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Music in the Shadow of 9/11

6 columns showing portions of album covers
Fragments of the covers to 6 albums featured in the playlist "9/11 @20"

For many of us, “before 9/11” and “after” feel like two entirely different lifetimes.

As a young kid on September 11, 2001, I didn’t understand a lot about what happened that day. But I saw how everything about everything changed, in the United States and the world over.

Something I didn’t learn until many years later was just how seismically art and culture shifted in response to the tragedy. In the midst of overwhelming grief and catastrophic fear, people turned to art to make a little sense out of something that felt unfathomable. A surge of hawkish patriotism followed, but also, too, people sought opportunities to come together, to build moments of solace into a fracturing world. The music that was composed in the shadow of 9/11 grapples with all of this.

Take Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11, a harrowing piece that begins with the jarring beeping of a disconnected phone, overlaid with voice recordings of air traffic controllers responding in real time to the attacks. It is undoubtedly tough listening -- it captures the panic and grief and uncertainty of that morning as it unfolds, a synthesis of sound that is, quite simply, terrifying to hear.

Michael Gordon’s Sad Park, another piece for string quartet and recorded voice, takes a different tactic. Using recordings of children talking at a playground, Sad Park presents a child’s-eye view of the attacks, and makes them all the more terrifying when viewed from that perspective. The final movement, “And All the Persons That Were in the Airplane Died,” is the only part of the piece that is purely instrumental, but it is by no means a respite from horror.

Not every piece of music that came out of 9/11 sought to recreate the experience of the day itself. Eric Ewazen’s A Hymn for the Lost and the Living is a solemn and beautiful tribute to the days following the attacks, days he said were “painful … [and] of supreme sadness.”

Joan Tower’s In Memory is both a eulogy for a friend and a harsh and sorrowful reflection on loss. Ned Rorem’s Aftermath mourns lost lives more generally, through settings of anti-war poems that reflect his pacifist Quaker background.

And, of the final movement in her piece Reflections on 9/11, Karen Walwyn wrote,

"This movement is titled 'The New and Marvelous' because not only did many of us lose a loved one or have one injured, but many of us may also have lost intangible things such as our spirit, our sense of trust, and our belief in the goodness of mankind. Each of us may have something in our own lives that we may have wanted to re-build as a result of the tragedy that occurred on September 11, 2001."

At CRB, we are marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in a few ways. At 8:46am, the time at which the first airplane struck the World Trade Center, we will honor that moment, together with you, through Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. At 8pm, our Boston Symphony Orchestra broadcast features Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the “Resurrection.” And here, at the end of this page, we compiled a playlist of pieces written in response to the tragic events that took place that day and after, including those mentioned above and many others.

All of these pieces are striking, and all capture elements of the deeply human ways we reacted to 9/11. Taken together, they approach the same questions from myriad angles: how did this happen? How did we get here? And how do we move forward together in the aftermath?

I’m not sure that we’ve found satisfactory answers even now, 20 years later. But perhaps the music we made in the meantime is a place to start.


Kendall Todd is the Content Manager for GBH Music.