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Reich, Trading on the WTC

available at Amazon
S. Reich, WTC 9/11 / Mallet Quartet / Dance Patterns, Kronos Quartet,
Sō Percussion, et al.

(released on September 20, 2011)
Nonesuch 528236-2 | 36'32"
Yesterday was obviously a day of reflection, not only about the terrorist attacks ten years ago, but also about the role of music in commemorating them. For some more thoughts, there is this review, which was first published at The Classical Review on September 12, 2011.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York of September 11, 2001, to which the release of this recording of Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11, a new piece for three string quartets -- two pre-recorded and one live -- is shrewdly timed. The original artwork announced for this disc by Nonesuch showed smoke billowing from one of the World Trade Center towers and the second plane yards away from striking the other tower, with the color palette modified to a historical sepia. Many who saw that photograph complained that the image was too searing, that it may even have implied an attempt to profit from the horror of the attack. The composer and Nonesuch eventually agreed to replace it with something less shocking (illustrated above). The controversy over an image of something that actually happened and was the subject of a work on the disc indicates just how divisive the mere memory of September 11 remains.

Beginning in the days after the attacks, musicians and the public yearned for a grand musical expression of the shock, horror, pain, and grief experienced by those who lived through those events, as well as a lamentation for those who died. We are still searching for it. Perhaps the leading contender, On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams, moved audiences when it was first performed in 2003, winning a Pulitzer and Grammy shortly afterwards, but it has since begun to stale and seem too direct a reaction.

Reich’s WTC 9/11 was composed more recently but follows a rather similar process, transforming recorded voices into musical motifs, a technique he has used many times, most famously in Different Trains, also for string quartet and pre-recorded accompaniment. The only new technique is that Reich can now extend the final syllable of each statement as a held note, so that the voice fragments -- of air traffic controllers, fire and ambulance crews, WTC workers and New York residents -- provide not only melodic and rhythmic motifs but harmonic clusters as they are layered on top of one another.

The piece is not that elusive grand statement of grief, which apparently remains to be composed. Its power -- a short wallop of intense experience culled from that day in lower Manhattan -- comes principally from the words of the survivors and other noises, with the music providing some ancillary color in the background. A beeping eighth-note motif -- the repeated F a landline telephone chants when left off the hook, also imitated by the strings -- paces the first movement, a pulse technique familiar from Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood and countless other minimalist works, not least Terry Riley’s In C.

The Kronos Quartet play these jagged motifs with their customary edge, beauty of tone and intonation often subjugated to an overall sense of energy. It is the sort of incisive performance the piece requires, because, especially in the first two movements, it is largely about the visceral terror of the day. A more dirge-like mood prevails in the last movement, where Reich turns again to the Hebrew texts of the Psalms, as he did in Tehillim, another gesture toward the Jewish faith of his youth.

Little is different, musically speaking, in the other two pieces here, except that they are purely instrumental and thus lack any specific context. Four members of Sō Percussion, on vibraphone and marimba, give a sprightly rendition of the Mallet Quartet (2009), a work suffused with dance-like syncopation. (A bonus DVD shows the group playing the piece, recorded in the Sō Percussion Studio in Brooklyn, which looks strikingly like someone’s basement, with stuff piled all over the place.)

The same basic contrasting structure of fast and slow is compressed into a single movement in Dance Patterns (2002), for two vibraphones, two xylophones, and two pianos. Recorded back in 2004, this performance is not as crisp and unified as that of the Mallet Quartet. None of the three pieces, not even reaching 40 minutes of music together, is memorable enough to warrant an unqualified recommendation.

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