(cross posted to my own blog)

I just submitted the following comment to the Nonesuch Records blog in reference to Steve Reich’s unfortunate decision to change the cover art for his forthcoming recording WTC 9/11.

I’m a composer and recently blogged about wtc 9/11 on my Web site and reviewed it for Sequenza 21. I think that the cover is perhaps not what I would have chosen, but that said, who cares? It’s a cover. There are no bodies, in close up, falling from one of the towers (although that would certainly have made a more powerful statement than the current cover with the plane and the WTC). Just as with Different Trains, there are no images of bodies being piled up. I don’t think SR should have changed the cover, any more than I thought the Islamic cultural center a few blocks away should be moved. If some people are disturbed by the cover, so be it. They probably wouldn’t listen to the piece anyway. And Nonesuch might realize that the controversy, such as it is, might spur others to listen to the piece and purchase the album. I think it’s ridiculous, just like the objections to the John Adams opera about Leon Klinghoffer.

When I was a kid growing up in the 60’s, I had a LP set of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 that had the photo of a poor Russian boy on the cover. Given that we were in the midst of a cold war and nuclear tensions, I don’t recall anyone complaining that he/she was offended or disturbed by the cover. I also had a recording of Shostakovich’s 13th symphony with a distorted, Munch-like photo of an old Jewish woman who one could imaging is being burned. Again, no controversy. Nor should there have been.

WTC 9/11, if you read my review and even worse, my blog post, is not my favorite piece by SR, whom I’ve met several times (I interviewed him 2-3 times in the early 80’s for my college radio program at the U of Chicago) and who had an important influence on the direction of my own music. But that’s my point-it’s the music that matters. Not the album cover. I am disappointed that the cover art is being changed. Artists should not bow to convention, even if the art in question is disturbing. Guernica is disturbing. Should we replace that too?

32 Responses to “censorship”
  1. Tom DePlonty says:

    I don’t understand what makes this censorship. Reich is clear, in his letter, that he’s changing the cover because he wants people to react to the music, not the cover. What’s wrong with that?

  2. david toub says:

    Tom, I completely agree that the music, not the cover, should be the focus. But Reich didn’t pull the cover because he reacted to it as over the top. He approved it. The cover was becoming a distraction, but it was also getting people to discuss the album. Not sure, from a marketing perspective, that’s necessarily a bad thing, as in “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” The cover isn’t really that disturbing, at least to me and, based on various comments I’ve seen, not to others. But part of the purpose of art, I think, is to disturb. If Reich was fine with that cover, as he indicated, then unless he suddenly woke up and decided that another idea for a cover was better, he is responding to a perception that many people will find it disturbing. And by extension, some I’m sure will be disturbed by the piece itself, with recordings of people speaking about the events that day, including what sounds to me like actual police radio broadcasts. Many album covers are over the top, and yet there is no public outcry. Nirvana never changed the cover to Nevermind even though some people felt a photo of a naked kid in a pool made them uncomfortable. There was a public outcry against John Adams writing an opera about the Klinghoffer murder that, “shockingly,” actually presented some of the Palestinian’s perspectives. None of this is good. If we start changing album covers not based on artistic choices but based on whether or not it will disturb someone, could we not eventually start changing our music to not “disturb” anyone?

    This struck a nerve with me because it sounds so much like what happened to the Islamic Cultural Center near ground zero. There seems to be a sentiment that we shouldn’t disturb anyone. Life is disturbance, however.

  3. Paul Muller says:

    The cover would seem to be an honest representation of the emotions in the music – such excerpts as I’ve heard anyway. And the use of such an image, explicit though it may be, is within the accepted limits of artistic freedom.

    Perhaps Mr. Reich finds himself caught in the crosstide of a public sentiment that surges between a still-painful memory and the desire to lessen the power of that event over our lives 10 years later.

    In any case, the decision to change the artwork will prolong the conversation.

