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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Silence

This morning I listened to the NPR coverage of the Tenth Anniversary 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero, and at one point in the service Paul Simon performed "The Sound of Silence." The choice of song struck me as particularly pertinent to my own memories of that day. I was on the second day of a backpacking trip through Rocky Mountain National Park with two friends and colleagues from my undergraduate cello studio. On Monday we had hiked a shorter loop, and the plan had been to take a shuttle bus from that trail-head to another, where we would begin the longer leg of our trip. We had not realized, however, that the shuttles no longer ran after labor day, and we therefore found ourselves suddenly in need of another way to get to the other trail. There was a Park Ranger there who agreed to escort us to the new location, but he treated us with suspicion, asking if we were carrying weapons (he confiscated our pocket knives) and calling for a second ranger to help escort us. Of course the ranger's behavior makes sense in retrospect, but we had no way of knowing at that point why he was being so overly cautious, so it seemed odd.

Thus we began our trek around the larger loop through the park. That day, Tuesday, would mean about 10 miles total of walking, starting with a three thousand foot ascent to the summit of a 13,000 foot peak. About half an hour into our climb, we encountered a day hiker who was frantically running up the hill, telling everyone he passed about a jet plane that had struck one of the towers in the world trade center. Later there was another hiker "both towers have been hit. It's an attack." Then another. What information we were getting conflicted with the other information. The numbers grew exponentially. 4 planes, 15 planes. 12,000, no 40,000 presumed dead. It was clear that something profoundly horrifying had happened, but on that sunny Tuesday morning, on that dew-covered Colorado mountainside, it was impossible to know what to believe. And then, silence. We had hiked out of the range of day hikers and cell phone reception (in primitive 2001, only one of us was carrying a cell phone anyway). We did not see a newspaper or a news cast for the rest of the week. And what stands out most in my memory of that week was the seemingly unnatural absence of man-made sounds. One doesn't realize just how many planes roar overhead on a daily basis until those planes are grounded and the roaring stops, and your left with only the crunching leaves and twigs underfoot. The sound of silence.

This morning's NPR coverage continued with an interview with the composer Steve Reich (listen here) about a piece that he had written in response to the attack, and it occurred to me that what follows the silence is music. So often in history, we respond to great moments of tragedy with music. I remember reading a touching article about a Juilliard violinist who found himself in room filled with the grieving loved ones those killed, wanting to help, but not knowing how. And so he simply pulled out his violin and began to play. The French composer Olivier Messiaen composed perhaps his best known work while he was imprisoned in a Nazi P.O.W. camp, using the unusual combination of instruments he had available to him. Benjamin Britten wrote his great War Requiem for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, but it is as much a commentary on the horror and futility of war.

Famously, cellist Vedran Smailović, played his cello daily in the rubble of bombed out buildings during the siege of Sarajevo.

Of course we don't only turn to music in moments of great sorrow, but also in moments of great joy. When the Berlin Wall fell, conductor Leonard Bernstein was there to lead a performance of Beethoven's ninth symphony. We turn to music because it has the power to speak to all who will listen, and to say what cannot be said with mere words. Cellist Pablo Casals famously said "music will save the world."

Asking "what if" does nothing to change the events of that Tuesday ten years ago, or the course of history to follow, but still I wonder, what if the hijackers had been nurtured by love instead of hate. What if they had parents and teachers who saw the potential for good in them, and encouraged them daily to work toward meeting that potential. What if the perpetrators of school shootings, or gang violence found a discipline they loved and, with the support of family and community, pursued it to the point of excellence.

If politicians, (and perhaps also their constituents) possessed in greater numbers the skills that chamber musicians have for cooperation and compromise, would we find ourselves so often in political gridlock?

As Suzuki teachers, we do what we do, not because he expect every student to be the next Yo-Yo Ma or Joshua Bell or Lang Lang, but because we hope that all of our students will grow up to be extraordinary human beings, who turn to love instead of hate, to creativity instead of violence, to joy instead of anger, to compromise instead of conflict. I firmly believe that music can do that. It is why I have chosen this career.

Dr. Suzuki knew that every child can achieve excellence, but what if every child in the world did? Would it prevent future 9/11's? I think it might.

"The child must know that he is a miracle, that since the beginning of the world there hasn't been, and until the end of the world there will not be, another child like him." Pablo Casals

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