If there’s one thing you can count on about an anniversary, it’s that there will always be another one. They just keep coming no matter what. As the 9/11 anniversaries come and go, you think that maybe this year you won’t mind so much, that this’ll be the year when you don’t notice it coming a month in advance because you become irrationally irritable and sensitive or because you can’t sleep.
[Ed. Note: This Sunday will mark the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001. In the music community, the terrible events of that day triggered a huge amount of repertoire ranging from John Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning On the Transmigration of Souls for chorus and orchestra, Richard Danielpour’s hour-long American Requiem, Robert Moran’s recently premiered Trinity Requiem, jazz pianist Amina Figarova’s September Suite, and a 9/11 Memorial Suite collectively composed by the members of Gamelan Son of Lion to numerous more intimate works for smaller forces as well as tons of songs in all genres. All across the United States and around the world there will be commemorative concerts featuring this repertoire as well as newly created works. Of these myriad events, which are too numerous to conclusively enumerate, Music After—a 15 hour plus concert marathon organized by composers Daniel Felsenfeld and Eleonor Sandresky—has particular resonance since it will take place in Lower Manhattan, not far from the site of the former World Trade Center, and will specifically involve composers and performers who were living nearby on that fateful day. We asked Eleonor Sandresky to share her thoughts about organizing this marathon and what role composers can have in our ongoing collective healing process.—FJO]
If there’s one thing you can count on about an anniversary, it’s that there will always be another one. They just keep coming no matter what. As the 9/11 anniversaries come and go, you think that maybe this year you won’t mind so much, that this’ll be the year when you don’t notice it coming a month in advance because you become irrationally irritable and sensitive or because you can’t sleep. The images that the media show over and over again don’t get dull with time for me, for us. Whoever thinks that we should all be OK with it by now, or that we somehow need to be reminded, want to revisit the trauma. Can any of us ever forget or be the same?
In contemplating a 10th anniversary of 9/11, I initially thought I’d just have to leave town and go to some corner of the world where there would be no news, no images, no language that I could understand, just to get away from what would surely be a barrage of speeches and images and retelling. I didn’t want any retelling, at least not the usual kind of retelling. About a year ago, my good friend Daniel Felsenfeld sent an email around to his fellow composers below 14th Street stating his intention to put together a marathon concert on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 of their music. . I am on that list. At that time he had an organization that he was working with. Months went by. Then last May he called and asked me to co-produce this crazy marathon concert as the organization had fallen out. He called me because on the morning of 9/11 he was staying in my apartment on Warren Street, just north of the WTC. I had just left to go on tour with the Philip Glass Ensemble. While I was watching the world burn, my world, my neighborhood, my home, on television, Daniel was inside my home answering the phone and telling people that we were OK. We were safely out of town and our building was still standing. He, on the other hand, was very far from being safe.
Another thing about anniversaries is that they are generally passive, marking time passed after major events, and in this case, as a result of actions taken against us. The point of marking them is to remember, to relive them in some way—to honor the happening, whatever and whenever it was. But is it enough to just mark the passing of time and not-forgetting? We decided that it not only wasn’t enough, the memorializing and speechmaking and politicizing wasn’t the right way for us to honor the day.
So he called me to do this with him and immediately it felt like the only thing I could possibly do on this day—make a place where we can ALL go, all the people who suffered experiences like us and all those who just want to be with us, and we can make it safe from the things that I needed to avoid. He needed to avoid all those same things too.
Pretty quickly we realized that we had the same vision for what the day should be: a place without speechmaking, politics or memorializing. We just wanted it to be music, and that’s what it is going to be, from 8:46am, the time the first plane hit, through midnight. And so we began. Our first steps were figuring out where to hold the event, Joyce SoHo, while simultaneously contacting as many composers as we could think of to get them involved. Right away philosophical discussions on what constituted Downtown, how far north we wanted to be on the day and the issue of what kind of pieces we wanted to have arose. Deep discussions about tone and tenor of the event, length of pieces, who would play, etc, took place over lunch at Cheryl’s, a restaurant in Brooklyn. That’s also where we named the marathon Music After, thanks to Daniel’s wife Elizabeth. The question of what kind of music answered itself in a way. Composers just seemed to understand that what was needed was something that was practical as well as appropriate: practical in that each composer would have 15 minutes to present music with very little time for setting up or sound checking; and appropriate in that everyone wanted to respond to the day in a particular way. What that way is has been very individual. As curators with a vision for the day, our job has been largely one of guidance toward fulfilling that vision.