  4. Chris Becker says:

    “Guernica is disturbing. Should we replace that too?” The cover ain’t no “Guernica.”

  5. david toub says:

    But Chris, while again, I might have opted for something more nuanced, what exactly is so bad about the cover? The main piece on the album is about what happened in lower Manhattan on 9/11/01. There is no way to sugarcoat that. Why is that more offensive than, say, a Holocaust-inspired work that uses a photo of people en route to a gas chamber? Go on the Web and you can find any number of videos of exactly what transpired that day, from multiple angles and vantage points. We’ve all seen it. Many of us have lived through it. But at some point, we need to address it. I’m sure there are WWII veterans who would find an image of the Pearl Harbor attack to be disturbing. And I’m quite certain that many Japanese today would find images of nuclear bombs and post-apocalyptic wastelands to be very upsetting. But these images abound and we don’t think of them as worthy of either censorship or replacement. Why is an image, not even a photograph but a drawing, of a plane en route to the WTC unacceptable?

    The more I think it through, the more I’m actually warming up to that cover compared with what I originally thought might have been more nuanced.

  6. Okay, just some short points:

    1. The cover wasn’t getting people to discuss “the album,” which presumably would include the music. Most of us haven’t heard the music. We were, and still are, only discussing the cover.

    2. This isn’t censorship for several reasons: no one forced or is forcing Reich to change it, and a “censor” is traditionally a government official, not just anyone who works above you. When someone changes something because lots of people complain or are offended, that isn’t censorship. That’s a business decision.

  7. Nick Stewart says:

    I, too, do not think this is censorship. However, unlike a lot of people who have commented on the decision to pull the image, on this site and on others, I strongly believe that the decision was the right one.

    I was at the premier to the piece and as with other pieces by Reich exploring emotive historic events it has a strong impact because of the subtly at which it approaches its subject. The cover, however, is far from subtle largely due to the fact that it has been digitally altered in a way that would be more relevant to an Xbox game or a Bruce Willis movie poster; maybe even a heavy metal or rap album. Had Nonesuch used the original image then that would have been fine, a greyscale version better, but the choice of image detracts from the beauty of the piece.

    Ultimately, whether the readers of this site like it or not, a CD cover is a marketing tool. It is not art; the music itself is the art. But I am glad they have changed it, anyway.

  8. david toub says:

    The album is getting more discussion because, common sense-wise, the album has yet to be released, so the cover is all most folks know of it. Discussion is not a bad thing. Also, censorship is hardly only the domain of governments. And you don’t know what tipped SR’s hand, and whether or not he truly came to this decision on his own. My suspicion is that he doesn’t care that much, but if it were me, I would. That’s just me.

    But look, we live in a time where more and more, things do get censored. And people play it safe rather than push the edge a bit further. Art isn’t supposed to be “safe.” As I made very clear, my issue with this album is the music (specifically wtc 9/11-the other stuff is entertaining enough), not the cover. The music didn’t work for me, and I take issue with the overall musical concept. The cover to me is far less relevant. But that said, it clearly does capture the event around which the music is based. And I think that if people can’t handle a pretty sterile image like that one, artistically rendered or live, then I’m also not sure how well they’ll handle some of the music, which does mention falling bodies and I think the word “immolation.”

    I also really doubt the same folks who are bitching about this cover would have been fine with a photo from that day of the plane(s) hitting the towers. Let’s be real.

  9. Chris Becker says:

    “I also really doubt the same folks who are bitching about this cover would have been fine with a photo from that day of the plane(s) hitting the towers. Let’s be real.”

    David, don’t you think you’re being a little presumptuous of the people who are “bitching” about the cover?

  10. David, censorship actually is largely the domain of governments. Shostakovich faced real censorship. If we use the word to mean a quashing of the expression of certain ideas in the private sector, then that’s a legitimate usage of the word, but we have to be very, very careful about how we use it.

