Union Square, 9/14/01 Photograph by Martha Cooper
Union Square, 9/14/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper

Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
“Can you describe this?”
And I said: “I can.”
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had been her face.

 Anna Akhmatova, 1957
(from Instead of a Preface in Requiem, trans. Stanley Kunitz)

Describing the indescribable. This is the poet’s – the artist’s – gift.

Near St. Paul’s Chapel, 10/27/01, 
      Photograph by Martha Cooper
Near St. Paul’s Chapel, 10/27/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper

In the immediate hours following the attacks on New York on September 11, 2001, New Yorkers took to the city streets and transformed them with their own spontaneous acts of expression. Freely and instinctively, they placed throughout the city their art, poetry, flowers, candles, memorials, and messages ranging from lamentation and anger to peace and hope.

Home of WTC victim, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, 9/18/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper


They created a shape and a form out of chaos and destruction.  In their freedom and creativity, they described their own feelings and the feelings of us all.

9/11/01, 3:00 pm

NYU student Jordan Schuster and friends laid a sheet of butcher block paper in Union Square and began to write.

People walked up, were offered pens and a chance to share their thoughts, and within half an hour, 50 people were there. Within an hour, 250 people. Within two hours, about 500….
Courtesy of City Lore, Interview with Jordan Schuster November 2001

The songs of Race for the Sky commemorate this spontaneous expression that transformed the New York City streets after 9/11.

Fire truck messages written in dust, 9/13/01 Photograph by Martha Cooper
Fire truck messages written in dust, 9/13/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper

Immediately after the attacks, the New York cultural institution City Lore began to photograph and rescue from the effects of time and weather the spontaneous shrines, works of art and other artifacts that filled the city streets after 9/11.  The City Lore staff gathered these together in the long-running exhibit Missing: Streetscape of a City in Mourning at The New-York Historical Society

Missing exhibit by City Lore at the New-York Historical Society, June 2002. To see an online version of the Twin Towers in collaborative poetry, go to www.peoplespoetry.org/pg_spotlighttwr.html. A PDF version of the poems is available here [LINK: PDFTower One] and here [LINK: PDFTower Two].
Photograph by Martha Cooper

Missing, co-curated by Steve Zeitlin and Marci Reaven, is a rich collection of accumulated artifacts and perceptive wisdom compiled by the City Lore staff, themselves New Yorkers embedded in the grief, loss and shock of the aftermath of 9/11.  I encourage you to explore the Missing exhibit online at www.citylore.org.
Most of the photographs on the Race for the Sky web site are part of the Missing exhibit by photographer Martha Cooper.
Photographs used by permission.

In March 2002, I attended the Missing exhibit at The New-York Historical Society.  I was struck immediately by its power and truth.  During that visit I was, as I am sure many visitors were, overcome again with grief as the events of September 11, 2001 were brought back to the present before our eyes.

TEXT: Greenwich Village, 9/17/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper
As the passion of grief began to calm, however, I began to notice something else.  Through the intelligent, thoughtful perspective of City Lore, I came to see the artifacts gathered together in the Missing exhibit as a powerful testament to life – of the creative impulse and need for expression that are life forces in every human being. 
TEXT: Union Square, 9/13/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper

This creative urge found its expression in the mediums of art and improvised ritual, on fences, buildings, and sidewalks in the five boroughs and beyond – even in the communication landscape of the Internet. As the City Lore staff wrote, “people did not wait for civic or religious authorities to tell them how to react – they just did – they took to the streets, and there they lit candles, prayed, sang, left pieces of art and messages, and they left their words – words that sometimes assumed the form of poetry.”

Near Ground Zero, 11/26/01 Photograph by Martha Cooper
Near Ground Zero, 11/26/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper

This immediate and spontaneous expressive response to the crisis deeply impressed me.  In the midst of horror and destruction, the need and desire to create emerged like a phoenix from the ash and the rubble. New Yorkers’ spontaneous art-making and improvised ritual crafted form and shape out of the turmoil of our physical and internal worlds.

As an arts educator, I found this prolific outpouring of expression to be an undeniable affirmation of how the creative arts powerfully encompass our humanity and human spirit. In our society where the arts are engaged in a constant struggle to flourish, and access to the arts is increasingly limited and exclusive, this spontaneous act of creation on the New York City streets was a testament to a fundamental human truth – the arts matter. For everyone.

It was important to me to find a way to commemorate this instinctive and spontaneous burst of creative response so that we would recall it as the years go by, when only the details of the death and destruction of the attacks remain.

The answer was found in music and song. Both hold treasured histories as preservers of a culture’s stories – including the voices of those from the margins, the forgotten, the unnoticed and the silenced.

Three poems in particular riveted my attention:  the anonymous To the Towers Themselves, Hilary North’s How My Life Has Changed, and don’t look for me anymore by Alicia Vasquez.  I kept returning to these poems, hearing their voices, and wanting to lift their words in song.

I called New York composer Richard Pearson Thomas who immediately agreed to take on the project.  I then contacted Steve Zeitlin of City Lore to begin the hunt for the poets, as I needed their permission to carry on.  Thus began Race for the Sky.

Battery 10, Engine 12, E. 85th Street, 9/30/01 Photograph by Martha Cooper
Battery 10, Engine 12, E. 85th Street, 9/30/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper
Brooklyn Promenade, 9/19/01
Brooklyn Promenade, 9/19/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper

TEXT: Morningside Avenue and W. 122nd Street, Harlem, 9/26/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper

The first poem, To the Towers Themselves, was retrieved by the New York City Parks Department probably from the area around Union Square.  It was written anonymously on a scrap of paper. Visual artist Hilary North, also an employee of Aon Corporation (formerly located on the top floors of the South Tower) wrote How My Life Has Changed.  Hilary was late to work on 9/11, delayed at the election polls in Brooklyn.  Alicia Vasquez posted don’t look for me anymore on the Wailing Wall at Grand Central Station, which Alicia passed every day on her way to work at a midtown Manhattan law firm. For more details on the genesis and development of Race for the Sky, see HISTORY

Shortly after the attacks, Juilliard violinist William Harvey posted an email [pdf] that quickly went viral, particularly among the professional music community.  His story was the inspiration for composer Richard Pearson Thomas to include the voice of the violin in Race for the Sky.  William’s email developed into his own remarkable journey bridging music and peace: after 9/11 he founded Cultures in Harmony, a non-profit organization sharing art music of different cultures across the world (at the time of this writing, he is working with young musicians in Pakistan).

TEXT: Fishs Eddy, 889 Broadway, 10/08/01
Photograph by Martha Cooper

On the first anniversary of the attacks, September 11, 2002, the song cycle Race for the Sky for voice, violin, and piano premiered at The New-York Historical Society in Manhattan.  Richard was at the piano, Kirsten Davis played violin, and I sang soprano; poet Alicia Vasquez was a member of the audience.  A lecture by City Lore Executive Director Steven Zeitlin prefaced the performance. 

From that day, I have had the privilege of performing Race for the Sky across the United States in a variety of venues and with many different musicians. In 2005 Classical Vocal Reprints published the score for Race for the Sky. Since then, one of my most rewarding joys has been sharing Race for the Sky with other singers and instrumentalists who have performed the work in many parts of the nation.

On this web site, you will find our story.