Brow Beat

Steve Reich and Nonesuch Pull Controversial 9/11 Album Cover

Minimalist composer Steve Reich made waves a few weeks ago when his record label, Nonesuch, unveiled the cover art for his new album, WTC 9/11: a darkened, dirtied version of a photograph taken on the tragic day, featuring the second hijacked plane just moments before it hit the second tower.

Reaction was swift and fierce, as Seth Colter Walls detailed in a piece for Slate. Critics said that the commercial repurposing of such an image was insensitive and inappropriate; a fellow composer called it “the first truly despicable classical album cover that I have ever seen.”

Walls, for his part, argues that the cover was wrong, but not because it’s insensitive; rather, it “misrepresents the music.” Only the first few minutes of Reich’s 15-minute piece—performed by the Kronos Quartet—are about Sept. 11 itself. Most of the “raw,” “unsettled” composition focuses on the period of mourning, recovery, and remembrance that followed the traumatic event. “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,” Walls wrote.

Now, the mini-tragedy has been avoided: Nonesuch just announced that it will replace the cover art for the album’s Sept. 20 release. In a statement published on the Nonesuch blog, Reich doesn’t apologize for the initial image choice—he simply notes that it didn’t have quite the effect he intended:

When the cover was being designed, I believed, as did all the staff at Nonesuch and the art director, that a piece of music with documentary material from an event would best be matched with a documentary photograph of that event. I felt that the photo suggested by our art director was very powerful, and Nonesuch backed me up. All of us felt that anyone seeing the cover would feel the same way.

When the cover was released on the Nonesuch site and elsewhere, there was, instead, an outpouring of controversy mostly by people who had never heard the music.

When WTC 9/11 was performed by the Kronos Quartet … the reaction of the public and press was extremely thoughtful and moving. To have this reaction to the music usurped by the album cover seemed completely wrong. Accordingly, the cover is being changed.

New art hasn’t been released yet. In his piece, Walls pointed to one artist’s suggested revision: a black square that retains the original cover’s font choice. What would you recommend as a replacement?