    If a record store (let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there are still record stores) decided to carry this CD, but to wrap it in plain brown paper, a la the (in)famous nude Lennon/Ono cover, *that* would be censorship, because the review of the expression and the decision to not allow it came from the business (the store), not the artist.

    This is not censorship by any stretch of the word. Album art was released, an enormous controversy erupted over said art and its relation to the as-yet-unheard music, and the artist (and possibly the label too, though I really doubt Reich would allow Nonesuch to force him to change it, and I likewise doubt that Nonesuch would even try) decided to change it because it had become a distraction. That is not censorship, and it cheapens the true, terrible meaning of the word to apply it to this situation.

    Furthermore, and this is real important, I just want to say that I find the “art is/should be difficult/confrontational” argument–the one that says the album art was good because it would force us to “deal with” 9/11–to be gob-smackingly arrogant. I was 16 on 9/11, and in high school on Long Island. My math teacher’s daughter barely survived. I knew a guy whose father missed his train to work that day, and would almost certainly have died had he not missed it. I saw the second plane hit live on TV, as it happened. I heard the report of United 93 crashing in Pennsylvania on the radio, live, as it happened. I was a teenager, and I was horrified. We all were.

    I don’t want to get into a pissing contest over whose grief is “better.” My point by saying all that is that I *emphatically* don’t need Steve Reich (whose music I adore!), or Nonesuch (whose catalogue I adore!), or the person who made the actual art (whose other album art I adore!) to make me “deal with” 9/11. We all have been dealing with it in our own ways for ten years now. I don’t know anyone who has tried to sweep it under the rug. It’s too big, and too awful, to do that. It has changed our country and the world too much–and not at all for the better–to do that. We say “Never Forget” not to remind us to keep remembering, but as an acknowledgement of the fact that none of us *can* ever forget. To suggest that we need this art, or any art, to make us “deal with” it smacks of the worst kind of artistic chutzpah, and I think we all need to take a step back and think about that for a second.

    And, finally, as for the comparison to album art with Holocaust photos, or Hiroshima/Nagasaki mushroom cloud photos, those analogies fall apart if you breathe too hard: the Holocaust ended, and the bombs were dropped on Japan, over 60 years ago. Very few people are even alive anymore who remember those events. And for the people who are still alive, and do remember, I think we can safely say that 60 is greater than 10, and more time equals more healing. We are only ten years out from what is unquestionably a national, as well as a personal, trauma. Only small children don’t remember it. Many, many people have spent ten years trying to get over it. Many more will never get over it. I think we should all try and remember that when we break out the WWII comparisons. It’s just too soon, man. Too soon.

  11. david toub says:

    Jeremy, I respect your opinion and trust you would respect mine. How long, though, is long enough? Many Japanese still remember August 6 and 9, and it remains seared into the Japanese national memory. And the Holocaust remains and open wound for many; it still influences policy in Israel as there remains the fear that it could happen again.

    Of course 9/11 is a raw wound. But confronting it head on is part of healing. And if you don’t want to be reminded of it, why buy the album? Cover art can be removed from a CD jacket and takes one or two clicks if it’s a digital download. The argument I keep hearing is that it is disturbing. I get it. But many things are disturbing, yet there seems to be a special exemption for 9/11 in terms of what isn’t permissible.

    I don’t want to get into a debate on what constitutes censorship. Neither of us are attorneys. But one man’s non-censorship is another man’s censorship. I was using the general and broad meaning of the word. And I stand by it.

  12. David,

    I respect your opinion, I just honestly don’t understand it. We can’t use words to mean what we want them to mean; this isn’t censorship, and I have enough lawyers in the family to feel reasonably confident that they’d agree. It may *evoke* censorship, and we can use the word metaphorically, but it isn’t censorship. Who are the censors? Us? Really? We reviewed this album cover en masse and used our official authority to refuse to allow the release of the CD with this image on it? Reich changed the image because he felt it was becoming a distraction, and I don’t think anyone can dispute that.

