On Sept. 11, 2001, I was the director of NPR's evening news show All Things Considered. The director does many things, but for me the key job was to set the tone of the show by choosing the music that plays between and after news stories. The music can offer a funny commentary on a story, give the program some forward motion with an upbeat tune, and even drag it to a grinding halt with a poor choice.
All Songs Considered host and creator Bob Boilen, back when he was still the director of NPR's evening news program All Things Considered.
When I came to work on the day of the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., where NPR is located, picking music for the show seemed like the most irrelevant thing I could be doing. I remember standing in front of a wall of 5,000 CDs trying to decide what music to pick while in the background were news stories of terrific horror. It felt so trivial.
Sometime about a half-hour into our program, after hearing story after story of grief, fear, loss and fright, not knowing what was next, I played our first piece of music. It was this solo piano cut by Philip Glass:
After a day of digesting the news, it was the first time I actually processed the news. Music connected me with the emotion of the day. It did it in a way no other artform can do (for me). It didn't create the emotion, but it seemed to act as a conduit; a way to process fact and funnel it into feelings. Somehow, as a passionate music lover, I'd forgotten how powerful music can be. We can all get caught up in trends and genres and subgenres, but in the end, musicians make music to express themselves, and a good piece of music can connect you to your own feelings. I rediscovered that fact on that day, and I still hold that close to me when I listen and when I make music.
A few months later, when things settled down somewhat, I was asked to give a talk to a group of NPR supporters at the National Cathedral here in Washington. I talked about picking music and the impact it had on our audience and on me. It was completely impromptu. Here's a recording of that talk: