Thirteen Years Later: Hearing Music on September 11
by Joyce Shin
Originally published on December 9, 2002 in Sightings
Like many people who were old enough to understand what was happening, I can recall exactly where I was and what I was doing when news reached me of the events in New York City on September 11, 2001.
I was attending a monthly meeting in the Chaplain’s office of Yale University with other campus ministers when we were interrupted to receive the news. Immediately we disbanded to make ourselves available to our respective religious communities. As the youngest and most inexperienced among them, I watched this veteran group of campus ministers gather their things and depart in no more time than it took for them to take in a breath, hold, and release it.
Stunned as I was by the news, I somehow also knew to make my way to the Presbyterian church that served as the congregational base for my campus ministry. There I stepped into the sanctuary. Its doors were already open, and inside were a number of people seated in silence. The space of that sanctuary held us in our solitariness and strangeness to one another. It held the many disparate emotions that we were too stunned to name.
Sanctuaries in American cities must have had their thresholds crossed many times that day. Not yet able to speak well-formed words of care or consolation, people nevertheless took comfort in being alone together.
By the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I was an Associate Pastor serving a Presbyterian church of over 5,000 members in downtown Chicago and I had been asked to plan an interreligious commemorative service that would bring together four downtown religious congregations.
Partners from the Muslim community, a Roman Catholic congregation, a Reformed Jewish congregation, and I began planning this service one year in advance. Though I didn’t know what kind of experience we would ultimately create together, I knew that we needed to create something coherent. I knew that we needed to create an experience that, unlike ten years ago, would feel whole and integrated.
The service would undoubtedly need to make space for a range of different emotions: shock, anger, sorrow, grief, and a hope for peace. The service would bring together different religious communities, along with their different religious practices and sensibilities. Over the ten years since 9/11, our congregations had formed new relationships or strengthened old ones, and yet for many in our communities, this service would have to help them overcome feelings of distrust and strangeness. Above all, the service would need to reflect not only where we had been and where we were, but also where we wanted to be.
I turned to music for help. A pianist by training, I have experienced time and again music’s effectiveness in creating coherence among disparate things. So, in planning this interreligious service, I turned first to the musicians. We spoke of what we wanted to accomplish in terms of the tone we wanted to set, the emotions we wanted to move, the participation we wanted to engage, and the new creation we wanted to become.
Then the musicians got to work, selecting hymns, jointly commissioning a choral piece with text drawn from children’s poems about peace, rehearsing adult and children’s choirs, and composing a closing song called “Shalom, Peace, Salaam” for the whole congregation to learn and sing as a sort of breath prayer. With the hymns “Adon Olam” and “O for a World,” the congregation gave voice to their convictions about God, the world God created, and the role humanity is given to form a new creation. Samuel Barber’s “Adagio” for strings preceded the tolling of a bell that marked each group to be remembered. The commissioned choral piece, “Voices of Peace” by Aaron David Miller, integrated sounds and melodies from the West and Middle East.
The events of 9/11 had shocked us and could have left some of us, even ten years later, feeling fragmented. By attending to the role of music in this service, we created the kind of experience that John Dewey described in his book, Art as Experience:
For in much of our experience we are not concerned with the connection of one incident with what went before and what comes after. There is no interest that controls attentive rejection or selection of what shall be organized into the developing experience. Things happen, but they are neither definitively included nor decisively excluded. . . . One thing replaces another, but does not absorb it and carry it on. There is experience, but so slack and discursive that it is not an experience.
To be sure, well-chosen words around a thoughtful arrangement of themes were integral to the meaning of the service, but they were not what held it all together. It was music that accomplished this. Music gave coherence to the service.
The chaotic and destructive events of 9/11 begged and still beg for a world in which different peoples, different religious communities, and different emotions can be held together. Now when I reflect on that day, I try also to hear the music.
Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Perigee Books, 1934.
Photo Credit: Dov Harrington / flickr creative commons