wtc 9/11: some thoughts

When Different Trains came out many years ago, I liked it a lot, and still do. But it never seemed the revelatory masterpiece many of my friends consider it to be. Reich chased that with City Life and The Cave, which, like Different Trains, had instruments combined with taped recordings of actual human speech, and the instruments mimicked the words and inflections of the speakers. That effect worked well in Different Trains, but to me, other than the opening and fast middle section of City Life, it seemed boring and like a dead end to me.

Contrast that with Reich’s earlier forays into speech-music, Come Out, and It’s Gonna Rain. In both cases, there were no instruments, just the raw speech of the respective speakers (a young black man beaten by police in Harlem, and a preacher in San Francisco talking about the biblical flood, respectively. These two early works are masterpieces. They highlight the words, but also the musical inflections inherent in most speech. Even when Reich later took the rhythmic structure of Come Out and scored it for a looped instrument, the result was Melodica, which does not involve any combination of speech with instruments.

Speech with instruments can work, and work well. Rzewski’s Coming Together is one of my favorites, as is Schoenberg’s seminal Pierrot Lunaire. But in both cases, the words come forth, particularly in the Rzewski piece, and coexist peaceably with the instruments involved. Both voice and nonvocal instruments are co-equal partners, in effect.

Reich eventually wrote Tehillim, which combines chanted words with instruments. I love the piece, and always have, but even Reich realized that the instrumental parts were a bit subservient to the voices, and tried to beef up the instrumental writing in subsequent works like The Desert Music. With works like Different Trains  and City Life, it was back to the words being supreme.

This is the same thing, now, with Reich’s latest piece WTC 9/11, which was recently broadcast on the BBC online. Like Different Trains, et al, it melds recordings of actual people with instruments (in this case, a string quartet) mimicking and riffing on the word-melodies that are inherent in each recording. Now, I think in all fairness, SR had a challenge on his hands. There is a lot of emotional and personal energy associated with 9/11, and it remains a very raw wound for most of us. So to do justice to it is hard, and there is the clear expectation that a piece dedicated to what happened on 9/11 has to be some sort of amazing catharsis and deep piece. John Adams undoubtedly faced the same reality when he wrote On the Transmigration of Souls. Personally, I’m not a fan of that piece. But in hindsight, I think he pulls off the 9/11 references much better than did SR in his latest piece. There is a point at which words can do a lot to express a sentiment about an event. And there is a point at which music by itself can do that. But combining both is tough. Schoenberg didn’t do as good a job as I wished he had with his work A Survivor from Warsaw, and I wished both Adams and Reich had done better with their respective 9/11 memorial works.

WTC 9/11, for me, would perhaps have worked better as a pure instrumental, or instrumental and vocal piece. While not his best work, I think Reich did better in setting the Daniel Pearl tragedy to music with his Daniel Variations, since the words were indeed Daniel Pearl’s, but the work was more about the music, and was a good setting of Daniel Pearl’s writings as well. WTC 9/11 starts off with a lot of ugliness and a busy signal, both taped and musical (you might have to hear it to understand what I mean). It’s an interesting idea, but can also seem kitchy. A later, more animated and more instrumental section works better, but that also (to my ears and only based on one listening) sounds like a variation on one of the faster parts of Double Sextet. The rest of the piece isn’t that memorable to me.

Again, it’s hard to pull off a work of music that is an homage or remembrance of a major event. Nono tried it a lot, but made the mistake, I think, of getting too bogged down in the politics of it all to the detriment of the music (he was a committed Marxist, and that trumped everything). There are a lot of things I’d love to get into musically, based around historical or political events, and I’ve often thought of including various texts set to music or texts that are spoken in concert with music. But most times, I end up with the dilemma of trying to let the music come through while not cheapening the words, and have always abandoned the attempt. So, I’ve written a few works that hint at historical and political events (darfur pogrommen, hevron-deir yassin, torture memos (a survivor from guántanamo), but without any included texts. I think that was the right decision.

There will be many people who are blown away by WTC 9/11. Just as there were many who were taken by Adams’ 9/11 tribute, which won a Pulitzer Prize. But I’m more impressed with Reich’s Come Out as a great artistic and musical triumph, one that makes the significance of an event very clear and also has a major impact upon the listener. Maybe down the road I’ll “get” what Reich was after. But right now, it seems more like City Life and Daniel Variations meet On the Transmigration of Souls.