Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Steve Reich' discusses "WTC 9/11" on NPR

photo by Wonge Bergmann, used with permission

As noted below, WTC 9/11", composer Steve Reich's original composition commemorating the events surrounding the attack on the World Trade Center ten years ago, was featured on Sunday's Weekend Edition of All Things Considered on NPR. As promised, here is the complete text of the feature, entitled "First Listen: Steve Reich, 'WTC 9/11'', by Anastasia Tsioulcas. As the writer notes, the initials WTC refer not only to the World Trade Center, but also to the composer Johann Sebastian Bach's major set of keyboard compositions, The Well-Tempered Clavier, as well as the conceptual phrase, "Beyond This World", which carries myriad spiritual connotations.

We are also fortunate to have on NPR a recorded narrative by the composer himself on the origins of the piece. (The streamed recording is also accompanied by an excellent article by Anastasia Tsioulcas that I had not seen before summarizing the interview below, but fortunately, there is only moderate duplication.)

Reich explains that the first movement draws from the official audio recordings of the New York City Fire Department and of the city's Air Traffic Controllers, as well as of his friends and neighbors. He says he followed one structural principle throughout--to extend the last syllable of the spoken phrase, and he speaks "of building up these textures of the memories, or the vapor trails of what people had said, and connect them harmonically."

The second movement draws on the spoken words of his friends and neighbors nine years after the event, captured on a digital recorder whose sonic clarity contrasts starkly with the gritty, grainy sounds of the official tapes during the emergency itself.

Regarding the third movement, he recalls reading an article in the paper after 9/11 about a group of women from Stern College, near the Medical Examiner's office at the New York University Hospital, keeping an extraordinary vigil over the bodies--and body parts--of the unidentified victims of 9/11. This vigil, part of the Jewish tradition, is called "shemira", ensures that a dead body not be left alone until it is buried, a practice connected with the belief, as Reich explains, that the soul hovers over the body of the deceased until it makes contact with the earth, at which time the soul is liberated. Since the process of identification could take up to seven months, these women continued going in shifts to observe shemira with the remains, while "not having the faintest idea" of who the dead were, in an act of extraordinary humanity and generosity.

When it came time for Reich to write "WTC 9/11", he recalled this article, and managed to find two of the women who had participated in the vigil, an experience which apparently enhanced the inspiration for the third movement.

In closing, he reflects on the urgency of the topic "that is not just reflecting back on an event which happened, like a pillar that stands by itself, it's just a marker for a bunch of events that preceded it and have continued to happen in an abundant sense."

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