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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

Reich said that when he received a commission in 2010 from the Kronos Quartet, who wanted an electronic piece with recorded voices, "I was absolutely blank about what the subject matter would be." Four long months passed until he had his epiphany. "I have unfinished business," he said he thought. "I haven't dealt with 9/11."

"The experience of writing 'WTC 9/11' had more surprises than almost any piece I can remember writing," Reich said. "It wanted to be terse. It wanted to be understated. It's very intense subject matter and you don't need much to feel it."

The three-movement piece opens with a violin drone in F, the note a phone makes when left off the hook. The strings then amplify recorded voices, edited to evocative sentences. They include the voice of the first ambulance driver to arrive at the World Trade Center and an air traffic controller who rhythmically utters, "No contact with the pilot, no contact with the pilot whatsoever."

Reich acquired the voices of emergency officials from public-domain sources. He also made recordings of those who lived near the World Trade Center, including his son's neighbor, who eerily states in the piece, "Suddenly it was black outside."

Reich also includes his friend and fellow composer Lang. On 9/11, Lang was walking his son Ike, then 7, and daughter Thea, then 5, to school, three blocks from the World Trade Center. The first plane flew directly over their heads, causing them to duck and run for cover. In the piece, Lang's voice slowly declaims, "I was walking my kids to school."

("Of course it's a really serious piece and a heavy event, and it's really horrible," Lang said. "But God, my voice is in a piece by Steve Reich. I can get hit by a bus now!")

The closing movement draws on Reich's devotion to Judaism. It honors the Jewish tradition of shmira, in which a person watches over a dead body and sings or recites psalms or biblical verses. As Reich explained, prayers keep the neshama, or soul, company until the body is buried. "And after burial the neshama is free to go wherever it's going to go."

In the days and weeks after 9/11, Jewish volunteers sat shmira beside bodies, and body parts, stored in tents outside the New York City medical examiner's office. Reich interviewed some of the volunteers, whose voices are heard in the piece, as is the voice of Israel-born cellist Maya Beiser, who sings a psalm verse.

On March 19, Kronos premiered "WTC 9/11" at Duke University (the first New York performance will be next month). "It was an astonishing experience," said violinist and Kronos founder David Harrington. "Not only are you taken back to those early moments of Sept. 11, you're taken forward to the way people are dealing with that event. I think Steve accomplishes something very rare. And that is a transformation of that collective experience."

Harrington said playing "WTC 9/11" moved him as profoundly as playing "Different Trains." He could feel the music coming from the same deep place in the composer, which perhaps he helped inspire.

"It's interesting how memory works," Harrington offered. He explained he had not asked Reich to compose an electronic work with voices. "What I really asked him was, did he think it would be possible to make a bookend to 'Different Trains?' I didn't know what that would mean. I was talking about an emotional bookend. The idea of voices didn't come into my question at all."

Reich acknowledged he had listened to Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning composition about 9/11, "On the Transmigration of Souls," which employs voices from family members of 9/11 victims. But Reich was quick to stress his taut, minimalist work bore no resemblance to Adams' symphonic one.

"John is very much indebted to Sibelius and Mahler," Reich said. "And he's a master at working with the orchestra. But the way he uses the [9/11] sources is very coloristic and big. It's nice, but it's not something, obviously, I would do."

Despite his weighty subjects, Reich possesses a lighter side, which he displayed as he offered a tour of his house. He and his wife fell in love with the geometric house the moment they saw it in 2006. When they discovered it was built by the same architect who designed the Manhattan synagogue where they were married, "We thought, 'Wow, this is fate,'" Reich said. He was also delighted to learn that "The Blackboard Jungle" author Evan Hunter, better known by his detective-novel pseudonym, Ed McBain, had lived here.

As Reich stepped into his composing room, where the score for Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" sat on his piano, he said it was gratifying when musicians acknowledged his influence. (In addition to "WTC 9/11," the April 6 program of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, features the Kronos playing a roster of works by contemporary composers inspired by Reich, including Laurie Anderson and Bryce Dessner of the National.) "But if you really want to know what's most gratifying of all, it's that people all over the world are playing my music," he said.

And would all the performances of his music this year cause him to reflect on his storied career? "Oh, no," he said. "I just hope, God willing, I live for several more years. I'm on the five-year plan now. Because that's the way the classical music world works. Every five years, after you get to be 60, you get an extra boost of birthday concerts."

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