Warning: Content Advisory. I describe some graphic scenes, if you aren’t feeling like it, don’t read on today, maybe another day
Today, of course, is the 12th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. My thoughts go out to all those affected, through bereavement, through subsequent trauma, and through the fear and suspicion that pervaded society.
9/11, as it has become to be known, is one of those defining moments in history, the ‘where were you’. We were on our way home from friends, and surprisingly did not turn on the radio, rather, enjoying the quiet of the dark spring night. We were pretty oblivious to it all, until my sister in law rang at 1 or 2 in the morning, and in a highly emotional voice described what was happening. I thought she was on some hallucinogenic. That was until I turned on the radio and logged onto the internet (we had no television then), and found the news sites all crashed. Eventually, a site loaded somewhere in the world, and it become apparent. We were, like the rest of the world, stunned, listening to the radio and it’s terrible descriptions.
The train next day to work was sombre, there were people reading the paper and openly crying. But then a conversation I overhead between two young women.
“That was terrible”
Y’know, the planes, new York, world trade center”
Oh that, yeah pretty bad
“so, what are you wearing on Friday night”
One women clearly wanted to talk about it, the other didn’t. People I tell this anecdote, roll their eyes “the young”, but I think for some it was so far away, abstract, and for younger people they had grown up in a decade previous which saw the cold war end, and the dawn of a new (false) hope. perhaps they couldn’t comprehend it. The one picture that remains imprinted on me, causing me to tear up, is of the couples jumping, hand in hand.
In those days afterwards, there was a surreal feeling. There was a sense of apprehension, even here in Australia. There really was an unspoken feeling around the place, that, “Is this the end of the world?”, the clash of religions turning into a fiery maelstrom. There was talk of recessions. I remember talking to a guy in an outdoor shop, and he felt that business was way down, people don’t want to spend. Yet I also recall an interview that I read with the organiser of the Melbourne Bridal Show who said it was booming, people wanted bigger dresses, longer cars, larger wedding parties, and the feeling was, well if the world is going to end, then we should go out in a big way (so different to my parents’ generation who di face the end of the world with WW2 and the cold war).
The State Emergency Recovery Unit put in place a very basic recovery program. People questioned me, why bother it’s over there. We wanted to make sure, though, if people had been through that, and were returning home, there would be something for them. So we placed materials with immigration officials and the Australian Consulate in New York for them to give to people returning from Washington and New York, we advertised a hotline, and we had Rob Gordon do some media, talking about trauma. We also put together some materials to help children understand the impacts. IT was pretty low key, and a few people came forward seeking some assistance. This did put us in good stead when the Bali Bombings happened a year later.
One of the things I think a lot about when I think about 9/11 is the terror of the buildings collapsing, and what this must have been like. Again, we take buildings for granted, they are pretty solid designed to stay up. So when they don’t, it challenges some of our fundamental assumptions. At one point when I fancied myself as writing some stories, I did some research a few years back about what was happening in the towers. I thought I might place an Australian in the towers and try to tell a story. There are many accounts. The thought of people sitting at their desks on a clear blue sky day, liek we do every day, incinerated as the planes hit. Those that aren’t,the sense of surprise, not knowing, then being trapped, options of escape narrowing, acrid smoke, confusion, the building, designed to stand, collapsing beneath the feet, people perhaps holding out hope of rescue other resigned to their fate. This is the horror that people deal with in extremely traumatic events, and if they survive, what they need to deal with for the rest of their lives. The phone calls are most harrowing, reading those transcripts. Immersing myself in this, you begin to gain an appreciation of the trauma (only begin).
The events in New York, and to a lesser extent Washington, have become etched in popular culture. The overwhelming nature of the event has given opportunity for artists to respond in different ways. Some representations are good, some not so good. Not that I read much coming out of disasters or watch disaster movies. I probably should, but feel I am too close it all.
Music is different for me. 9/11 generated a significant number of songs, some good, some well, not my taste. Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising is an impressive attempt to deal with the consequences of 9/11. I dismissed it initially, how could anyone write about it, the boss doesn’t have the emotional range to deal with this stuff, it’ll just be another epic we will fight them on beaches type thin. Boy, I was wrong. Even though the first song, Lonesome Day, has it’s Boss anthemic qualities, touches on loss and dealing with it. The most poignant track for me is Nothing Man. The lyrics capture so well the emotions of the survivor:
Around here, everyone acts the same
Around here everyone acts as if nothing’s changed
Friday night, the club meets at Al’s Barbeque
The sky is still the same unbelievable blue
He spent a long time talking to the bereaved, the survivors, these are their stories. Springsteen makes it real, because of his roots, the words of the average Joe and Josie. This is why it is an effective telling of people’s grief, loss and trauma. And there is hope.
John Adam’s On the Transmigration of Souls is another impressive rendering of the hole created by the events. It is a short classical work for orchestra and choir, using street noises and the text drawn from notes left on fences around Ground Zero, starting with a siren and a repeated word, missing. It was commissioned for the first anniversary, and given Adams pre-eminence as one of the great living composers, it fell to him make some sense of the events. It is an extraordinarily powerful, complex and beautiful work, not anthemic, more contemplative, with a sense of darkness. Adams hopes that it becomes a memory space. It is interesting in the liner notes, it is written:
“It is not at all obvious how music, or any art, should respond to catastrophe. Adams new piece left most critics awed but uncertain of their judgements, at a loss for words.”
This is important. If it were obvious, it would be simple. And we know it’s not simple. 9/11 provoked conflicted responses, many drowned out. Some weren’t, like Steve Earle’s Jerusalem or Ani DiFranco’s Self Evident. Leaving us at a loss for words is a good thing, the events left us all at a loss for words.
Steve Reich also uses recorded voices and tapes for his work WTC 9/11 for the Kronos Quartet. The voices in both pieces anchor the works at the street level, in reality, which I like. IT is also short, Reich saying in the liner notes he wanted the piece to be terse. It is a lot harder listening than Adam’s piece, but is also powerful, creating a sense of uncertainty about the whole events. It is worth the effort
I am fascinated how people respond creatively to these events. I know how I respond, this is my work. But as artist, how does one respond, as mentioned above, to catastrophe. This is why I am in awe of creative people, and creativity helps us make sense of a situation, and with that sense comes meaning, for which we all search for, both in disasters, and in everyday life.