Steve Reich brings clarity to tragedy


While it’s tempting to assert that good music is the sort that immediately gets under your skin, often one finds that a truly great work of art requires time and patience to fully absorb.

The latter is true of Steve Reich’s latest composition, WTC 9/11. It’s absolutely staggering.

album cover
Classical catastrophe: Reich's latest composition may be very unsettling for some.

This is not immediately apparent, though.

The unsettling combination of unhinged, horrifying strings (in this case The Kronos Quartet) and Reich’s use of audio samples of the September 11 tragedy (phone calls, interviews, etc.) make WTC 9/11 a hard piece to handle—both emotionally and in terms of processing all the information.

It’s a busy sounding piece, despite its adherence to Reich’s trademark minimalist techniques. Yet the scope and quality of Reich’s work thus far demands that one live with his pieces before making any quick judgments.

What immediately catches the listener’s attention is just how panicked one feels while listening. It’s the sort of music that you can’t resist playing on repeat several times—and not because it’s catchy.

The music works slowly, each listen dredging up the fear and uncertainty of watching the twin towers collapse. It becomes clear that Reich, as a New Yorker, is seeking not only to cope but to relate.

WTC is profoundly human. It isn’t exploitative in its usage of found audio. Reich’s selections are used in the interest of evoking rather than manipulating emotions.

I was struck by the images that flashed by as I listened. I could see my 6th grade classroom, the television on and playing the footage on loop. I could feel the same sickness I felt in the pit of my stomach then.

The sound of a phone off the hook sets the tempo for the beginning and end of the piece, the strings layered over top, playing frantically. One sees the news clips of ambulances and fire trucks.

It’s a truly haunting exercise, bringing cognitive associations to the surface, plunging listeners old enough to remember the events back into the very hour they first heard what had taken place.

This slow process of discovery is precisely what makes Reich’s composition work. One starts with a feeling of total confusion, but with each repeat, hindsight works to make sense of the seemingly disparate sounds.

WTC 9/11 is a documentary in the truest sense, managing to capture the chaos and reflect on it in one piece with the sort of clarity for which one waits ten years.

Just as Reich waited for this major anniversary, his piece requests our undivided attention until we too can begin to make sense of things.

And so while this review may feel delayed given the composition’s early September release date, it only felt appropriate to give the music the time it deserved.

Those who were actually present in the city for the events may find the work particularly disturbing. As one who was young and far from the tragedy, I still found it a difficult listen. It’s not entirely surprising that the original cover art for the album met with some backlash (justified or not).

But like a photograph of the carnage of Nazi Germany or the Vietnam War, it provides one with the opportunity to contend with a document of desperation and violence.

Like Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 (which he wrote for the “victims of fascism and war”) or even the Rolling Stones reflections on historical atrocity (“Sympathy for the Devil”), WTC 9/11 is truly a remarkable testament to the reality of evil and human suffering.

WTC 9/11 was released digitally as a single on Sept. 6 and as part of album with two other pieces, “Mallet Quartet” and “Dance Patterns” on Sept. 20.

Nick Skiles is arts & entertainment editor for Aviso AVW.

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