But the meaning of the words, so to speak, had been transformed and deepened. Whereas Bruckner's music had always struck me as profound and yet somehow naive, on that night it sounded like it was truly coming from another world. And on that particular night, escaping from a world made so ugly by human hatred and into a world illuminated by the spiritual light of music gave me the only hope I really felt on that day.

Fast forward to today - September 11, 2009. I spent the morning getting my car serviced (a quick trip for an oil change turned out to be an expensive investment in four new tires, but that's another story), and it wasn't until mid-afternoon that I was finally able to play some music. Outside our weekend home in the Hudson Valley everything is soaking wet and shrouded in fog. And it's incredibly cold given that there are still two weeks of summer ahead of us. Philip Wilder - one of my best friends, a former countertenor in the vocal ensemble Chanticleer, and a co-worker at 21C Media Group - is here with me and agreed that we should listen to our client Alan Gilbert's new recording of Mahler's Ninth Symphony.

http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?ordertag=Condrecom126004-272348&album_id=278592

In less than a week, Alan becomes the new Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, but the recording features Alan with his previous orchestra, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. Mahler's Ninth is a famously wrenching work, with the composer seeming to do nothing less than saying goodbye to this world. Alan and I have discussed the work often and I think we have a few slightly different ideas about it. If I'm not mistaken, he finds genuine transcendence and acceptance in it, while it strikes me as almost exclusively sad and tragic. But listening to Alan's characteristically natural, honest and profoundly beautiful interpretation I find myself less sad then I usually do when this piece is over, and even more excited to hear Alan and the New York Philharmonic play Mahler's Third next week. Everything may have changed since 9/11, but music continues to light the way forward for me.