Saturday, September 10, 2011

WTC 9/11 - Steve Reich's Musical Commemoration

 Written by: Amy Tobin

September 11, 2001 is a day in America that will never be forgotten. It will be forever etched into our collective psyche, the way a knife wound creates a permanent scar in flesh. Almost anyone who was cognizant at the time will be able to tell you exactly where they were when they first saw, heard, or learned about the attacks that occurred on that day. It is only natural that people find ways to commemorate the event, or translate the feelings and actions of that day into some kind of lasting form.

Steve Reich in his hometown of New York City



Steve Reich, an American minimalist composer from New York City, has done just that. He has created a composition entitled "WTC 9/11," written for string quartet and prerecorded voices, which is due to be released (on Nonesuch records) on September 20, 2011.

Although the piece was commissioned by several organizations (Carnegie Hall, Barbican Center, Duke University, University Illinois Urbana-Champagne, the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, the Phyllis C. Wattis Foundation, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts,) the idea for its structure came directly from the Kronos String Quartet, with whom Reich has worked extensively. The Kronos Quartet had asked Reich to compose a piece that used not only the string quartet, but also prerecorded voices as part of the music.

The voices in the recordings come from several sources. Some of them are voices from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), some are from the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), and others are from interviews with his friends and neighbors who were there that day. Along with these are two string quartet recordings. All are to be played while the last remaining portion of the composition, another string quartet, is played live. If the other two string quartet parts aren't prerecorded, then three live string quartets are necessary for the performance.

The piece has three distinct movements, which are performed attacca, or without a break in between them. The first movement is titled "9/11/01," and begins and ends with the first violin imitating the sound of a phone that is off the hook. The first movement also makes use of the voice recordings of NORAD and the FDNY. The second movement, "2010," includes voice recordings of interviews that Reich had conducted with his friends and neighbors. The third movement is titled "WTC," and includes the two prerecorded string quartets, which are present throughout the rest of the piece as well.

In a strange turn of events for the Classical Music world, the original cover art for the album has caused a fair amount of controversy. Originally, the cover of the album was a photograph of the WTC twin towers during the attack of that day. Because it was such an emotionally charged photograph, the choice was criticized vehemently by many, and for several reasons. Many people thought that the photograph was being used by Nonesuch to exploit the event and sell more albums. Phil Kline, an American composer and artist, referred to it as "the first truly despicable classical album cover" that he had ever seen, and still others felt that the photograph was too myopic, since the piece was not only about the attacks themselves, but the aftermath as well. In response to this controversy, Nonesuch Records has changed the cover art for Reich's album. Whatever the cover of the album ends up looking like, however, Reich's piece is sure to stir up a lot of emotion from all who listen to it.

Original  cover art

Updated cover art


There is no doubt that the events of 09/11/2001 were horrific. It was a day that served to show all of us that we are not always as safe as we think we are, and that our country is not a protective bubble around us. It is the job of an artist to create something of lasting import so the event is memorialized and remembered. Steve Reich, using his considerable talents, is one of the artists who have done this for us. Let us hope that the creation of such artwork helps to ensure that an event like that will never happen again.

Click here to listen to Reich's work, "WTC 9/11"

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