September 11, 2008
[Originally written and published in September 2002].
I lost no loved ones on 11 September 2001, nor was my home destroyed or my work affected in any palpable way by the tragic attack on our nation; and yet, the events of that morning have prodded me to look inward and take personal inventory. As a professional violinist, I ask myself: What good is the music I play? Does my work make a difference to anyone?
Ironically, that particular September 11th was a day I had looked forward to for a long time. Over 30 years earlier, my brother Victor, my friend Michael Riesman and I—three musicians on vacation—climbed Mt. Sill, one of the many fourteen thousand foot peaks in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. The climb had been long and strenuous but not really dangerous, and Mt. Sill itself quite unremarkable—basically a towering mound of rocks devoid of any vegetation save the occasional red, orange and green lichens that baked in the hard, high-altitude sun. The view was what we had come for, and when we arrived at the summit panting, it more than fulfilled our expectations: layer after layer of craggy mountains extending both north and south for almost a hundred miles. An unearthly silence hung in the air—the absence of sound itself a deeply moving music that played to the far-reaches before us.
Suddenly we noticed that the sun was moving toward the horizon. It was late and in a few hours the temperature on Mt. Sill would drop below freezing. Although the three of us had been on the top for barely twenty minutes, we reluctantly began our trek back to camp—my elation tinged with the disappointment of leaving so quickly. That night, snug in my sleeping bag, I gazed up at the star-filled sky and vowed to return someday. I have always treasured hiking in these mountains with their verdant valleys, rushing waterfalls and glaciers nestled in the upper reaches of massive rock formations. It has been a perfect antidote to my sedentary indoor life as a musician.
Last September, over three decades after my initial trip, my dream of climbing Mt. Sill again became a possibility. My wife Dorothea, our son Alexej and I climbed into the Sierra Nevada over Bishop Pass with two friends, Maru and Paulo, and set up camp in Dusy Basin, altitude 10,500 feet. In contrast to the strange, almost lunar terrain above us, our camp was situated just below the tree line alongside a lovely stream that meandered through long grasses and a few brave trees and bushes that dared to put roots down in this severe high-altitude environment. For several days, we made only small excursions to nearby lakes and the more lushly vegetated canyons down below while our bodies acclimatized to the thin air. Because of an impending recital, I occasionally practiced on a cheap violin that the mules had brought up along with tents and camping supplies.
Five days after our arrival in Dusy, we felt ready. September 11th would be the day for attempting to climb Mt. Sill. We were up at 5:30 a.m., Pacific Standard Time, and eating breakfast before 6:00. As we drank our coffee, unbeknownst to us, the first plane crashed into the World Trade Tower 3,000 miles away, and as we donned our day-packs, the second and third planes hit the other tower and the Pentagon. The weather had been crystal clear for the last week but on that day, long wings of clouds turned blood-red by the rising sun spread across the sky. At 6:30, Dorothea and Maru, who planned to stay put, waved goodbye to Alexej, Paulo and me. I could not help thinking to myself as the first rays of sun touched us that life was good and dreams sometimes come true. At that very moment, thousands of people had just lost their lives and the nation was in crisis.
As the day progressed, we crossed barren expanses littered with the rock debris from ancient retreating glaciers and climbed over pass after pass, each one higher than the last. By early afternoon the entire world seemed to spread out before us just as I remembered from long ago—layers of mountains pulled, twisted and tortured upwards by the earth’s inner workings, lakes big and small artfully placed in the folds of their ridges like so many jewels shimmering in the afternoon sun.
The trip had taken longer than expected, perhaps because I was 30 years older now, and suddenly rain and hail began to pelt us. Mt. Sill rose several hundred feet directly above us—so enticingly near—and yet with the weather closing in, there was no question of going on. With that familiar coupling of elation and regret, I headed back to camp with Alexej and Paolo. The top of Sill had eluded me this time but at least I had seen the miracle of the Sierra Nevada once again.