    And I wasn’t arguing that it was disturbing. I was arguing that it was in bad taste, just like I think the title “WTC 9/11″ is in bad taste (how would we feel about “Different Trains” if it were called “THE HOLOCAUST 39-45″?). I’ve heard wonderful, effusive praise for the music, and I’m excited to hear it, but man, that title manages to be both shockingly on-the-nose (and not in a good way) and banal to the point of meaninglessness at the same time.

    The reason there is a “special exemption” around 9/11 for what is and isn’t permissible is the same reason there’s a “special exemption” around any raw, open wound–compassion for our fellow human beings. Do we really *need* confrontational 9/11 art? What purpose does such art serve other than to keep that wound open? Who among us needs to be confronted? Who among us has forgotten?

    The arrogance of the argument, the idea that we all need to be Saved by this piece of Important Art by these Important Artists is what makes me cringe. (N.B. I’ve never heard Reich or Nonesuch make that argument, but I hear it all the time from other composers.) There is a need and a place for confrontational art–I’ve written more than my fair share of it and strongly believe in it–but there is also a place for compassionate art. I’d say emphatically that this calls for the latter, and everything I’ve heard about the music itself seems to confirm that Reich understands that, too.

    They released this image knowing that it would provoke a strong reaction. What they got wasn’t the kind of strong reaction they expected, and so they decided to change the image to keep the focus on the music. That’s the reality of the music business–of any creative business, really–and if we go around shouting “censorship!” every time this happens, no one will listen to us when we *really* need to cry wolf.

  13. david toub says:

    Trust me–I don’t take words lightly, including the term “censorship.” All of us self-censor to some degree, some less than they should, perhaps. Read Anne Midgette’s commentary on this in the Washington Post (link is in a previous post above). I think people are going to find the art, the title, the words, the music, any or several components of this album disturbing and objectionable. I’m focused on the music, and as music, it didn’t work for me. But neither did I find Different Trains to live up to its hype; others did, and that’s great. Had he named it Holocaust 39-45, I doubt that would have been objectionable either, although I think it would have been a different piece, perhaps. But that is no more objectionable than the movie title “Shoah,” right?

    Some have seemed to have been offended that someone is potentially earning revenue off of a tragic event. I don’t agree in this case, since that would apply even to anyone who writes history books about tragic events, or any artist and composers who commemorates events, much as Reich did here. If anything, Reich was pretty gentle with his composition-it is a more serious version, perhaps, of City Life (also in part written about a tragic event relating to the WTC, right?). And I am beginning to suspect that ANY cover that relates to 9.11 will be found objectionable by someone. The title is “offensive.” The use of various soundbites from that day will be “objectionable” (and to be honest, that is perhaps what will provoke the biggest screeds about this work, since it really can take someone back to that tragic day in ways that photos and cover art simply can’t).

    So that’s one reason why I feel the term “censorship” is apt here. Someone will always find something to complain about with a major piece of art, especially if it relates to a recent and major event. People were offended by The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams. People were offended by the piece of art called Piss Christ (which I have seen and personally found very beautiful). And so on and so forth. Whether the dictate comes from the Politburo or from the masses, it’s still censorship. The Dixie Chicks were effectively censored from many radio stations, no? Was that just a matter of responding to public tastes and marketing interests? No, it was censorship.

  14. Re: the Dixie Chicks, the radio stations made that decision, not the Dixie Chicks themselves. So yes, that would be censorship. But I don’t see how that applies to Reich choosing to change the cover image. The Death of Klinghoffer, too, was rejected by opera companies, so that fits more with the Dixie Chicks than with the Reich/Nonesuch situation. I think those are false equivalences.

    And I’d just like to clarify–I don’t find the image or the title “offensive,” I find them to be in bad taste. Sometimes those categories overlap, but they often don’t, and they don’t for me here.

    Lastly, I might be misunderstanding you, but you seem to be saying that all criticism of/objections to/offense by a work of art is illegitimate at best, and censorship at worst, if it comes from more than one person? That’s a little severe, don’t you think?

