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Steve Reich - WTC 9/11

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Artist: Steve Reich

Album: WTC 9/11

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Jan. 27, 2012


Steve Reich - "I. 9/11" (WTC 9/11)


On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in the second full day of my freshman year of college at a university in central New Jersey. I had woken up early that Tuesday morning, on a mission to open a bank account. I heard rumblings from people walking on the street about a plane hitting a building in the City or some such thing, but I, along with everyone else, went about my business, and I successfully opened that bank account. But the rumblings continued. The woman who helped me at the bank didn’t seem fazed, but there was a palpable rise in tension overall. I went back to my dorm room and turned on the TV to see what was going on just in time to see either the second plane hit or the first tower fall (I honestly can’t remember which). What seemed like an eternity later, I got off the couch and woke up one of my roommates, still essentially a stranger, with the news: “Good morning. The World Trade Center doesn’t exist anymore.” Like the rest of the country, I spent the next few days disoriented and shocked. I wandered around campus, trying to find something, anything, that seemed normal.

I’ll stop my narrative here. It’s not particularly unique or notable, or even all that interesting. It was, by all accounts, a normal, mundane day until a few men with box cutters marked it as a simultaneously localized and global tragedy. However, I tell my story, because Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 is all about memory – both personal and collective – about the specific moment of the attacks, and the attempt to directly aestheticize that moment and its aftermath. It is a difficult piece to listen to on many levels.

In the decade since 9/11, innumerable composers have written music to commemorate, mourn, or memorialize that day’s events: John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls (which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize); John Coragliano’s One Sweet Morning; Michael Gordon’s The Sad Park; William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. The list goes on and on to infinity and obscurity. In 2010, Steve Reich was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet to write a third string quartet. Reich was not in New York City the day of the attacks, but he remains a New Yorker’s New Yorker, his apartment of 25 years was (and perhaps still is) four blocks from the World Trade Center. And so, his third string quartet became the latest composition to reflect on 9/11.

The quartet is a kind of documentary built around the voices of people connected to and affected by 9/11: the first movement uses actual NORAD and FDNY dispatcher recordings from the morning of 9/11; the second features recollections by Reich’s lower-Manhattan neighbors from 2010; and the third includes recordings of cantors singing Psalms over the dead in the days after the attacks. None of the recordings are presented completely raw – they are edited and arranged to interact with the music – but the individuals recorded retain their voice, personality, and subjectivity. They are documents rather than mere texts set to music. This contrasts sharply with John Adams approach to 9/11 texts in Transmigration. Adams takes text from the photographs of missing person fliers, giving the words to both a choir and a children’s choir, thus inserting many levels of mediation between the original and the musical object. He depersonalizes the text, rendering it universal, converting it into objects of mourning and sadness.

Reich allows for no such relief. The words in WTC remain attached to the people who said them, directly referring to the reality of 9/11. His neighbors’ narratives are nothing particularly profound, offering nothing new to the well-worn story. But it is told in their voices, with their words, and their individual vocal inflections. They retain their individual identity and personhood. Reich attempts some depersonalization through repetition and digital manipulation, by prolonging the speakers’ final consonant or vowel. He considers this “a means of connecting one person to another – harmonically,” but what results are disconcerting, ghostly penumbrae which only accentuate the confrontational nature of the recordings themselves.

The recordings are accompanied by three layers of string quartets (one “live” and two “prerecorded”), playing typically Reichian textures and lines. He has a particular way of writing for layered strings that always ends up sounding roughly the same, and WTC only occasionally deviates from his norm. Reich mimics techniques he used in 1988’s Different Trains, finding melodies in recorded speech and rendering those melodies in the strings. Most of the time the melodies simply float off when the next speech fragment appears, but in the second movement of WTC, Reich actually takes the time to develop some of them, if only briefly. None of them really stick with you without the words they derive from, though; in fact, I only really notice them when they grate against the meaning of their words. Reich’s melodies are largely tonal, occasionally sing-songy, particularly when the words are describing chaos on the streets in the second movement (which is the weakest in my mind). Things are appropriately dark in the opening movement and attempt to be appropriately metaphysical/comforting in the closing movement.

Overall, Reich is forcing the question of what it means to turn these documents into aesthetic objects. What are the ethics of listening to artifacts from a tragedy artistically, particularly a decade after the event? Can that tragedy be aestheticized at all? Is it possible to listen to and directly evoke those memories and combine them with something that is supposed to be beautiful? It reminds me, obliquely, of the furor that surrounded Karlheinz Stockhausen calling the attacks “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.” When can we start looking for beauty in tragedy? Would the original recordings be more powerful, more affective if heard unadorned? Or does the intervention of a composer/curator focus the question differently and cause us to face our collective memories in a different manner?

The answers to these questions couldn’t be more personal or more subjective. Personally, I can’t help but feel uneasy while listening to WTC 9/11, as musical pleasure mixes with my critique of Reich’s musical choices and my memories of the day itself. I find it appalling when Reich renders “It was not an accident” with an open, hollow, and overwhelmingly vapid melodic figure in a vaguely funky rhythm. I get angry with myself when I try to block out the recordings in order to hear more of the quartet. My memory of 9/11 still feels too overdetermined and too bodily to allow me to step back. I am absolutely capable of thinking critically about 9/11 and its aftermath, but I find it deeply unsettling (and almost unethical) to think about it artistically. Can the intellectual and the visceral reactions to this music coexist in a morally consistent way?

This is why there was so much controversy when the original cover for this album was released. It shows a picture of the second plane, moments before hitting the second tower, with smoke billowing out of the top of the first. Even in a culture where everything – including 9/11 – has been available for commodification, that was somehow a step too far. Perhaps we’re still too close; maybe as the visceral memory of 9/11 fades, we will be able to aestheticize it more. World War II has become more aesthetically accessible as it has receded into history (something like Inglourious Basterds wouldn’t have been possible 60 years ago). But I don’t know. I’m curious how this piece will age, and whether or not I will be as uneasy about it in 30 or 40 years as I am now. The memory of that morning on my second day of college over a decade ago certainly still feels visceral.

(I should mention that there are two other pieces on this disc: Mallet Quartet and Dance Patterns. Both are perfectly lovely, though Mallet Quartet is more fully formed. Neither has anything to do with 9/11 or any of the questions I’ve raised so far. I hesitate to call them filler, but they certainly don’t feel like they belong in the shadow of the smoking World Trade Center.)

By Dan Ruccia

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