Nonesuch Records and Steve Reich Pull Controversial 9/11 Album Cover

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Three weeks after it sparked a storm of online controversy, Nonesuch Records has changed the cover art for WTC 9/11, a forthcoming album featuring Steve Reich’s eponymous composition about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The album, which features the Kronos Quartet, is slated for a Sept. 20 release.

The original cover featured a graphically enhanced version of Masatomo Kuriya's photo of the second plane approaching the World Trade Center. But its appearance on the Web site Sequenza 21 sparked heated controversy. Dozens of commenters reacted on Nonesuch's Web site, and others chimed in on blogs, Twitter and Facebook.

In a statement on the Nonesuch blog Reich defended his initial cover choice, but said it had become too much of a distraction. “As a composer I want people to listen to my music without something distracting them," he said. "The present cover of WTC 9/11 will, for many, act as a distraction from listening and so, with the gracious agreement of Nonesuch, the cover is being changed.”

Nonesuch Records spokesperson Melissa Cusick said that a new cover is not yet available. By way of further comment she cited a blog post by label president Robert Hurwitz in which he stated: "In the end, though, we won't put out a record unless the artist feels happy and comfortable with the package that has their name on it.”

The 15-minute piece, which premiered in Durham, NC on March 19, and subsequently toured to Los Angeles, New York and London, features the sampled voices of fire department workers, air traffic controllers and neighborhood residents. It has received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics.

“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,” added Reich in the statement. “To have this reaction to the music usurped by the album cover seemed completely wrong. Accordingly, the cover is being changed.”

Some of the intial outcry on Nonesuch's Web site came from within the classical music field.

"Always look forward to new works by Reich. However, your art direction is vile,” wrote Craig Zeichner, an editor at “On one level it's pitifully ham-fisted, on another despicably (exploitative). I put this on the same plane with the ghouls near the WTC site who sell photo albums of the burning towers.”

Composer Phil Kline also weighed in to say "I think you may have broken new ground. This is the first truly despicable classical album cover that I have ever seen." 

Yet commenter Kurt Mortensen took the opposite point of view. "I'm actually a bit surprised about all the ‘controversy' over this album cover in the comments here. Let me get this straight? It's exploitative because it ACTUALLY shows what the piece is about? I'm a proud American who would be very offended if I thought such a thing was disgracing or disparaging in any way. Personally, I think they ought to show these images on TV every 9/11 so we never forget."

Weigh in: What do you think of the change? What would you recommend as a replacement?