  15. david toub says:

    Yes, I think you’re misunderstanding me. Re:The Dixie Chicks, I don’t view it as a false equivalency at all. Again, had there not been some outcry, Reich would not have “self-censored” the cover or perhaps the executives at Nonesuch would not have asked him to change it. Whatever. I have no interest in debating what constitutes censorship. Life is too short.

  16. Chris Becker says:

    “I don’t think SR should have changed the cover, any more than I thought the Islamic cultural center a few blocks away should be moved. If some people are disturbed by the cover, so be it. They probably wouldn’t listen to the piece anyway.”

    I find this, among many other statements you make throughout this thread, to be presumptuous. Meaning, you are making assumptions about a broad spectrum of individuals who do not or may not completely agree with you regarding the cover.

    When you use the word “bitching” to describe another viewpoint, you immediately denigrate that person with the inference that they are a “bitch.” As in, a man who isn’t masculine enough to handle whatever you deem the truth, or a woman who is hysterical and unable to articulate anything intelligent because of her emotional fragility.

    You might consider who in our current culture, also makes use of assumptions and prejudicial language.

  17. David,

    1. Self-censorship isn’t censorship. It’s revision.

    2. Why are the Dixie Chicks not a false equivalency? You say you don’t view them that way, but don’t say why not.

    3. If I am indeed misunderstanding you, when is popular outcry against a work of art legitimate? Is it ever legitimate, or do artists have carte blanche to offend, denigrate, objectify, etc.?

    4. If you have no interest in debating what constitutes censorship, why did you post a long blog article about censorship? Not trying to play “gotcha,” I’m just actually curious what you thought the reaction to your article would be.

  18. Tom DePlonty says:

    “I have no interest in debating what constitutes censorship. Life is too short.”

    Then you’d have done better to title the post something other than “censorship”.

    Again: this isn’t censorship because Reich made the decision, and it isn’t even self-censorship. Reich is not changing the cover just because it disturbs people, he’s changing it because *the controversy is pulling focus away from the music*, as his letter makes perfectly clear. (You intimated up-thread that we may not know the “real” reasons for the decision. Do you have a even a shred of evidence to support that?)

    You’d have a case for censorship, or self-censorship if he were changing the music – removing particularly disturbing recordings after the premiere, for example.

    Your performance in this thread reminds me of the old adage, “when you’re in a hole, stop digging”.

  19. Censorship – or revising – may not be the real issue here. From the reviews I have read and the fragments I have heard of this piece – as well as the original cover – we have Reich’s masterful use of his craft putting us in the historical moment of 9/11/01. An artist will naturally transmit what he feels about an event and for Reich apparently the wound is still open and painful.

    I have lived in California for the last 40 years, although I grew up in the NYC area and remember when the towers were first built. They dominated the surrounding area like no other physical or natural feature, and their violent destruction would be extremely traumatic for those – like Reich – living nearby. And many people in my old hometown lost a friend or relative in the 9/11 attack. I can appreciate – but because of the distance I cannot fully share – the emotional scars that must still be present.

    Because the trauma was softened for us 3000 miles away on the west coast, I think we have a different perspective. I have come t0 see the attacks as the starting point of a long series of self-inflicted wounds by our our country in response. Not having the proximity or the loss of loved ones to process, I want to be healed, not reminded of the horrors of that day. We are ten years along and I think it a fair question to ask how much longer this event will continue to hold its power over us.

    Do we honor the dead by revisiting the moment of their violent end? That may be the real question here.

  20. david toub says:

    Again, the purpose was not to debate the term censorship. I am surprised, however, that few here seem to have thought the original cover to have been appropriate. Self-revision is one thing, but when it’s clear from Reich’s comments that he was fine with the cover but felt that the controversy was distracting attention from the music, I do consider that decision to have been unfortunate.

