Steve Reich's WTC 9/11: How Good is Too Good?

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Here’s the problem with Steve Reich’s newest recording, WTC 9/11: While you want it to be good as a means of doing justice to the tragic events it musically marks, it’s also hard to see the piece turn out to be too good. Listening to a work of such cathartic and unsettling power has to be like drinking a bottle of Scotch: a judiciously parsed-out experience both to ensure potency and minimize the raw feeling you’re left with at the end of this 16-minute work.

The problem and the perfection is that WTC 9/11, written for three string quartets (looped here by the inimitable Kronos Quartet) and pre-recorded tape, isn’t a requiem. Rather, it’s a sense-memory piece that echoes the chaos found in the minutes, hours and days following the moments of impact. Violins mimic the sound of a disconnected phone line, a sound that dominates Reich’s—who was out of town on 9/11—memories of the day. The pulsating dial tone, both recorded and echoed in perfect pitch by violins, casts a specter over the first movement (“9/11”), occasionally taking the back seat to claustrophobic and static-y audio footage from NORAD dispatchers and FDNY workers.

Reich compiled several interviews with people who were eyewitnesses to the event, looping them into the performance and writing the string lines in keeping with the scansion and inflection of his interviewees. He builds up the second movement (“2010”) from these measures that represent such lines as “It was not an accident” and “My eyes just kind of shot up.”

Only slightly more comforting is the third movement (“WTC”), which mellows out melodically and enters the days following 9/11/01, a time when bodies were amassed in large tents on the East Side of Manhattan. It’s a post-millennial Wound Dresser of a moment, in which Reich incorporates the Jewish tradition of shmira, keeping watch over the dead, a mitzvah undertaken by countless women in the tents. The Jewish liturgical music underscoring the last few minutes of this jaw-socking work (sung by the soulful Israeli cellist Maya Beiser) provides a comfort, before a voice says “And there’s the world right here” and the pitch of a dial tone repeats.

What keeps WTC 9/11 in rotation, however, is the thoughtful inclusion of two other Reich works, Mallet Quartet and Dance Patterns, salves to the burn of the title work. Mallet Quartet is played keenly by So Percussion, playing a combination of marimbas and vibraphones with buoyant energy and sophisticated verve. Similar to WTC 9/11—though in a far different way—Mallet Quartet represents a Steve Reich work that isn’t classically Reich-ian. His counterpoint takes a backseat to a flirtation with harmony between the four players in an equally foreign (to Reich) instrumentation. The sound is freed up, sly and sprightly, a lithe energy reflected in a closing performance of 2002’s Dance Patterns, performed by Steve Reich and musicians. The contrast to WTC 9/11 may seem somewhat jarring, but it’s a smart package altogether: You’ll come for one, but stay for the rest, and that’s what will keep this important disc in solid rotation.