Several hours later, our tents came into view; there would be a lot to tell over dinner tonight. But inexplicably, Dorothea rushed towards us, threw herself at our son Alexej who was in the lead, and burst into tears. The story of the attack, gleaned from a transistor radio, came out in bits and starts as my wife struggled for composure: Passenger planes as deadly bombs, thousands dead, the World Trade Towers collapsed, the Pentagon in flames. We stood there dumbfounded, unable to get our minds around events that belonged in a bad movie plot. The sound of gently rushing water and the air redolent with pine made it especially incomprehensible. How could the same planet that housed the mountain paradise where we stood also be a crucible for today’s hate and violence? Questions collided with one another as I numbly trudged toward our tent. Was my daughter who lived in New York City safe? Would our country itself be attacked again? Would our very way of life survive intact? For the very first time in my secure and comfortable existence as an American, I was seized with dizzying uncertainty.
I pulled my boots off in the tent’s dim light and dropped them next to my violin case. Although I had spent almost my entire life devoted to the instrument that lay inside, what good was it really? Music was for pleasure, for fun, even for touching the soul at times, but it could not stop the terrorists from their evil doings or quell the fears of panicked people trapped in planes and burning buildings. For that matter, what good was music for anything? It did not provide a roof over your head, or warmth, or nourishment.
And yet, without knowing exactly why, I felt compelled to open the case, take out the violin with its bow, and make my way to the brook that had been our companion for the past week. In the waning late afternoon light, I played a Bach Allemande for the stream, the trees, the errant boulders scattered willy-nilly, the countless victims of the attack who now lay under smoldering cement, steel and airplane shards, and not least of all, for my very own sanity. The music—dark, mournful, even angry at times—told its own story, yet it also seemed to comment on the chaotic feelings that raced through me. Bach knew nothing of airplanes or skyscrapers but he did understand the human heart—its pain, its aching sadness. The Allemande touched and soothed me as the stream gurgled in accompaniment. I found solace in its phrases that stepped up and down, in their familiar cadences, and in the repeats of entire sections. The terrorists had unnerved me but Bach’s well-ordered and richly imaginative music began to ease my heart. I played on and on.
Arnold Steinhardt playing Bach in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on September 11, 2001. Photo by Dorothea von Haeften, September 11, 2002.
Music can make me laugh and cry and want to dance, but in that time of crisis up in the mountains, it was a desperate refuge where I could explore and give reign to my raw feelings in privacy and safety. Music became my personal grief counselor. The stories I have heard about concerts taking place during the London Blitz and the Siege of Leningrad in full face of danger, starvation and death make more sense to me now. I empathize with the lone violinist who played all night last September 11th for people at the New York City Armory looking for news of those they loved. And I understand more fully why once a nine-year-old friend, upon hearing that his father had suddenly died of a stroke, quietly went to his room, shut the door, and played the violin for himself.
Music defines me as a human being. We may have different tastes (I classical, you reggae) but I know of no one who simply doesn’t like music. We like it, we love it, we need it: for its own sake but also for romantic trysts, making love, weddings, funerals, paying bills, shopping and riding in elevators. And many of us must have needed it on 11 September 2001. What music did you turn to on that terrible day?
Our history tells us, regrettably, that to kill is also human; but I can’t help thinking that if I open my mouth in song, it can no longer curse my neighbor, if I play an instrument, it becomes harder for me to wield a knife or gun. I wonder then, could the young men who turned those planes into massive instruments of destruction have loved music? In the absence of any answer, I can only think about the camps where they were once indoctrinated to hate and destroy, and fantasize about another kind of brain-washing in which music plays for them day and night. Perhaps the sadness, joy and innate wisdom of, say, Billie Holiday or Johann Sebastian Bach might cure them of the disease called hate. After all, the Old Testament says in chapter one of Samuel: “And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took a harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.” Music banished Saul’s evil spirits in the Bible, eased my heart by a mountain stream, and helped a young boy in his hour of desperate need. That is what music is good for.
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