    I care about the precedent this sets. Art that is not racist or hateful shouldn’t have to be pulled when the creator or, in this case, composer of the album, clearly thought it represented what he felt the album was about. I’m very surprised that composers would find this acceptable. Call it censorship or revision or marketing or whatever. My point is that the situation is something I find very concerning, as do others on the Nonesuch blog and the writer of the aforementioned column in the Washington Post. That’s all.

  21. George Heathco says:

    “I think that the cover is perhaps not what I would have chosen, but that said, who cares? It’s a cover?”

    You don’t think Reich might have had the same thought? All of this talk of censorship and art completely overshadows the fact that Reich is a human being and quite possibly didn’t care one way or the other. We’re not talking about a Roger Dean album cover to a Yes album. I may be making a rather broad assumption, but I don’t foresee very many people listening to this particular piece with the album art in their laps.

  22. Anders Griffen says:

    1. Not censorship.
    2. Am I mistaken, or did Reich not choose the cover in the first place? I didn’t think it was the best choice and in the end I think he agreed with me ;)

  23. Censorship is a serious issue. This album cover being pulled is not censorship. Calling this censorship is irresponsible use of the English language and does a disservice to the discussion of real censorship issues everywhere.

    Two things:
    1. Nonesuch is trying to sell records. That’s why they’re able to publish so many great recordings.
    2. Why can’t they have simply been convinced by the web reaction that this really is the wrong image to represent the music?

    Your indignation is a little over-the-top.

  24. david toub says:

    I think some comments about the cover, that it’s the “most despicable album cover ever” (or words to that effect) are over the top so we’re even

  25. Dave Sheppard says:

    uh, the oft-printed quote says the the cover is the first truly despicable classical cover (he) has ever seen. it’s one person’s opinion. not bullying, not censorship. the opinion of one american.

    and no, “we”are not even, and you are not even close. i think you are letting your anger cloud your grasp of logic.

  26. Richard Hertz says:

    I’ve heard most of the tracks on the album – and they got it all wrong.

    The music should be censored and removed, let the cover “art” stand. Reich’s work is a disgrace to those people that sacrificed themselves on 9/11. This is just another example of the liberal elite getting their way.

  27. david toub says:

    “The music should be censored and removed, let the cover “art” stand. Reich’s work is a disgrace to those people that sacrificed themselves on 9/11. This is just another example of the liberal elite getting their way.”

    Oh jayzus christ. Really? Are we now stooping to that silly level? Honestly?

    You really feel the music should be censored? Are you kidding, or are you really a self-righteous Repuglican freakazoid? How is it a disgrace? Not his best effort perhaps, but
    “a disgrace to those people that sacrificed themselves on 9/11.”? How so?

    And perhaps you could be so kind as to point out how, exactly, us liberal elites are getting our way, when Faux News and other right-wing outlets control most of the media, the world is largely run by conservative corporations and their interested parties, nearly all of the presidential candidates claim not to believe in scientific realities and would rather our country be ruled by their Christian god (although heaven forbid anyone of the Islamic faith have any role in our government, or even any Jew who doesn’t toady up to the right-wing vision), etc? If us “libral” types are so friggin powerful, how is it that we couldn’t do the right thing by the American people and enact single-payor, universal health care or even get a reasonable compromise re: the deficit that doesn’t reward rich folk at the expense of those who have more average incomes?

    “i think you are letting your anger cloud your grasp of logic.”

    Anger? What anger? This isn’t worth my anger. And from the nonsense being posted here, I’m not sure this is worth much of a continued response. I guess us liberal nonacademic types aren’t as welcome here as we once were?

  28. Dave Sheppard says:

    not worth your anger? i think the length and tenor of your responses prove otherwise! time to chill…

  29. Richard Hertz says:

    Not one for brevity, eh?

  30. Richard H. says “Reich’s work is a disgrace to those people that sacrificed themselves on 9/11.”

    Would it be possible to see a summary of the arguments that lead to this conclusion?

  31.