The Pausing City: The Met Museum’s 9/11 Commemorative Concert

Cheyenna Weber is the National Organizer for 10 Years + Counting. She wrote this reflection of her experience at a 9/11 concert. She lives in Brooklyn.

I woke uneasy on the 10th anniversary, slid my toes into new and stiffly solemn black flats, and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge in view of the rising 1 World Trade Center, the building formerly known as the Freedom Tower. I was on my way to a 9/11 commemorative concert – a strange act for a New Yorker who hadn’t even lived in the city 10 years ago but had spent the day under observance within the safety of a college town curled against Appalachian hillsides. Like everyone else in America, I had tucked into a ball on an apartment floor and cried, and ignored classes and assignments to watch the endless loop of the towers’ collapse.  Now a New Yorker, I bristled when others marked the day, feeling protective of people I’d never known.

On the bridge I passed an endless line of tourists, many with pale blue ribbons safety-pinned at their chests. At the Manhattan side tower a flag corps milled about with the fire departments of small California towns. I approached, uncertain why survivors would be on the bridge and wary of disrespecting ceremony, only to feel uncertainty become the hollow and hock of revulsion upon realizing they were disaster tourists. Perhaps others come to pay homage to the heroes of that day, but is our city’s grief just another commodity, another site to see or image to record, an anecdote to relate over a dinner hundreds of miles from here, or an experience lived vicariously through those endless collapsing loops reappearing onscreen? I walked on, silent and confused.

Uptown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art the only outside markers of the day were the refrains of “America the Beautiful” courtesy of a local, street-experienced saxophonist. There were no pale blue ribbons here, only sisters sharing cupcakes from a street cart, men punching keys on smartphones, and a cool breeze sweeping us all with reminders of summer’s collapse. One had to go inside to touch the remains of the day.

Photograph taken by Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times.

There were several pieces to be performed that day.  Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae, Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes II, and Alfred Schnittke’s Collected Songs Where Every Verse is Filled with Grief made up the first half of the program, and William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops, in an arrangement for orchestra by Maxim Moston, who used to write for Antony and the Johnsons, made up the last. Chairs were arranged in rows around the Met’s ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur and the musicians set up in the midst of the relics, a resonant space flooded with sunlight. It was cold, too crisp for anything but entombment, and the awaiting crowd was quiet.

I was there early, sprawled on a couch in a green room with my partner, Ryan, who was conducting The Disintegration Loops that day. We’d listened to the piece before and were both touched by the story — William’s efforts to preserve his own compositions on disintegrating tapes, looped as they slowly fell apart and captured on four discs over many hours, now arranged in the score before us for a 30-minute orchestration. The story goes that William was working on these loops on a Brooklyn rooftop 10 years ago, and the day the towers fell they played in the background while he and grief-stricken friends watched the fires end an era. Like me, Ryan’s origins are elsewhere and he was not here on 9/11, but for the Loops he was tasked with interpreting the experience of others, with creating and holding space with his gestures, and thus producing beauty and peace from trauma. It’s a lot to ask of any young artist, and we curled up on a sofa to nap as a line of hundreds formed outside the hall.

Inside the Temple hall people lined the walls and sat or lay on floors. (NPR Music covered the concert, and you can hear the whole thing here.) While the first half was warm, contemplative, and moving, it was William’s sweet and playful loop meeting its demise that held our attention. Just as I had experienced in meditation, listening to the same phrase over and over was at times so lovely that its beauty was all I could measure, and at other times my body begged for the sound to cease. Whenever the latter emerged, I would look at the faces of those around me: the elderly woman crying just to my right, or the young man in work boots with his hands still covered in paint, lying peacefully on the floor, listening. Muscles flexed and pulled as I saw others resist the droning, but as the loop fell apart we were all left waiting for each other.

For nearly two minutes after Ryan folded his hands, we still sat in companionable silence, hundreds of us, not a breath shaking our shared contemplation. I thought of all that had ceased that day 10 years ago: the lives and well-being of so many New Yorkers, the peace soon broken by violence and war that echoes even until now, and my own naive notions of safety and peace. It is uncomfortable to reflect on such things, and I was surprised to find relief in marking and honoring what we lost. The result, of course, was gratitude for what is, which in that moment was my city and its people, especially those in that sunny and silent room.  As a whole, we are perfection, whatever disintegration may come.

A full review of the performance can be read here.

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