Ascending, Falling, Ascending Again

A few days back on KUSC (southern California’s classical radio station), I was listening to Ralph Vaughn Williams’s “The Lark Ascending.” It was part of the station’s “Classical Top 100 Countdown” as voted by the listeners (it placed in 22nd—that overrated hack Beethoven! once again topped out at No. 1). Aside from the obvious qualities of the song itself (arguably Vaughn Williams’s best piece, undisputedly his most recognizable), it was the story the DJ (in his trance-inducing cadence and mid-Atlantic accent) was telling about its relation to remembering 9/11 that got me thinking.

It went a little something like this: roughly five years ago, WNYC (New York’s public radio station) was conducting a fan vote to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11; to commemorate the day, the station asked its listeners to vote for their Top 10 songs that encapsulated the city, the event, etc. It was meant to be a reflection not just on the horrors and immense sadness of the day, but of the city (and thus nation) itself. The New Yorkers who voted produced some interesting results. There were some obvious choices: Alicia Keys and Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” (the song that acted as a national anthem of sorts on the radio waves after that fateful day—or at least on my radio waves in Illinois), Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” was No. 1.

I would say that Vaughn Williams’s placement at No. 2 was a bit of a surprise, though—at least to me. Partly I was impressed I suppose because I’m a [fascist] and don’t think people who listen to public radio would be as aware of Ralph as say those who listen to classical radio or are relatively well-versed in that genre. But shame on me, right? It was only partly! No. The larger reason I was surprised by this selection was in the song itself. Though I know “Lark” is seen as an inspirational, majestic even, piece, I can never help but listen to it and hear a healthy dose of gloom just whispering in the strings. Something in the sinuous fashion of those notes as the lead violinist plays on hints to me that this is just as much about the dusk as it is the coming dawn. Now, maybe it’s my own perpetual melancholia that influences me, or perhaps I’m hearing the song “wrong,” but apart from the crescendo halfway through the song, it is a largely mild, contemplative tune in tone.

As one fictional story tells it, Vaughn Williams wrote “Lark” after seeing soldiers being shipped off to serve in World War I—this has been researched and proven false. In truth, the piece was largely inspired by the George Meredith poem of the same name, and revised several times until its performances started in 1920. I like to think the more solemn qualities of the work were added or accentuated after the war. I see Vaughn Williams returning to the work with all the awful knowledge of the Great War and what it had wrought to those young men, and citizens all across the world (interesting tidbit: during the war, the police arrested Vaughn Williams after being tipped off that the musical notation in “The Lark Ascending” was actually a form of code talk with the enemy, he never went to jail). It is fitting to think of the work in this way, especially when returning to the context of the WNYC poll and remembering 9/11.

Listening again to “Lark” with precise consideration of 9/11 only heightens the more somber notes. And, unlike with “Adagio,” the sadness I hear in “Lark” is not specific to the traumatic September day, but encapsulates the entirety of its history. That is to say, I find it so fascinating “The Lark Ascending” landed second on these New Yorkers’ list because it is perhaps the only song in the Top 10 that musically emotes a dread or regret about not only the day of September 11th, but all the subsequent days that followed in conjunction and casts them in a particularly dim light. And what interests me even more is that this song was selected at a time when the continuum of 9/11’s consequences were in plain sight (protests over Park51) and not-so plain sight (the rise of a small terrorist cell in the east of war-torn Syria calling itself ISIL) in late 2011.

So, did the placement of “Lark” in the Top 10 of this musical in memoriam represent a developing maturation of the American Mind about 9/11 and more broadly US foreign policy in the 21st century, a kind of sober reflection on the actions we as a nation carried out in the name of 9/11 and its victims, and the consequences of our behavior (both foreign and domestic)?

Probably not, but a girl can dream!

I’m more inclined to think that the majority of New Yorkers who voted for “The Lark Ascending” were in favor of the song for its inspirational qualities, which fit nicely into the narratives of New York City’s and America’s seeming immortality and greatness (even though its people might not be). Or, at the very best, for those who voted for Vaughn Williams’s classic, who were in this reflective mindset I mention above, represent but a small fraction of a fraction (i.e. people who listen to public radio in New York City that are willing and wanting to take the time to fill out a Top 10 playlist for their public radio) and cannot be viewed as a valid pool for extrapolation (though it doesn’t negate them either).

