The halls of the University of Arizona School of Music rang out with spontaneous song in the days after Sept. 11, 2001.
Orchestras big and small around the world — Tucson’s included — turned to Mozart’s Requiem as the cornerstone of somber, reflective memorial concerts.
Radio dusted off Lee Greenwood’s heart-tugging anthem “God Bless the USA,” which has been resurrected at every national crisis since the mid-1980s. Songwriters of every genre did what they do best in tragedy: find healing in moving, sobering and sometimes impassioned lyrics.
“I believe in the power of music to elevate the human experience in general,” said Tucson conductor Eric Holtan. “I think it’s that power that you can’t quite explain that brings people to live performances or to go in a room and play a certain piece that evokes certain feelings.”
Ten years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we are still turning to the arts for healing and solace.
In the days leading up to next Sunday’s 10th anniversary, there will be major concerts. Orchestras nationwide will revisit Mozart as part of the “9 11 11 Requiem Project.” Holtan will lead his Tucson Chamber Artists choir and the Tucson Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of “Prayer and Remembrance,” a new work by nationally acclaimed composer Stephen Paulus.
Theaters are mounting plays. And an astounding book of poetry, “Witness,” hand-printed by Tucson’s Chax Press and illustrated by Nancy Tokar Miller, can be found at the University of Arizona Poetry Center.
“People who are open to art can get solace from it,” said playwright Toni Press-Coffman. “It gives us comfort and makes us feel that life has meaning.”
Adds composer Paulus: “Nobody is kidding themselves that a piece of music is going to repair a bunch of broken walls or anything. What we were trying to do is write a piece that would offer some hope for people.”
Today, we talk to the playwright, the painter and the conductor about the art they made to mark that awful event of 10 years ago.
'United' reveals the lives, stories of the people behind the bravery
Playwright Toni Press-Coffman vividly remembers Sept. 11, 2001.
She was staying with a friend while in a playwriting residency program in Indianapolis. All of a sudden her friend started screaming about the World Trade Center.
"I was in shock," recalls Press-Coffman, whose play "United," about United Flight 93, will have staged readings this month. United Flight 93 had been hijacked by terrorists and forced to crash before reaching its intended destination of Washington, D.C .
"Then I called home, my daughter, all my kids, though none of them live in New York."
Writing about it didn't occur to Press-Coffman at the time - just trying to comprehend the tragedy consumed those early days.
But as time passed, she found herself drawn to the people who were on United Flight 93, which went down in Pennsylvania. Several men among the 40 passengers rushed the cockpit in an effort to thwart the hijackers' mission.
"It was the people on the plane that I became interested in," she says. "I'm attracted in general to stories about people who put themselves at risk in order to help others."
She found herself speaking about them to two different people in one week.
"I was talking about the people on the plane and how what they did was so extraordinary," she says.
Her friends' responses disturbed her.
"So when I told these people, they both replied with complete cynicism," she says. "They said, 'What else could they do?' "
The dismissal of such a brave act shook her up. If she were on the plane, Press-Coffman says, "I would have been under the seat."
"I became infuriated about this profound cynicism and that people were attached to the idea that no one could ever do a selfless or humanitarian thing - that people weren't capable of doing anything brave."
She started reading, researching, thinking, and then she started to write.
"I became interested in all the passengers' lives," she says.
"The press had touted a few people (who had rushed down the aisle), but I don't see why nobody gets to know who the 79-year-old lady on the plane was. Doesn't everyone's life have value?"
That thought led her to another.
"Then I started thinking about dying with dignity, and how one manages to do that."
Her research led her to discover how much the passengers had in common.
"Out of the 40, six were athletes, one a judo champ, another a national rugby champ. There were a lot of people who did social justice work - an environmental lawyer; one person in high school who did AIDS prevention, another woman who worked on physical disability access. And there were several people of faith on the plane. There were all these people working on the behalf of others."
The play the tragedy pulled out of her isn't about the towers, or the plane going down or about politics. It's about the people on United Flight 93.
"A lot of the play takes place in little vignettes of their lives," says Press-Coffman.
"And it asks questions about what it means to be brave, and whether there is such a thing as fate or destiny, and whether having faith in God or something that means the same thing as God at the time of death helps you through what you have to go through."
Concert aims to feed hungry souls, start conversations on civility
Eric Holtan had hoped that 10 years after 9/11, we would be further along in the conversation about civility and religious tolerance.
But he realized he lived in a world that had little tolerance for tolerance.
"The religious incivility, intolerance, even violence against Muslims in particular or those perceived to be Muslims has only worsened since 9/11," the founder and conductor of Tucson Chamber Artists laments.
Holtan hopes that composer Stephen Paulus can provide some answers in "Prayers and Remembrances." The choir commissioned the piece almost two years ago for "Remembrance and Renewal," the 9/11 10th anniversary concert next Sunday at Centennial Hall.
"I wanted it to be a piece that served two primary purposes," says Holtan, 40. "To mark the significant anniversary for the community and to perhaps make a statement musically … that would help advance this conversation that's going on, this national dialogue about civility, particularly in the post-9/11 America."
