For the cover of the first recording of his scorching piece “WTC 9/11” on the Nonesuch label, Steve Reich selected an image of the burning towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001: a startling image of horror set on a beautiful day. When the cover image first appeared in July, ahead of the CD’s September 20 release, there was a huge outcry from people who felt it was disrespectful use. and disturbing of the photography – so much so that, as Reich announced in a statement on Thursday on Nonesuch’s website, the CD cover is in the process of being altered.
The September 11 attacks led to a large-scale confluence of the personal and the political in a culture that is already increasingly prone to take a proprietary air towards tragedy and public expression. A recent article in the New York Times spoke of the difficulty of diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder following the attacks: How much did you personally have to be involved to experience “trauma”? (The article gave an estimate of 10,000 cases.) Figuring out how to respect the personal anguish of others and not step on their toes following an event of this magnitude has been at the heart of the heated debate around the reconstruction of Ground Zero, the most visible sign of the nation’s efforts to deal with its agony: you can’t put a mosque there! And there too you cannot put a cross! It will hurt !
The thing with “WTC 9/11” is that Reich – who lived in downtown Manhattan when the towers fell – wrote a piece of music that deals with the process of dealing with the tragedy: the way people are gradually approaching the overwhelming reality of what happened. to them that day into a story that can be told and made to own. (I saw this piece again when the Kronos Quartet performed it at the University of Maryland in the spring.) To my eyes, the original image on the cover, which was selected with the composer’s input, clearly reflects the contents of the album. He takes the original photograph, by Masatomo Kuriya, and gives it a commemorative patina, as if to put it in bronze, or tint it with a sepia that takes it from the arena of reportage to history.
I’m surprised, and I’m sure Reich was surprised, at the reaction. After all, it’s some kind of image we’ve been inundated for weeks, months, even years after the event: Newspapers and magazines and TV screens and book covers have been inundated with images of collapsed towers, of towers on fire, of towers falling, rescuers with their eyes circled in red, standing, numb in the middle of the rubble of the towers. The glut of images was part of the initial phase of processing what had happened: Every morning the front page of the newspaper or the TV screen was there to remind you: Yes, it really was. It really was.
So why, 10 years later, is this CD cover, in the words of composer Phil Kline, “the first truly despicable classical album cover I have ever seen”? Why is it exploitation to present an image that is painfully painful but eminently related to the piece of music that accompanies it?
It seems to me that the pain of the experience pours into our response to the image: this image elicits a strong reaction, so it must be bad. I even wonder if there has been a border confusion between art and journalism. We know it’s not good when a newspaper publishes a photo of an actual event; thus, modifying a news image for a CD cover seems just as inauthentic to some. We know it is wrong to market certain images for profit – to put, say, a photo of Haiti, Somalia or Afghanistan on a mug or t-shirt – then mass-produce an image on a CD cover, a form of entertainment, seems to some people to be inherently basic.
I don’t think Reich and Nonesuch advocated the use of this image lightly or without thinking. I believe that the image fits perfectly into the point of view of a powerful and moving work. But it is also clear that feelings on this issue are so overloaded that the heated outcry that has risen in the name of their defense can cloud the integrity of the initial debate.
Reich feels that too. In his statement on Thursday, he said: “As a songwriter, I want people to listen to my music without something distracting them. The current coverage of WTC 9/11 will, for many, act as a distraction from listening and thus . . . the cover is being changed.
This is the right decision. But the debate is, for me, a red flag that, in the well-meaning effort to protect individual feelings, we risk losing sight of the transformative process inherent in a work of art.
Ther article was originally published on Anne Midgette’s blog, The Classical Beat, www.washingtonpost.com/
blogs / classical-beat, The Washington Post’s unique online source for classical music news, reviews and opinions.