If I recall correctly, on that day five years ago, there was a lot of bumptious Americana, embarrassing chicanery (we were gearing up for a Presidential election the next year!), and crypto-jingoism going ’round. Though by then I was living on the West Coast where (if you talk to some of the folks back east of the Rockies) the people never really “got” what 9/11 was all about… But I’ll turn off the conjecture now and focus elsewhere.

So why would Vaughn Williams’s piece have any relationship to 9/11? Just what was 9/11?

After the second plane struck, we realized we were not untouchable atop our global perch.Unforeseeable forces threatened to harm us in unforeseeable ways, ineffable disasters were just waiting for us: this was our future. As the news unfolded these ghastly scenes before us, we struggled to process them in realtime, and then again when remembering them as we became further removed. This was 9/11.

The words “Never Forget” became ubiquitous, yet it was never clear what we were supposed to remember, just that we never forget. We were not required to mourn the dead properly because we were going to “rid the world of evil.” There was no time for grief—after all, an entire global economy was riding on us. So we slapped those words on our cars and painted them on the sides of our buildings, and carried them in our hearts and minds without any further reflection, which seemed evident when our recollections failed us in the succeeding days, weeks, years. We forgot that some of those civilians who died that day at the hands of the terrorists practiced Islam, that Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks, that wars cannot be waged without casualties, that the lives that were lost in the aftermath far eclipsed those who perished in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania, and so on and so on.

Like we had in the past, we focused heavily on the atrocities we suffered, at times with a certain fetishism, and seldom reflected on those cast outward—as seems to be the natural behavior for human beings, to the victors go the spoils. It is not just the deaths suffered by the Iraqi civilians I think of (by one estimate at least 112,667 men, women, and children—which begs one to think: “For every one American life lost, must an Iraqi lose forty-seven? Or even one?”), but the deaths we suffered onto ourselves.

We continue to think of casualties lost in battle similar to those lost in automobile crashes, alcoholism, black on black violence, and public shootings in this country: just par for the course, these abstract facts that are the results of some outside person or thing inflicted on us. These losses are troubling and sad, but it is important to remember (never forget!) that they are done onto us, not by us, and thus there is a gap in the rhetoric that allows us to slip out and excuse ourselves from the earth like some otherworldly geist, hovering just above the rest in certain rectitude.

Why else do we say things like: “Happy Memorial Day!”?**

These holidays, these anniversaries, these catchphrases, they are ceremonial ablutions that allow us to be near the violence and the terror, but cleansed from its actualities. In this context, the VA’s numerous troubles become less opaque as comprehension starts to settle in. It is so because the violence done by us, using our fellow citizens as soldiers, is acceptable, and violence done to us (onto our fellow citizen soldiers) by us (our consent) is also acceptable, but violence suffered from the outside is unacceptable, and thus we must do something about it. We take up verbal arms against these invisible faces and bravely charge our fellow citizens (many of whom come from lesser circumstances than our own) off to fight in unseen battles, with only stories left for us to edit and relish. We participate in all the glory, and experience none of the pain. Our memories become saturated with these glossy narratives while the soldiers continue to live in unimaginable pain. It is a reality that can only exist as long as we continue to forget (or deny) we are the accomplices in our own misery. To do so is to eliminate a part of our existence.

And so I return to Ralph Vaugh Williams’s “The Lark Ascending.” How best to understand it and its relationship to us? To think about its history and our own, separately and as one?  We are tangled together, ascending, falling, ascending again, spreading wide and riding the invisible gusts of the past, cutting ripples into the future that bleeds back into that thin air, ascending and falling, ascending again.


** I caught myself saying this to two veterans who are very dear to me. Why in the hell does one say such a thing? It was almost obligatory. I might as well have said: “Happy Memorial Day! Sorry your buddies couldn’t be here to celebrate it with you, but you know, they’re dead. Let’s party! Have a drink on me, you PTSD-riddled fuck!”