Holtan is a man known for thinking big and acting bigger, something in evidence with the landmark concert that partners his 7-year-old chorus with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and UApresents.
But Paulus, the former composer-in-residence for the TSO, does not come cheap. He regularly composes for biggies like the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra and Chanticleer, the Grammy-winning male choir. He wrote "The Incomprehensible" for Holtan's group in 2009.
Holtan turned to a longtime patron, Dorothy Vanek, for support. He told her he believed Paulus' 30-minute piece would feed a lot of hungry souls; sometimes it is harder to feed the soul than the belly, he says, and the wounds from that horrifying September day 10 years ago had a ways to go before they were healed.
Vanek, an award-winning philanthropist and devoted patron of the arts in Tucson, pledged the full amount.
Over the past year or so, Holtan and Paulus spoke often about the texts for the seven-movement work, the cornerstone of "Remembrance and Renewal." The concert's first half will be the ubiquitous Mozart Requiem, played around the globe in the days after the 2000 attacks.
Holtan wanted the work to include texts from Muslims, Christians, and Jews, not necessarily religious in nature.
The texts includes English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Music When Soft Voices Die"; "Lord make me an instrument of your peace" from the Christian Prayer of Saint Francis; a pair of Native American passages that reference the spirit; and an excerpt from William Blake's poem "Eternity," which reflects on loss and letting go.
"For the people whose relatives died (in 9/11), they lost loved ones sooner than they had planned on," Paulus says. "It's small consolation, but it's a one-way trip. And I think that poem by Blake is trying to say 'Enjoy while you have it.' "
The final movement interweaves a sixth-century Muslim prayer with Hebrew text sung in Hebrew that translates to "Love your neighbors as yourselves."
"One of the things I would hope people might find significant is that everybody sang approximately the same thing. The dogma, the approach is different. … Different groups of people have come up with different ways of looking at life," Paulus says.
The Minnesota-based composer says he hopes "Prayers and Remembrances" will resonate with people outside the context of 9/11.
"If you look at the words and hear them and think of the events of 9/11, you will think 'Oh, that's appropriate,' " he says. But he hopes it will have just as much meaning if it's played at a memorial for, say, the anniversary of Tucson's Jan. 8 mass shooting.
"We aren't the only ones commissioning an anniversary piece," Holtan says. "But what's happening in Tucson is pretty unique: three major organizations coming together to collaborate, and involving a composer of the first rate like Stephen Paulus on a significant 30-minute piece."
Poem's illustrator kept pushing further
Tucson-based artist Nancy Tokar Miller had long wanted to illustrate poetry.
The horror of Sept. 11, 2001 gave her the opportunity.
She thanks Charles Alexander, of Tucson's Chax Press, for the material to inspire her.
"He handed me a poem that was so dynamic, so visual," recalls Miller, talking in her sunlit studio stacked with paintings rich with her serene colors and soft images. The floor is splattered with paint and a wall is covered with photos and studies for a piece she's working on.
"Every page has active verbs," she says of the poem.
"It brought out images I'd never done before."
The poem - and the name of the limited edition, handmade book - is "Witness," by San Francisco poet Kathleen Fraser. It is about that awful day in 2001.
While the images came quickly to Miller, the task was a bit daunting.
"I'm not known for doing emotional work with a great deal of angst," she says. "But I was very committed to doing justice to her thoughts."
Of course, Fraser had to give the nod to Miller's works before Alexander could do the printing.
"Charles sent her some images," recalls Miller. "She liked my paintings, but she kept saying, 'no color, no color.' "
Quite a challenge for an artist known for colors that speak of the sea and the sky and Japanese gardens. Traditionally, her paintings are rich in colors and, most of all, speak of a serenity that is the opposite of how the nation felt about Sept. 11.
But, she says, "The poem swept over me. I did an image for every page very quickly."
With several, however, she kept refining it. "I thought, 'This is close,' but I wanted to push further."
The works were pure abstraction, something new for Miller.
"Still," she says," it was very automatic to find these images. For me, it was quite a privilege to do this. I was so focused on it because we all felt something extraordinary."
View the book
You can see a copy of "Witness" at the University of Arizona Poetry Center's Rare Book Room, 1508 E. Helen St. Forty editions of the handmade book were published by Charles Alexander at Chax Press in Tucson. A few copies are available for purchase. The $1,300 price has been discounted. www.chax.org
Songs born of 9/11
Songwriters expressed their emotions in moving, sometimes angry lyrics. Here’s a sample of what came out of the 9/11 tragedy.
• “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning,” Alan Jackson.
• “Undivided,” Bon Jovi.
• “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American),” Toby Keith.
• “The 12th Day,” Autopilot Off.
• “Have You Forgotten?” Darryl Worley.
• “Tuesday Morning,” Melissa Etheridge.
• “I Can’t See New York 9/11,” Tori Amos.
• “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag,” the Charlie Daniels Band.