Reich & Kronos Transcend Representation with “WTC 9/11”

by Chris Vitiello on March 20, 2011

Kronos Quartet

In art, representation is a fundamental concept, and metaphor a powerful convention. Although artifacts are distanced from the world by the fact of reference, they are nonetheless of the world as well. Performances happen. Sound waves produced by musicians travel through real space into living ears. The onus to overcome this distance is placed on the listener, both during and after the performance, as we carry the memory with us and transform it into experience.

On March 19 in Page Auditorium, the Kronos Quartet played all three string quartets that Steve Reich has written for them—Different Trains, Triple Quartet, and the world premiere of WTC 9/11—alongside selections from The Cave. The program served as a good introduction to Reich’s work and a special chance for initiates to concentrate upon his linkages between strings and human speech. But the evening was really about the emotional and philosophical significances of the new composition, which deals with the attacks upon the World Trade Center in 2001.

WTC 9/11 has three movements, all using pre-recorded voices as a compositional seed, a method Reich first used in 1988’s Different Trains. The first, brief movement uses audio from air-traffic controllers realizing that planes had gone off course and firemen responding to the explosions in the World Trade Center buildings. The second movement features interview recordings with friends and neighbors of Reich, who all lived within blocks of the towers. And the entrancing third movement incorporates a cantor’s singing as well as interviews with the women who sat with the bodies and body parts of those killed in the attack, observing an ancient Jewish practice known as shemira, wherein a body is not left alone from death to burial so that the hovering soul is kept company.

Steve Reich (photo: Jeffrey Herman)

The music is for three string quartets. In Saturday’s performance, Kronos played live, along with two recordings of the other quartet parts. Multiple quartets, however, could be onstage at the same time in the future. Kronos played the concise quartet twice, before and after the intermission, reprising a tradition for premieres that Reich noted went out of fashion in the late 1950s.

The libretto of WTC 9/11, printed in its entirety in the program, is mutually integral to Reich’s score, as the musical phrases are directly determined by the tonalities of the recorded voices. When Different Trains came out, Reich’s transformation of recorded interviews into musical phrases reminded me of Objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff, who appropriated American court records from the late-19th and early-20th centuries and court accounts from survivors of the Nazi concentration camps in his books Testimony and Holocaust, respectively.

In WTC 9/11, Reich uses voices more densely than in Different Trains and The Cave. The piece lacks an extended section of just strings playing, compared to the other works in which Reich used voice tone doubling as a compositional technique. He also rarely leaves the voices alone in WTC 9/11, whereas in Different Trains and The Cave, the voice often plays on its own over a base pulse in the violins, only doubling with the viola or cello on subsequent playbacks. In the new quartet, it’s as if the instrumentation itself sits shemira with the voices.

David Harrington

The first movement, which feels longer than its four minutes because of the density of the audio, opens with a trademark Reich violin pulse set off by the deet-deet-deet of a phone left off the hook. This immediate sense of urgency is made genuinely harrowing by the short, tense strokes of David Harrington and John Sherba. At times, the audio is hard to decipher because it was made over field communications, and crescendos of static occasionally threaten to obliterate both voices and strings. But when the air-traffic controller comes clearly through with “They’re goin’ the wrong way,” and when the fireman frantically shouts “I can’t breathe / I can’t breathe much longer,” you may find yourself holding your own breath.

The work quiets for the second movement. The sudden clarity of the interview recordings is first startling, then deeply affecting. People describe what they were doing when they first realized something was wrong, and then their reactions as they realized its sheer scale. The frantic first-person of the asphyxiating fireman—who likely didn’t survive—transitions into the hushed calmness of retrospection in lines like “I was sitting in class” and “I knew it wasn’t an accident right away.”

With a libretto as long as those of the other two combined, the second is the most robust movement. The strings play a supporting role at first, echoing one voice as the next voice comes in and staying out of the way of the words. Then they deliver the musical equivalent of lines such as “Everybody thought we were dead” before the lines are spoken, a pattern that continued through the remainder of the piece.

Kronos Quartet (photo: Zoran Orlic)

The third movement begins without a pause, with the lines “The bodies/ The bodies were moved to large tents/ On the east side of Manhattan.” The descending notes of the last phrase turn the second movement’s grave narratives of realization into an exhausted but determined—and, consequently, almost celebratory—response to it. The humanity of the women who sat in shifts with the bodies lends this positive tone, making the cantor’s song reassuring rather than somber. Between sets of bright, decisive unison strokes in the strings, the final line is delivered: “And there’s the world right here.”

In a way, the particularities of Reich’s score in WTC 9/11 don’t matter beyond the simple facts of their sonic referentiality. The musical notes that accompany the voices, by Jeffrey Zeigler on cello and Hank Dutt on viola, are not significant beyond what those voices are saying. The piece is an opportunity for meditation; a temporal location for remembrance.

But in another way, Reich’s speech-based musical phrases are a consideration of melody’s rhetorical aspects. Vocal tonality is inextricably linked to emphasis, even in casual conversation. Think about how you can follow the sense of a conversation heard through a wall, without the actual words coming through. When you ask a question, your voice usually goes up at the end. It signifies an ending—you’ve asked a question and are now expecting a response. Phrases that end on a descending note have a leading quality. They’re periods: open, continuing.

Zeigler said, in a discussion after the performance, “In playing the notes that go along with the text in Steve’s music, it’s really challenging to get not just the rhythm of the line but also the feel of the character and the rhythm of the spirit. But when it’s locked in I almost have the feeling that the words are speaking through my fingertips. It’s really a wonderful feeling.”

Louis Zukofsky's "A"

In the final movement, as the strings multiplied into a chorus around the cantor singing a psalm and the Wayfarer’s Prayer, I thought of another Objectivist poet, Louis Zukofsky. In the twelfth section of his opus A, he gives a working definition of his poetics as “An integral/ Lower limit speech/ Upper limit music.” The Hebrew, unfamiliar to my ears, was song; the strings were speech: the movement filled the space between Zukofsky’s limits with this resonance that Zeigler describes. WTC 9/11 almost resists being music, an artifact that—by dint of its subject matter and its making—transcends its medium.

During  the second movement in particular, memories of the day came flooding back, as I imagine they did for most everyone in the audience. I remembered driving to work, a little late, listening to the BBC radio broadcast covering a “developing story,” which in those first moments they were still reporting was a possible bomb. And then getting to work, where everyone asked at once, “Have you heard?” And the lines being so bogged down we couldn’t get CNN’s site to refresh; couldn’t get friends on the phone. We all walked to a nearby hotel and watched the news feed in the bar for hours.

My experience of that event was a media experience, but I went to the show with my father, who was working for the Defense Department as a civilian at that time and frequently had meetings in the Pentagon. During the second movement, he could smell the burnt odor that filled the Pentagon hallways for months after the plane was crashed into it. It filled his nose in the auditorium, he said. Then we went home and watched coverage of American and European forces beginning strikes against Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces in Libya.

A couple of pages before Zukofsky’s definition of his poetics come the lines:

From Battle of
Dischord and Harmony
Come home beloved.

WTC 9/11 is over, but 9/11 isn’t. History never is. And there’s the world right here.

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