Among the various responses reported by citizens in the days after September 11, 2001, mine initially fell in the category of walking catatonia. Numb to feeling, I experienced little or no emotional catharsis. The event was either too big, or unbelievable, or too much a product of the various media packaging the events. One symptom of toiling in a broadcast medium is becoming hyper-aware of all media’s power to lift or depress. Perhaps skepticism stood in the way of authentic experience. I didn’t know, except that it was troubling.
The bare facts of public tragedies are cold as hammer blows. Loss of life, destruction of property, the bewildering senselessness of accidents, the stark implications of crimes.
Media disseminate these facts. They also rend clothing, gnash teeth. They “bring us together” in that they provide us with a common, though highly crafted, experience. But does this experience have anything to do with complex human responses, or is it a Pavlovian bell? We grieve on demand, but do we feel anything?
I spent the week doing my job, selecting and presenting classical music on a public radio station in the rural college town of Northfield, Minnesota. Currently, it was to match the prevailing mood with music. But what did that mean?
Since I hadn’t grappled with the event very effectively, my first, rather disengaged solution was to offer up a series of dirge-like compositions and stay out of the way. Pieces in the same utilitarian category as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. I stayed away from most songs; the varied lyrical content always threatened the odd phrase that might be tastelessly out of place. The selection was appropriate, safe, and though the meaning was clear, communicating the bleakness we all felt, it was at the same time perfectly meaningless.
My colleagues and I plugged along as best we could. And by Friday the 14th, I’d loosened up enough to speculate with Stephen Davis, another announcer, about whether even a stout, muscular performance by the Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel could overcome the sentimental and possibly mawkish effect of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from Carousel. And just then, as I mentioned to Stephen how proud I was of the way we’d all responded with great care that week, my reserve burst like a faulty dam. Apparently, it wasn’t until I perceived a tangent between the event (still mythical in scale) and the value of what I could do in response on the radio (manageable in scale), that I could cry.
As a classical music station, we’re equipped with the most potent emotive arsenal in the world. And from September 11 on we brought it to bear on public events demanding awareness, presence, and hand-crafted broadcast/musical artifacts. October 7, the offensive in Afghanistan. December 7 (Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day) was elevated from cursory mention. Memorial Day, D-Day, the Fourth of July. These anniversaries came along with their historical meanings freshly painted; we read them aloud and set them to music. Before long we’d swung round to the first anniversary of the WTC attacks. There were dangers, of course, in operating at such a determined emotional pitch. Maudlin tones, fatuousness, hideous bromides yawned like great chasms, ready to swallow us up. Yet informing these occasions, always, was the lesson learned from the response to September 11-when you’re required to note regretfully or grieve publicly about an event, the authenticity of the expression exists in direct proportion to how connected it is to the people and the tasks you have immediately, and more importantly, unmediatedly, at hand.
Then there was October 25, 2002. For many who knew what the senior senator from Minnesota stood for, it felt like a death of hope. That day Paul Wellstone’s small plane went down in a northern Minnesota forest, killing the senator, his wife and daughter, two campaign aids, and the pilot.
I heard about the crash about two hours before I was to go on the air. My first thought was to make an acknowledgement, play appropriate music, and move on. This was, after all, a political figure, beloved and polarizing, at the end of a close, bitter campaign against the Republican candidate, Norm Coleman. Shouldn’t I avoid eulogies, and put personal admiration aside?
But almost immediately we began to receive e-mails and phone calls, messages to the effect that, we hope we can rely on you to give us music to get us through the day, just like you did after September 11. This changed everything. I was no newsman, pledged to feign detachment. My responsibility lay elsewhere. Just before 3:00 I dove into some old spoken-word albums, looking for possibilities in Shakespeare. On an album of various speeches, I dropped the needle (sic!) at random, and heard John Gielgud say,
That time of year thou may’st in me behold
From a Shakespeare sonnet we went directly to the mournful, elegiac Adagio from Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto. And then, deploying that emotive arsenal, selections from Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms; the luminous Aria from Ottorino Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 2; the aching Chaconne from Bach’s unaccompanied Violin Partita No. 2. The participation continued: “Don’t forget, Senator Wellstone was Jewish,” read one e-mail. I hadn’t, and Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo, a Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello, as well as a traditional Kaddish were part of the afternoon. A professor at St. Olaf College who’d worked on the Wellstone campaigns wrote, “I don’t know when you selected your playlist today, but I want to thank you for it. It’s beautiful music for tears, and I needed to cry.” It began to feel less like radio than a kind of communion: or were they, potentially, synonymous? Maurice Durufle’s motet “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” (“Where charity and love are, there is God”). Aulis Sallinen’s Winter Was Hard, skewing the tense from past to anticipatory. And the tender Menuet from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, a collection of six piano pieces dedicated to friends who died in the Great War.
Something rare was happening. Instead of a presenter of stuff, I too was one who grieved, with a vigorous means to do so. As comfort and a certain confidence grew, the possible dynamic range of emotions widened. So, both the supremely comforting middle movement and heroic finale to Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto stood as benediction and celebration. That one slides without pause into the other seemed plausible rationale for the observation that, even in the midst of mourning for the sudden loss of an energetic public man, there was a place for Beethoven at his most soaring.
Was the programming itself as good as the idea of it? I don’t know, but I savor the moments. I believe some meaning, and some breathing space, was available for someone to have and hold. But like all broadcasting, the moments were ephemeral, gone the second John Gielgud recited “on the ashes of his youth doth lie,” and the clock ticked on. Therefore, another musical artifact was appropriate on that October day, and every day, whose words hint at the differences between what we long for and what inundates us; between knowledge and news: in the finale to Leonard Bernstein’s musical treatment of Voltaire’s perfect satire, its chaotic world quiets, and Candide sings “We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good. We do the best we know.”
An audio program produced especially for Washington State Magazine.
Bill Morelock ’77 is a writer and broadcaster.
He hosts Drivetime Classics on WCAL-FM, Northfield,