For New York native Steve Reich, WTC 9/11 almost makes too much sense: A sociopolitically purposed piece played by Kronos Quartet, Reich's third string quartet uses electronically manipulated samples to bolster what's being played by the ensemble. It will debut almost 10 years after the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Reich, after all, is a habitual Kronos collaborator. He lives four blocks from the site of the September attacks, and he's been bending and manipulating voices with electronics since the '60s, when he looped and relooped the voice of a civil rights protester in Harlem.
But before Kronos Quartet approached Reich about a new piece last year, he'd not only forgone a piece about 9/11 but also sworn off samples and electronics as a way of composition. This weekend at Duke, though, Kronos will premiere WTC 9/11, in which Reich uses a technique called granular synthesis to stop and stretch syllables as the quartet plays. "I needed a refueling," says Reich of the piece. Kronos offered just that.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: The performance of WTC 9/11 at Duke by the Kronos Quartet is the world premiere of your latest work, your third string quartet and a very personally meaningful piece. Why trust Kronos with such a work?
STEVE REICH: If it wasn't Kronos, I wouldn't have a) been so willing to accept the idea of changing the way I was working and b) to feel the need to find something that was really burning a hole into my head. Ever since I did Three Tales, which is a video opera, back in 2002, and The Cave, another video opera in 1993, and City Life, I felt I'd had enough of samples. I thought, "One more sample, any more electronics, and I'm going to get sick." Between 2003 and 2009, I just wrote instrumental and vocal music. I felt that's exactly what I needed to do.
David [Harrington, the founder of Kronos Quartet] called me up in early 2010 and said he wanted a new piece, and would I use pre-recorded material? "OK, for you, for Kronos, anything." I had no idea who would be talking or what they would be talking about. All I knew was that I wanted to extend the final syllable of what they said, kind of like stop-action film, when the movie just freezes on a frame.
Why use such source materials for a 9/11 piece?
My way of dealing with these things is to stay as close as possible to the documentary reality. If Different Trains or The Cave or Three Tales or City Life have any validity, it's because I've been able to stay with that reality without turning it into some sentimental, maudlin fantasy. That's exactly what I'm trying to do with the voices of the NORAD traffic controllers, the New York City Fire Department and my friends and neighbors who went through this. By taking that matter-of-fact attitude, one actually preserves the emotion perhaps by understating it a bit.
The media's representation of disasters or tragedies or attacks is often just as you described. Do you see your work as a way to combat that, to make art from firsthand accounts, as you did with your old tape work?
The facts are 3,000 people died in about 20 minutes. It was described as an act of war by the person responsible, Osama bin Laden, and whether we liked it or not, war was declared on us. More people died in 9/11 than Pearl Harbor—that's a fact. So 9/11 is one of the major historical events in the history of America and one of the major historical events in the history of the world, and it's still playing out, as anyone who isn't sleeping under a rock knows. It happened four blocks from where I live, so it impacted me directly. You're being tapped on the shoulder and told, "Hey man, this is yours. This is your part of the story."
What's the function and effect of art in influencing society and politics? Can such work drive leaders to think differently about their decisions?
Basically negligible. Let's take some very clear examples: Pablo Picasso is arguably the greatest painter of the 20th century. His greatest work is a piece called "Guernica," which is about the bombing of a little town in Spain called Guernica, by Franco, who was a friend of Hitler. He bombed civilians. Civilians had not been bombed before. This was the beginning of something that's become commonplace. So Picasso painted this enormous painting in honor of Guernica. Did Picasso's masterpiece, this overwhelming work of art, stop civilian bombing for a millisecond? Not for a fraction of a millisecond. Artistically, "Guernica" is a giant masterpiece. Politically, it's an irrelevant flop.
On and on. Kurt Weill and Threepenny Opera and the whole movement of Bertolt Brecht and Weill together to stop the ascendancy of Hitler and Nazism: masterpieces! Threepenny Opera is one of the great pieces ever written. Make a difference to Hitler? Not for a second. Brecht and Weill had to run for their lives to get out of Germany.
Don't make any mistakes: My piece is not going to affect anything. The Cave is about various Israelis and Palestinians and Americans being asked, "Who for you is Abraham? Who for you is Sarah? Who for you is Hagar? Who for you is Ishmael? Who for you is Isaac?" It was even seen by one of the ambassadors to Jordan. Did that make a political impact? Forget it. It will live or die on its success as a piece of music and video art.
WTC 9/11 will live or die on its success as a piece of music. It's about something that moves me and will move others. Everybody will talk about the subject matter, and, oh, they'll be so interested in 9/11 and the 10th anniversary, but 20 years from now, people won't even know that. It will either be played or not because it's really successful or not as a piece of music.
Will you revisit 9/11 for another piece of music, or is this the end for you?
I rarely go back and do anything again. When I do it, it's over. But the fact of 9/11 is that it's neither the beginning nor the end of the story, clearly. As a matter of fact, the last movement of my piece City Life uses New York City Fire Department tapes from 1993 during the first bombing of the World Trade Center by fundamentalist Muslims. Obviously, since 9/11, there have been incidents all over the world. I don't think I'll be doing anything with 9/11 again, but out there in the world, the story is, unfortunately, very much continuing.