Friday, May 30, 2008

Music for the Soul

In September 2002, I attended a concert at Avery Fischer Hall in NYC -- a performance by the New York Philharmonic. A year after the 9/11 attacks, the Philharmonic program that night was at once the opening of their 2002/2003 season, and at the same time a moment of remembrance of the tragic events of the previous September.

The first piece performed that night was a specially commissioned piece by John Adams "On the Transmigration of Souls". This piece was haunting in its evocation of the day of disaster and death, and of the days of shocked vigil that followed, but it also was very beautiful and moving and I doubt that I was the only person in the hall whose tears fell freely. The performance included lights flashing about to simulate an emergency and a chorus singing the lines of people affected by the tragic attacks - the last words of a flight attendant before her plane struck one of the WTC towers, the words of one of a thousand notes pasted downtown by a woman seeking her missing husband. Grim, and very real.

Later, after a much-needed intermission, Beethoven's rousing and hopeful Ninth Symphony was performed with grace and beauty and power -- I will always remember the sense of hope in humanity that the music restored in me that night.

Looking back at the days immediately after 9/11 - days I spent mostly alone in my apartment, for I was out of work at the time, I remember a song that touched my heart and helped me to emerge from sorrow and anger and to reclaim a sense of possibility that I once would have called grace.



It was a song that Sinead O'Connor sang on Irish public radio (WNYC was broadcasting the Irish RTE programming that week as its own resources were a bit of a mess due to the attacks downtown).

I think it was Wednesday night. O'Connor sang "The Prayer of St Francis". A version credited to Sebastian Temple, I believe. Maybe you know it. She sang it clearly, without accompaniment, restrained and sincerely. As I recall, she sang right after a man read the names of missing policemen and firefighters, almost all of whom we knew to be lost in the smoking rubble of the towers.

What wonderful words she sang. How can words and music be so powerful? An amazing grace that floated across the Atlantic from Ireland -- the voice of a woman to heal wounded hearts in New York.

Make me a channel of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring your love.
Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord.
And where there's doubt, true faith in you.

Make me a channel of your peace.
Where there's despair in life, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, only light.
And where there's sadness, ever joy.

Oh, Master grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved, as to love with all my soul.

Make me a channel of your peace.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
In giving to all men that we receive,
And in dying that we are born to eternal life.

I have a cassette tape of O'Connor's performance, which the good people at RTE mailed across the Atlantic to me for free because I requested it. I have the memory too - in my heart as well as my head.

Somehow, we survived the shock and grief. Since then, tsunamis and cyclones and earthquakes have taken hundreds of thousands of lives, mocking our mourning and challenging our compassion. To avenge our 9/11 dead, we invaded a country that had nothing to do with their deaths. In the process we have caused the deaths of tens of thousands, and the suffering of millions.

We have learned to love torture, or worse perhaps, become inured to its evil. We have been transformed, one hopes temporarily, into ugly Americans, who justify the novel concept of preventive war as a faith-based initiative -- trust us, we know he has the bomb.

What song I wonder would Ms O'Connor sing to heal these new wounds of the soul? I pray she will sing them at President Obama's inauguration.

posted at 9:46:00 PM by Neil

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