In light of tragedy, how far should art push boundaries?

The artwork on Steve Reich's new album, WTC 9/11, has caused controversy, but tackling tough topics is not new for the US composer.

Damned as "a commercialisation of a real human tragedy" and "more befitting a bad rock band than a supposedly great composer", the artwork on the US composer Steve Reich's new album has caused a firestorm of criticism almost unheard of in the classical music world.

Titled WTC 9/11, it's easy to see why it has caused controversy before anyone has even heard the music: it sports a photo of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center in September 2001, darkened by grainy sepia lines as if seen on a cheap TV set.

One of the most iconic and shocking images of recent history, it's certainly a departure in a musical sector where albums are normally fronted with tasteful old master reproductions or gawky performer portraits. If the level of criticism Reich's label Nonesuch has so far received is anything to go by, WTC 9/11 is a departure misjudged, lurching into tastelessness by using recent graphic horror as a marketing tool.

At the same time, the image fits.The musical subject matter of the minimalist veteran Reich's new work touches as raw a nerve as its graphic cover image. Performed by the Kronos Quartet, Reich's music reflects on America's most notorious terrorist attack, including the manipulated voices of air-traffic controllers, fire fighters and everyday New Yorkers recorded on the day the planes hit. Due for release on September 6, ahead of the 10th anniversary of the attacks, it's not necessarily such a huge departure for a composer who never shies away from difficult topics. But given how fresh the memories of September 11 still are for so many New Yorkers, is Reich's new work a step too far?

It is for some, perhaps, but WTC 9/11's sensitive material is nothing new for Reich. Equally, the album's use of recordings of real people is a theme that runs consistently through Reich's music. The 75-year-old composer's most famous later work, Different Trains, from 1988, matched a string quartet with recorded reminiscences from Holocaust survivors, as well as sirens and train whistles. Exploring the different routes Jews worldwide took during the Second World War, its repetitive, hypnotic string loops and sampled voices mesh together to create something affecting and beautiful.

Following this, for his 1993 opera The Cave, Reich asked Palestinian, Israeli and American interviewees for their understanding of the story of Abraham/Ibrahim, then converted their answers into repeated musical phrases.

While such an approach sounds potentially arid or glib, the opposite is the case. Reich is brilliant at creating rhythmically urgent soundscapes through which recorded voices echo without ever being fully submerged. The success of these pieces also shows a composer who can engage with controversial material without trivialising it.

In the past, critics and audiences have often loved works like these, with Different Trains even receiving a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. With WTC 9/11, however, public opinion is far more divided, not least because Nonesuch's pre-release of the cover has overshadowed the music itself.

So far, only a few concert-goers have seen the piece performed live, though the musicologist Christian Carey has already given it the thumbs up, calling it an effective antidote to the "languid sentimentality and unfortunate jingoism that has too often been attached to 9/11 by those who've been witnesses from a distance".

Its cover, meanwhile, has drawn the piece some pre-release scorn it may not prove to deserve - a poll on US website Gothamist saw readers divided 50/50 as to the image's tastelessness.

Elsewhere in the classical blogosphere, the general buzz seems to be that the album's approach is indeed gratuitous. While Reich's Different Trains had a painful subject, many have pointed out, its album cover was a tasteful shot of railway tracks, not a reproduction of the gates of Auschwitz - so why such a blatant image for a September 11 commemoration? If a pop star attempted to use an image such as this, they would most likely be torn apart, so is it fair that Reich get carte blanche to do the same?

The answer, it seems, is that despite delicate sensibilities, we rely on artists to help us articulate how we feel about life. A world where they only stick to safe subjects to avoid offence is a world where art is obsolete, and where music is trivial background noise. Crass cover choices aside, we still need people such as Reich because they help us to explore events through other means than just reading and watching.

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Published: August 17, 2011 04:00 AM


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