9/11: The Legacy That Could Have Been
During World War II, Americans struggling to cope with the pressures of war and the pain of our boys coming home in boxes found unity as government and private enterprises encouraged common sacrifice. Americans discovered an escape from the pressures of war in the new entertainments of network radio and popular music. And the people of this country found both solace and challenge in an extraordinary explosion of artistic creativity during those years.
When Franklin Roosevelt died less than a month before V-E Day, Samuel Barber's wrenching Adagio for Strings captured and reflected the nation's grief and hope. At a time when classical works were introduced to audiences unimaginably large by today's standards, Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, Appalachian Spring, and Rodeo helped the nation find a serviceable blend of sorrow, comfort and inspiration about the country's involvement in what appeared to be the war to end all wars.
More than half a century later, music seems to play little if any role in the nation's struggle with the war in Iraq. Pop music, like the Bush Administration, would seem to prefer that the topics of loss and death never be mentioned. As the high arts struggle to find a place in the new media landscape, there is little sign of original content that does anything but howl in cliched horror against the president and his policies.
On this anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I think of what might have been if the nation's leadership had made even the slightest effort to corral the raw bursts of cooperation and purpose we saw across the land in those first weeks following that September morning. If we had a president who found the gestures and words to bring us into common conversation about the men and women who die daily in Iraq and Afghanistan, might we have been more likely by now to have found a consensus on a way forward? It's a theoretical question: This president continues to shield the bodies of returning soldiers from public view. He makes not the slightest effort to address publicly the wounds of a nation that sees the war dead mainly in occasional galleries of headshots in the pages of a few newspapers. Funerals and memorial services take place every day; this president makes not even a symbolic appearance at any of them.
Last Friday night at the University of Maryland's Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the Kronos Quartet, the extraordinary group that has spent three decades shredding the notion that chamber music is a form that completed its repertoire centuries ago, presented a piece about 9/11 called Awakenings.
Those of us listening and watching suddenly felt what had been missing for these six years. A hundred minutes of sound by composers from more than a dozen countries--all blended into one extended piece by the Kronos musicians--moved inexorably from lamentation to an explosion of noise to an almost strangling confusion and grief, and finally to a deep and mysterious return to normalcy that somehow emerged as hope.
This was the artists's answer to the political and moral debate we have avoided for these six years. Here finally was an effort to acknowledge the pain and fear that lingers, even as we confront our inability to decide where to go from here. Where else in the culture has there been a rigorous effort to brush aside the faux certainties that form the facade of this administration and of both political parties? In all the cacophony of our metastasizing media, where are the voices that spurn the phony polarization of TV and Interweb pundits and staged political debates?
In nearly every great American conflict since the birth of the nation, artists, whether painters, photographers, composers, or writers, have played an important role in confronting the people with essential questions and in giving us ways to channel our sadness, loss, anger and fear. This was only the second performance of Kronos' work; you can get a sense of it from selections and notes on the web, but the crying need is for more such creations, for more honest efforts to do what politicians seem unwilling and unable to do--draw people together in rigorous, searing and perhaps even healing confrontation with where we are and what we have done.
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