Looming Towers

The real problem with putting a photo of the 9/11 attacks on an album cover.

Composer Steve Reich is one of the founding fathers of Minimalism. As such, he casts a rather long shadow over the recent history of music in New York, the home base from which he and Philip Glass turned a language of repeated phasing notes into the 20th century’s last big revolution in classical music.

If anyone gets to write a piece for three string quartets, mix it together with a series of recorded voices, and call it WTC 9/11, this is the guy. My own response, after attending the recent New York premiere of the piece at Carnegie Hall, was that Reich’s composition is a complex and intriguing achievement. This is not a 21st-century requiem in the manner of John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls. Reich’s composition feels too unsettled and raw to offer much catharsis. Yet while the piece is chilling in its evocation of the sounds of 9/11—among the recorded voices are those of 9/11 first responders—it is ultimately about much more than just the horror of the attacks themselves. I left Carnegie thinking I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a professionally recorded version.

Given the piece’s complexity, it is surprising to see that the first studio recording of WTC 9/11, due to be released by the esteemed label Nonesuch Records just days before the 10th anniversary of the attacks, is being marketed with cover art that looks like something swiped from Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign press shop circa January 2008: a photograph of the second plane bearing down on the second tower as the cover art for the CD.

“The album marks the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, which is the subject of Reich’s piece and, accordingly, its cover,” says Wednesday’s Nonesuch press release. (Unstated is the fact that the image has been radically darkened and dirtied, in the event you weren’t sufficiently spooked already.) In what reads like a justification for the use of the image the press release also offers a quotation from the composer, referencing his family’s hometown bona fides: “For us, 9/11 was not a media event.” It’s as if Reich is saying, I’m from here and therefore get to do this.

Nonesuch has started its own media event with its controversial cover, as surely they knew they would. You needn’t be a New Yorker to know how divisive 9/11 iconography has been. After its “premiere” yesterday, the cover art for Reich’s composition prompted a flash flood of reaction on Twitter (and in the comment section of the PR post on the Nonesuch website). The New York composer Phil Kline—he of the brilliant Rumsfeld Songs—even drops by in this comment thread to accuse Nonesuch of issuing “the first truly despicable classical album cover that I have ever seen.”

So far, most commenters are arguing from first principles. Detractors claim that the commercial repurposing of such an image is insensitive no matter what the underlying work is; supporters say we should be looking at graphic images of 9/11 every day in order to make sure we never forget the attacks. Since few people have actually been able to hear WTC 9/11 yet, it’s no surprise that the music itself hasn’t really been part of the conversation.

Here’s the perspective of someone who’s had the privilege of seeing the piece performed live and receiving a (cover-art-less) advance copy of the Nonesuch release. I don’t think it’s necessary for us to replay the familiar debates about the use of 9/11 imagery in the public sphere. This is the wrong cover art because it misrepresents the music.

WTC 9/11 opens with the familiar sound of a phone that’s been left off the hook, a repeated F note which is ominously matched, in the same rhythm, by the members of the Kronos Quartet. The opening section also features digitally manipulated samples of real-life chatter from NORAD trackers and NYPD first-responders. This is hair-raising material.

But the entire piece, which is all of 15 minutes long, spends less than one-third of its running time playing off these sounds from the day itself. The majority of “WTC 9/11” focuses instead on dealing with the tragedy after the fact. The long second movement is titled “2010,” and contains taped testimonies from people who sound as though they are thinking as much about remembrance as about those first frenetic pulses of fear and panic. The process of Jewish mourning, known as Shmira, is evoked in the third movement, during which another speaker admits: “The world to come?/ I don’t really know what that means.” At the very end of the piece, the disconnected phone reappears, with a voice adding: “And there’s the world right here.”

Reich’s composition is clearly the product of a mind working on several tracks with respect to 9/11. City-dwellers (as well as cable news watchers) naturally retain distinct memories of watching the buildings fall. But the variety of sources used in the piece suggests we have other intellectual and spiritual concerns about 9/11 worth investigating, beyond the re-enactment of trauma.

The cover art for WTC 9/11 captures none of this complexity. It’s crass not because images of 9/11 are automatically crass but because the Nonesuch art department has had to interpret Reich’s art very narrowly to let this image stand for the work as a whole. I’m not a graphic designer, but I can think of several more suitable images, suggested by the music, off the top of my head:

1. A phone dangling off the hook (to fit with the opening and closing notes of the piece)2. Some representation of the women, who, according to the Nonesuch press release “kept vigil, or Shmira, over the dead in a tent outside the Medical Examiner’s office, reading Psalms or Biblical passages” and who form the basis for the third movement (which features the reading of Psalms, among other things). 3. A picture of the current hole in the ground where the towers used to stand. (This image—upsetting in its own way—suits that haunting last line of the piece, “and there’s the world right here.”)

Composer Timo Andres—himself a Nonesuch recording artist—has already fashioned an alternative cover for WTC 9/11 that simply removes the underlying photograph, preserving the Gotham script. *

For now, there’s little known about what led to Nonesuch’s decision. (Two emails and a phone message to Nonesuch’s PR representative were not returned, nor was an email to Reich’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes.) Also worth noting: there are two other, non-9/11-related Reich pieces on the CD: “Mallet Quartet,” and “Dance Patterns,” which only makes the choice that much more puzzling.

What a strange mini-tragedy it would be if one of the best albums of 2011 carried some of the most misguided cover art of the year. One of the conventions of live concert reviews in the Village Voice is that the writer has to imagine an alternative experience to which the concert under review was preferable (i.e., “better than seeing Rebecca Black perform neighborhood karaoke to her own music”). When I reviewed the Carnegie premiere of WTC 9/11 for the Voice, I wrote that attending the concert was better than experiencing “the ritual, anniversary replay of news broadcasts from the morning of 9/11.” Nonesuch has dragged the experience of WTC 9/11 back toward that all-too-familiar zone. They still have a few weeks to decide whether they really want consumers to think that’s where this challenging, surprising piece of music will take them.

Correction, July 22, 2011: This article originally gave the incorrect name for the album cover font. (Return to corrected sentence.)