Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.
—Martín Espada “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100”
In my mind, everything began with the song.
But memory has a way of reshaping life in a subtle shell-game of rearranged moments, so that what comes first is the thing we most want to find when we lift the shell and peer underneath.
In reality, the song came later, and for a long time it seemed the song would always be an ending, and a loss, and a death.
It began on September 11, 2001. I watched the images on television from my home in Cold Spring by the Hudson River, 50 miles north of Manhattan, as the city shuddered in shock and smoke. Like so many others, I waited throughout the day for word from city friends and family. Like so many others, I struggled to process the enormity of the pain, but I did not know how to find the doorway in.
Five days later, I followed an impulse to drive a few miles south to Garrison, to an old stone church I had often admired from the road. My church-going days had been limited to family obligations and childhood - Easter services that were a conduit to jelly bean eggs and chocolate bunnies - and mid-winter midnight masses of anticipation.
On that day, I just wanted an hour of respite from the solitude of sadness, the fellowship of strangers and familiar words to soothe the pain of a world that seemed permanently altered and mutilated.
What I found was music.
They were a small choir of ordinary looking people cloaked in the anonymity of requisite robes. But when they stood and began to sing, I was bewildered by the beauty of the sound, the consolation in every chord, and the almost unbearable compassion generated by their blended voices and the words they sang:
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away, and there was no more sea…
Something stark and hopeful broke into bloom inside me.
Soon afterwards, I joined the choir.
* * *
The St. Philips choir has given me so many gifts I cannot count them. But two of them permanently altered my life. The first of those two gifts was Marnie, with her dazzling smile and exuberant, contagious laugh - who became my dearest friend and companion in music, in poetry, in wine, in mountain hikes - in crisis and triumph. We were at home in one another’s houses. We shared holidays. Our children played together. I came to know and love her better than I did myself.
The second gift was the song. We sang so many of great beauty, but somehow none approached “O Magnum Mysterium,” with its simple cathedral of sound soaring into great arches of hope. To stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Marnie singing that piece of music was to be in a perfect moment of grateful equanimity. And each time we performed it, we would elbow one another and exchange exaggerated expressions of beatitude.
I never questioned just what it was about that piece that struck such a deep and ancient chord. I never wondered how that particular music could do what it did. I never pondered its meaning or origin beyond my faint recollections from Latin class that it was a song about the great mystery, and that it was composed by someone named Morten Lauridsen. I didn’t feel the need to know anything more. I just wanted to sing it.
THIS is the music I want at my funeral.
Sometimes I’d say it. Sometimes Marnie would.
I didn’t really believe I would sing at her funeral. I certainly never believed that she would die, or that it would happen so soon. Her illness was an ugly enigma—she was the healthiest and fittest person I knew. It struck fast and hard out of the clear blue sky of nowhere. Later, I came to believe the cancer had its genesis many years earlier.
Marnie only told me the details of what she experienced on September 11th once. It happened shortly before we met. Her office building was a stone’s throw from the towers, and she had arrived for an early morning meeting. She heard and saw things no one should witness. She was one amongst the crowd of women and men running for their lives as the first tower collapsed, coughing and coated with the white debris of destruction.
A fireman I know told me that every man in his company who was on the scene that day developed cancer within the next ten years - many of them rare, aggressive diseases. Sometimes I think Marnie inhaled the potentiality of illness that day, and staved off the attack as long as she could. Sometimes I think that I just think too much.
I didn’t return my sheet music to the choir after the service. I put it on my piano and kept it there as a kind of memento mori. Sometimes I would open it and try to play. But I could never get more than a few bars in before the swell of sadness would rise and I would slam the lid on the keyboard to keep it away.
After a time, I realized that if I kept closing the lid on grief, I was going to lose the song forever. I wasn’t going to be able to bear hearing it or singing it ever again. Marnie was gone—the music was all I had left. The only antidote was to make myself inhabit the emotion. So I went back to the raw altar of the piano as often as I could—and I let the pain back in, slowly, a single note at a time. For many months—more than a year. A long time. But I got the song back.
Years later, I heard that shortly after 9/11, a choir made a trip from Maine to New York City, where they gathered at Ground Zero with a single intention - to sing “O Magnum Mysterium” at the abyss. Who were they? What did they feel? How did they know what they needed to do?
Everything began again, after pain and loss became a familiar and necessary wound - everything began again with the song. And I wanted to know why. I wanted to understand how a piece of music inhabited such a mysterious motion. And if I couldn’t understand, I wanted at least to look, and to ponder, and to ask. I couldn’t talk to the music. But I could try to talk to the man.
So I wrote a letter to Morten Lauridsen.
That is how it began.