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Steve Reich revisits tragedy with 'WTC 9/11'

The composer drew on personal experience and the voices of people who were around Ground Zero for the new piece, which the Kronos Quartet will play in Costa Mesa.

April 03, 2011|By Kevin Berger, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • INNOVATOR: Steve Reich turns 75 this year.
INNOVATOR: Steve Reich turns 75 this year. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Pound Ridge, N.Y. — — A few minutes before 9 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001, Steve Reich was awakened by a phone call from his son, Ezra, who lived in the family's apartment five blocks from the World Trade Center. The composer and his wife, Beryl Korot, a video artist, had been asleep in their rural home in Vermont.

Reich clicked on the TV and saw the second plane crash into the South Tower. He and Korot were shot with panic. "Don't hang up," Reich instructed Ezra, who was 23 and lived with his wife, Davies, and their 1-year-old daughter, Orah. "Keep the phone line open."

The first tower collapsed and Ezra yelled. A massive cloud of debris enshrouded the apartment. "It's black, it's completely black," he cried out. Reich told him disposable dust masks were stored in the apartment. "Put them on the baby, your wife and yourself," he said.

In his frightened mind's eye, all Reich could see was the radio tower atop the World Trade Center crashing down on his family's building.

Late in the afternoon, a neighbor managed to find his car and drive Ezra, Davies, and Orah out of Manhattan. A desperately relieved Reich met them at a relative's house in upstate New York.

Two weeks ago, as Reich, 74, recounted his native New York's darkest day, the dread in his voice gave way to satisfaction. On April 6 at Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, the pied pipers of innovative music, the Kronos Quartet, will perform his new work, "WTC 9/11," a signature Reich piece that blends pulsating strings with recorded voices from people at Ground Zero.

Sitting on a sofa in his airy, Modernist house in a woody hamlet in New York's Westchester County, Reich was anxious to describe his new work. But before he did, he wanted to make something clear about 9/11. "This was not some media event for me," he said. "It was a terrifying personal experience that I will never forget."

Personal directness is the heart of Reich's music and influence. In the late 1960s, Reich revolutionized classical music, which had become too academic, by stripping it down to an emotional core, said composer David Lang in a recent interview. Lang, 54, won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2008. "The lesson of Steve's music was: If you have something to say, just say it."

Reich pioneered a new minimalist sound in American music by writing simple patterns. Played on percussion, or keyboards, the repetitious patterns gradually changed, like the sound of a stream, weaving a spell over listeners. Reich's style of minimalism, said composer John Adams, "was the most important stylistic breakthrough in the latter 20th century."

Retaining hypnotic rhythms at the heart of his compositions, Reich went on fashion rich harmonies and melodies with brilliant arrays of instruments. His 1976 masterpiece, "Music for 18 Musicians," creates a magic ride on the pulsating tones of marimbas and pianos, clarinets and female voices. His 2009 chamber work, "Double Sextet," won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Like no American composer before or after him, Reich reanimated recorded voices into scintillating tones and pitches. His sources have stemmed from the Bible and the poems of William Carlos Williams, biologist Richard Dawkins and journalist Daniel Pearl.

Since the early '70s, Reich's musical influence has been undeniable. Those minimalist repititions, subtle counterpoints and mesmerizing harmonies that course through the music of artists from Adams to Pat Metheny, Brian Eno to Radiohead, spring from Reich's pioneering works.

This year, to marking Reich's 75th birthday, major concert halls in New York, London, Paris and Krakow, Poland, are holding festivals devoted to his music.

Creating art out of an event like 9/11, Reich knows, is a risky game. Artistic imagination can peter out in the fathomless depths of tragedy, and sentimentality can leave audiences feeling cheated and sad.

The solution, Reich said, was composing from experience, in the fire of emotion, telling a personal story. "If music doesn't come out of emotional intensity," he said, "that music doesn't last."

Reich had ventured into the hell of history before with "Different Trains," his 1988 work that summons the Holocaust. But as he explained, "'Different Trains' didn't start with the Holocaust; it started with the fact I had divorced parents." In the late 1930s, Reich, then a little boy, and his nanny frequently traveled on a train between New York and Los Angeles, where his respective parents lived.

Commissioned for the Kronos Quartet, who play it ferociously, the story of a boy on a train crossing America conjures up a boy on a different train, crossing Europe. "What was going on in the world at that time?" Reich asked rhetorically. "Hitler was trying to take every little Jewish boy like me off to Poland. If I was born in Germany, I wouldn't be sitting around talking to the L.A. Times."

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