Live: Steve Reich Brings "WTC 9/11" To Carnegie Hall
© Stefan Cohen
Music of Steve Reich
Bang on a Can All-Stars and Friends (feat. Bryce Dessner), eighth blackbird, Kronos Quartet, So Percussion
Saturday, April 30
Better than: The ritual, anniversary replay of news broadcasts from the morning of 9/11.
There is no other way to begin but by acknowledging that this review of a classical music concert from over the weekend was re-written after word spread, on Sunday night, of a successfully lethal military strike by U.S. forces against Osama bin Laden.
Your individual mileage may vary, in terms of whether you think that a mockable reality. Though even before news of bin Laden's death crossed social media wires, there had been a feeling that the window for critical commentary on Saturday night's concert at Carnegie Hall would need to be held open for some time--if only to accommodate reflection, let alone breaking news developments. The show was two things, at least: an evening-long celebration of New York musical eminence Steve Reich's 75th birthday this year; and the local premiere of his long-anticipated, only recently completed work about 9/11 and its aftermath.
Nearly 40 years after the hidebound boos that greeted Reich's Carnegie debut, in 1973, with "Four Organs," the critical consensus has long been settled. The composer--one of America's original sonic minimalists--is capital-I Important. That his music will survive him is beyond question. Also not up for debate is whether Reich stands as an indispensable part of New York's musical firmament, as he is a touchstone for post-rockers, avant-turntablists and myriad stylists currently plowing the hybrid, compound-noun genre fields still yet to be blog-hyped (or even named).
It was this settled feeling of a reputation well-earned that allowed the New York premiere of Reich's "WTC 9/11"--a 15-minute piece for three string quartets and pre-recorded voices--to bring some tension into the evening. Every other piece on Saturday's program--including 2009's Pulitzer-winning "Double Sextet" (no slouch) and "2x5," the composer's first work for rock instrumentation--followed Reich's preferred structure: three movements, played without interruption (and in fast-slow-fast order). "WTC 9/11," though, was revealed as a different Reich-ian beast: it pauses and breathes before picking up the exact same meter again. Sacrificing his tried-and-true tricks of dynamic momentum felt like Reich's acknowledgment of the need for a new approach in addressing this subject matter. At minimum, the odd-piece-out provided an opportunity to recognize unfinished emotional and intellectual business, during what otherwise might have been merely the inspiration for a victory lap.
As performed by the Kronos Quartet--which, on Saturday, played along with two taped versions of the piece's other string quartet parts--"WTC 9/11" feels both unsettling and unsettled-on-purpose. Its structural instability seems like a quality built by Reich into the text, which is constructed from NORAD alerts and FDNY radio dispatches, as well as citizen remembrances circa 2010 and quotations from Psalm 121:8 and Exodus, both sung in the Jewish tradition of Shmira (a practice of guarding bodies during the period between death and burial).
"WTC 9/11" opens with a violin sawing an F, perfectly matching the taped pulse tone of a disconnected phone left off the hook for too long. Then we start to hear from NORAD, the first institution to notice something amiss on the morning of 9/11. The speaker's distorted, radio-dispatch tones are elongated by Reich's pitch-sustain manipulation into an opaque, digital fog. Even on the page, its warnings seem as though in want of a minimalist's interpretation:
They came from Boston--
Goin' to LA--
And they're headed south--
They're goin' the wrong
They're goin' the wrong way--
Goin' the wrong way--
And then comes the first moment in the piece that, over and above being merely spooky, can catch the throat--when Reich's cello part matches the NORAD dispatcher's percussive stress for percussive stress, on the phrase:
No contact with the pilot--
No contact with the pilot whatsoever--
Reich's "additive" style of thematic development (in which new information is added to a line with each repetition) has had its share of successful moments over the last 40-plus years, though I'm hard-pressed to recall one as dead-in-your-tracks arresting as this.