5. Michael Gordon – Light is Calling (2004)
Michael Gordon is best known as a co-founder of the collective & festival Bang on a Can. His composing merges sounds of popular music with the modern classical realm, a genre line that’s been blurring more and more on both sides for several decades now, a blur I grew up in. Michael wrote Light is Calling in the weeks after September 11, 2001, combining reversed electronic pulse sounds with acoustic strings. He said he “wanted to make something beautiful after witnessing something ugly and tragic.” He lives close to Ground Zero.
As it was for many people, 9/11 was a significant moment for me. My family had been in Washington D.C. to attend a relative’s wedding. I’d resisted the whole situation beforehand, refusing to wear a dress on the basis of feeling like a boy, which my mother generously accommodated by sewing a turquoise mandarin-collared suit for me. Then I was anxious about the idea of flying on the plane, nearly throwing up because I thought we might crash and die.
The wedding was a lot of fun. The groom was a US Marine, so the reception was held in some kind of large elegant military hall. A waitress accidentally served champagne to my 7-year old brother and I, which he fully consumed when nobody was looking. We tore up the dance floor, especially him.
Post-festivities, on a Tuesday morning plane headed north, the captain came onto the intercom to tell us that we couldn’t fly into Newark because there’d been some kind of terrorist attack, and that we’d have to land in Philadelphia instead. We’d flown past The Pentagon fifteen minutes before it was struck by a plane.
My family stood in PHL, watching a bar TV display footage of the Twin Towers absorbing planes and crumbling. Tiny specks launched off of still intact levels of the building, a rain of debris. With the realization that the specks were people, my mother wept, and the chaos of the airport scene where we were standing seemed at once both very immediate and very far away.
People were frantic, wailing adrenaline. Within minutes, all flights halted, hotels maxed out, taxis busied. Someone handed out small packs of crackers from a shopping cart. I stood next to dad at a payphone for hours while he made several phone calls. In a glorious stroke of kindness, some strangers he’d found through the telephone agreed to host us for an uncertain amount of time while we figured out how to get home.
We eventually made it up to Karmê Chöling, a meditation centre in rural Vermont where my parents met in the late 80s. With more help, we rode to Montreal. For a second time on the trip, I received sour milk at a roadside stop. We eventually scored a rental car and drove to Nova Scotia.
My cousin’s wedding photos burned in a World Trade Centre darkroom alongside other lost memoirs. The marriage didn’t fare so well, either. Though, by some massive good fortune, all of our friends and relatives were physically unscathed by 9/11. It was a blessing to be alive, I could hardly believe how lucky we were.
Amid the pile of mail awaiting us at home was an invitation to a classmate’s birthday party that had already happened, a delicate girl whom I’d have liked to celebrate. I appeared at school after missing the first two weeks of third grade and was struck by the loneliness of being surrounded by suburban children who had no idea what I’d witnessed. But it became clear that actually, that is how it always was, and always would be. For everyone, on a certain level.
From the Natural History Museum in Washington D.C., my brother and I brought back a double-tape video set about dinosaurs which we watched many times, soaking in a glimpse of how the world might have been before the arrival of humans. Just as treacherous and explosive. But with fewer warm-blooded beings, apparently. My personal acquisition was a small radiometer, a glass bulb with a little set of black and white wings propped up on a needle in the centre. Radiant heat reflects between the wings, so in sunlight, it spins.