Steve Reich & Musicians
I know all three of these works very well from online performances, and the upcoming release of this album sounds much the same as what I’ve come to know of these works.
Let’s start with WTC 9/11. Even better, let’s start with the elephant in the room: the album cover. It’s been called “despicable” by no less than the composer Phil Kline, and many felt it crossed the line. In my opinion, while it wouldn’t have been my first choice (I’d have opted for a composite image of diverse people, as people from all ethnic and religious groups and all walks of life were killed on 9/11), it’s also not like the cover depicts those horrifying images of people jumping to their deaths from the towers. But I agree it might not have been as sensitive as, say, the cover for Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls. That said, it is what it is, so let’s get to the music.
Based on what I had heard online, I made some comments on my own blog about WTC 9/11, and have not changed my opinion with the passing of time. The work is reminiscent of Different Trains and City Life, neither of which really grabbed me as completely as many of SR’s other works. They’re good, but not revelatory. But that’s just my own taste. The main issue for me with WTC 9/11 is that it can’t decide if it wants to be another Different Trains, another Double Sextet, or (insert older SR work here). I feel each time I listen to it that this was a project that SR was asked to take on, which is a very heady challenge by definition, and as a result had to turn something out in time. Expectations are high. So it’s understandable he’d fall back to a familiar formula, namely using the natural music found within speech as the basis for a work. It’s a concept that dates all the way back to his early taped phase works of human speech, and it’s a great concept. But it’s done; been there, done that. That technique just didn’t strike me as something that would work well with something of the magnitude of what happened on 9/11. The music seems to be secondary to pointing out the natural music found within snippets of speech. It kind of worked in Different Trains, perhaps in part due to its novelty and also due to the poignancy of the speakers. At the same time, there were good moments in Different Trains that were not accompaniments to the speech segments, but stood on their own as music for the (two) string quartets by themselves. That seems to be missing here; the music is nearly always subservient to the spoken texts and their inherent musical qualities. And that’s perhaps why I’m underwhelmed by the piece, despite the first-rate performance by the Kronos Quartet.
The two other works, however, are standard Reich, and work well. Nothing new there, but still very good to listen to. Either or both are worth the price of the album. And again, they are well performed.
What made something like Double Sextet work well is its novelty. It broke new ground after many years of variations on earlier SR works. I was really hoping WTC 9/11 would break new ground as well. I don’t doubt that many will love the piece, either because they love anything SR writes, or else really do feel genuinely moved by the work. And good for them. I would have loved to say something more positive about the work, in all honesty. But in the end, it has nothing to do with the cover (I got to know this piece before the cover was even revealed here on S21) and everything to do with the music. It just didn’t work for me. Feel free to love it. Or not. But don’t judge it by the cover. It works or doesn’t on its musical merits, or lack thereof.