Knowing that putting together a marathon concert of this nature would be difficult, and even questioning whether or not we would be able to handle it, neither of us could say no to this compelling idea, creating a special place where there is only music. We both hoped that it would, and will, provide all of us as individuals and as a community with some semblance of healing or release through the action of coming together on this anniversary, so we set out to fulfill the mission. Within two weeks of deciding to do this, I went to meet Ralph Jackson at the new BMI offices to talk about what the event could be and to get assistance in finding other composers who happened to be in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001 . Knowing where the BMI offices are—the new WTC 7 tower that overlooks the site—and going to visit them are two very different things. It was an indication of what was to unfold repeatedly over the summer and will continue through the event and beyond, I imagine. So much emotion came to the surface for me just by being there and looking down from that great height. At that moment I knew that producing this marathon would not be easy emotionally.
I tend to be private about my traumas, as many are, so deciding to do this was putting myself out there in a pretty public and uncomfortable way and with people that I hadn’t actually met in some cases. And never mind that it’s still difficult to think about. It’s not actually difficult to talk about it once I get started, but then I go back to that place ten years ago and it’s hard to come back out. Actually, I have been astonished by how great my need still is to tell my story, so that it could be heard and understood, even though it takes me to such a dark place—drops me there and leaves, taking me hours to crawl back out to greet life again. So I agree to talk about it in interviews and answer questions. As I tell my story in press interviews, I watch as Daniel’s face takes on a haggard, haunted look. It takes me back there too—to that hotel room, watching my neighborhood literally crash to the ground from my virtual street corner on the television.
We next met with Ed Harsh of Meet The Composer in the hopes that they would be able to help identify composers; we called ASCAP, the Jazz Gallery, and Harvestworks; persisting into August with additional help from composers already on the concert. As composers were identified and contacted, we made spreadsheets in Google docs to keep track and when we reached our maximum, we met at the Joyce SoHo with flash cards in hand to begin literally placing music in blocks and then in an order. With all this help and working hard to track people down, there are still many composers missing from this concert. We have always known it would be an impossible task to find everyone, and that if we did the concert would last around 36 hours if not more.
Even as we were tracking down composers, we were also searching out performers who would be right for the pieces we were planning to program. So many performers wanted to participate, and some so much so that they went to extremes to make it happen: Kathy Supové made a video of Morton Subotnick’s piece and Ethel found a substitute violinist for Jennifer Choi when her family obligations required her presence elsewhere. These are just a few of many stories like this. It really continues to be the most amazing and uplifting experience to work with so many committed and brilliant musicians. There is an amazing trust that is permeating the whole process of creating this event. Daniel and I have been putting musicians together who have not played together before, in music that they don’t know, with a tech team that they haven’t worked with, and without exception all have given nothing but generosity and graceful flexibility that continues to be deeply inspiring. A few weeks ago, we stepped back and let our new production manager, Mike Clemow, take over organizing sound checks and tech requirements, etc. It has been amazing to read the email flying back and forth between players, composers, and tech as they sort themselves out for rehearsals and sound checks. This has left Daniel and me time to continue arranging the flash cards for each composer into sets, which took place at Cheryl’s, the Joyce SoHo, and Daniel’s dining table with daughter Clara keeping and ever watchful eye, should a card accidentally drift to the floor.
Each of us on Music After lived that day up close. We each have a need to tell our stories, and we have been doing it through our music whether we intended to or not since that day. It is there, an indelible part of our psyche now. But even as we were talking to each of our composers and asking them for music to put on a concert that was not about memorials or speechmaking or politics, every one felt that they wanted something that was appropriate for the day, and for some that was their 9/11 music, because every one of us goes to that dark cave of a place inside when we hear the words “nine eleven.” We can’t escape it in our heads, and in order to get it out of our heads, we need to tell our stories.
This concert is about a public telling of our stories through music; and in organizing this we have heard a lot of stories. Some of those stories have expressed themselves in very harsh and accusatory ways. People’s emotions are still running high. Assumptions have been made, and we have been tarred with the brush of commercialization by a few. Some composers just don’t want to be involved because they can’t do it yet. I feel deep compassion for them and hope to see some of them on Sunday, the anniversary day.
As I’m writing this, I find that through all the retellings to press and donors, I actually feel better. It has taken me to a different place and the action of connecting to my community through making this marathon concert has already brought me some measure of healing. Hopefully it has done the same for them, too. For me, the darkness and pain has been ameliorated, at least for the moment, through the power of action in organizing our community to make music together, as difficult as it has been at times and may always be.
We are creating Music After so that the collective “we” will be able to come together and share our creations, to tell our stories and tell them through our most eloquent language, music. Through the telling of stories in this public forum, we are giving ourselves something to do, an action to take, but more importantly we are collectively making a gift, delivering a love letter, to our community and to our city. So this anniversary will be about music. We are still here, living our lives and making music. This is what we do and these are our stories. Come and hear us.