When we were shooting the episode of Miracle Detectives that deals with the story of 9/11, I came across this statement by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center:
'The World Trade Center should,' Yamasaki said, 'because of its importance, become a living representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the cooperation of men, and through this cooperation his ability to find greatness.'
I’m not the first to point out how eerie it is that his vision has become reality as a result of unimaginable horror. My scientific career has been built on the study of autobiographical memory: how we remember our past and how our memories of our experiences shape our identity, our imagination, our decisions and ultimately, our future. But even if I had chosen a different topic, I suspect that I would still have been struck by the central place that remembering occupies in the landscape of the aftermath of the terror attacks.
We interviewed many people while we were preparing for and shooting the episode; survivors, first-responders, grieving family members, health-care practitioners treating victims and their families, writers and artists. Time and time again, I was struck by how important it was to the first responders and survivors in particular, to tell their stories. Even now, on Twitter, the vast majority of the conversation is dominated by reminiscences. Faced with random acts of violence, our notion that life is fair and just was turned on its head. As we try to make sense of what happened, we rearrange our worldview to accommodate this new information.
Faced with evidence that humans can cause such destruction, we swing the pendulum in the opposite direction: we become selfless, generous, kind and creative. In a city notorious for its ruthlessness, the citizens of New York, in particular, outdid one another with random acts of kindness and sacrifice. All over the city, the stories are being told, in pictures, in words and in acts. We are reshaping our memories and creating new ones with the same objective: to connect with those who were lost and with those who remain. Our experiencing selves panicked, despaired, fought but our remembering selves have the power to console, create and rebuild.
There are countless events today to choose from, but I chose to participate in Music After because my dear friend Danny Felsenfeld, a Brooklyn-based composer, along with his friend Eleonor Sandresky, are emphasizing the creative output triggered by 9/11. Losing so many different people in one day is a blow to the community. And yet, the legacy of 9/11 includes a refocusing on the importance and power of communities and connections between people. This concert, free to anyone who wants to come and listen, is one example. Meetup, a site that was created by New Yorkers in response to 9/11, and now has 9 million monthly visitors in 45,000 cities, is another. My heart goes out to all those who experienced loss first-hand a decade ago, and my performance today is my humble gift to this great city. May it never sleep.
I’ve also been dusting off the Chansons Madecasses or Madagascar Songs by Maurice Ravel, in preparation for a concert that I’m giving on July 15th (details and a sample of one of the songs can be found here). These are fabulous, sensual and politically-charged pieces for voice, piano, cello and flute and I love them dearly. These chansons couldn’t be more different from Der Holle Rache in terms of the words, dramatic context, feel, style, tonality and texture and yet, when I’m singing them right, I get goosebumps. And not just when I’m singing them, but also when I hear someone else performing them.
Having that experience made me wonder, as I often do, why we get the ‘chills’ from specific musical passages. Jaak Panksepp, an Estonian-born (we’re practically neighbors! as my mother would say) neuroscientist in Washington state has studied and written about this phenomenon for decades, with an influential paper published in 1995 showing that, contrary to our intuition, we get the chills when we listen to ‘sad’ music, rather than music that makes us feel happy. A solo line, often in the soprano register (lucky for me), emerging from a denser musical texture most often caused his subjects to experience chills. He also found that women are more likely than men to get goosebumps when listening to music.
He has since gone on to suggest that the experience of chills evoked by music is related to the distress that we feel when we are separated from someone we love and that this response has perhaps evolved to encourage mothers to respond to their crying babies. It’s easy to imagine many of the most memorable musical passages as separation calls: Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly Parton’s I will always love you, the guitar solo in The Eagles’ Hotel California, the vocalise by Rachmaninoff, to name just a few. The solo instrument, on a simple melodic line, emerging from a thicket of other sounds.
Blood and Zatorre, neuroscientists at McGill University used neuroimaging to explore the parts of the brain that are activated during the experience of the chills evoked by music (you can find a copy here). They report that the same brain regions involved in other pleasurable activities such as eating or having sex such as the orbitofrontal and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the striatum and the midbrain, are also involved in this experience. But what’s most interesting to me about their studies is the fact that exactly which musical passage evokes the experience is very much tied to the individual: just because I like it, or find it moving, doesn’t mean that you will. Of course, that observation is self-evident to most of us, and the staggering diversity of music available to us demonstrates that musical taste is deeply personal. By the same token, I’ve watched mothers pick out their own baby’s cry from a cacophony of sounds with remarkable ease.
As I return to my vocal practice this week, I’m going to keep both Panksepp’s and Blood and Zatorre’s findings in mind. And at my next audition, I’m not going to worry about the fact that at least a hundred other sopranos are vying for the part. I’ll remember that, just like a baby’s cry, each of our voices is unique and there’s no telling which of our voices will wake the latent maternal instinct deep in the heart of the men and women on the audition panel. There might be a lot of sopranos out there, but we also might be favored by evolution to give our audiences the chills. And that’s a goal worthy of all the practice hours it demands.