Steve Reich: WTC: 9/11, A Threnody for Four Strings

After the start of a turbulent New Year, the summer of 2001 held the promise of calm harbor. But far offshore, a Category 5 hurricane of human tragedy was gathering and moving unnoticed toward the Eastern Seaboard. 

The millenialist dystopians had only recently re-emerged from their psychic caves into the summer sun; the Luddite doomsaysers, who had prophesied a worldwide Y2K meltdown, had finally gone off their meds and reached for sunscreen; even the U.S. body politic had come to accept the surreal result of a presidential election determined by sunny Florida’s “hanging chads” and validated by an “impartial” U.S. Supreme Court. And the occupant of the Oval Office, the silver-spooned heir of a fabled political family, was finally becoming comfortable behind the historic Resolute Desk, confident in his own bronzed demeanor.

And then, on a clear, late-summer morning in early September at exactly 8:46 a.m., an American Airlines Boeing 767 passenger jet with 76 passengers, 11 crew and five hijackers crashed into the northern face of the north tower of the World Trade Center. At 9:03 a.m., a United Airlines Boeing 767 passenger jet with 51 passengers, nine crew and five hijackers crashed into the southern face of the south tower of the World Trade Center.

There was a diabolic symmetry at work, the use of two benign mass-transport vehicles as weapons of mass destruction to destroy twin citadels of international commerce. Within one hour and 42 minutes, both towers collapsed. The death count eventually reached 2,996. American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the west side of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field near Shanksville, Penn.

Sept. 11, 2001, became a day of death from the sky from attacks by foreign invaders, and it, along with the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that killed 2,403, will forever, in the words of President Roosevelt, “live in infamy” in this country’s history.

Public tragedy drops through a slowly sifting temporal hourglass, deposited as humanity’s undifferentiated “sands of time.” It may seem impossible to conceive, especially for those of us whose eyes and brains are seared even 18 years out from that day, that an endless loop of the cascading towers, debris and dust rushing through the streets of lower Manhattan like a river topping its levees, this day-mare, continues to stalk our hearts and minds. 

The animating reason I decided to write this post now is that I was incredulous, even by the debased standards of what passes as national executive action today, to read the relentless Twitter storm dominating the network news feeds on this most recent Sept. 11, a stream that offered scant reflection on the anniversary of that awful day. Further insults to the nation followed with false claims of assistance at the scene by the same tweeter. 

This recalls the question, “Where were you when the first plane struck the World Trade Center?” All Americans have a personal story that we will pass down to our grandchildren. Here is mine. I cite it not as an exceptional one, but as a particularly dark, ironic metaphor of the fragility of what we proudly call “civilization.”

I was in Dublin, Ireland, having returned from teaching a master class in film at the Galway Film Centre. I had just left the historic Long Room of Trinity College Library and was standing before the Book of Kells, the ninth-century vellum, illuminated manuscript of the four canonic Gospels. This book, one of the glories of Christian civilization, is an embodiment of the creative heritage and continuity of the Western world. Thirty-two hundred miles to the west, American Airlines Flight 11 struck the WTC; at that moment, I was hunkered over a gilt letter on a page of the Gospel of Mark. 

Leaving the library and walking across the park, I saw a crowd spilling out of a pub, their eyes riveted to a television screen inside. My American accent betrayed my origin when I asked what was happening. I watched the Dubliners recoil as we saw the south tower collapse. I ran to catch a passing bus back to my B&B in Donnybrook and didn’t leave the room’s television for three days.

While the first responders compromised their own fragile lives on “the pile,” searching for survivors and then remains, most of the creative community was too incredulous to reflect. Even years later, the arts are struggling to find articulation of the event and its lasting effects on us.

The German painter Gerhard Richter, whose life was partial referent in last year’s Oscar-nominated film Never Look Away, began a painting in 2003 about the WTC collapse. He briefly abandoned the work, titled September, but finally exhibited it in 2005 in Manhattan’s Marion Goodman Gallery. It is the subject of a post I wrote in January 2010.

Gerhard Richter's "September"
Gerhard Richter's "September"

In 2009, the Kronos Quartet commissioned American composer Steve Reich to write a piece they would perform as a memorial to 9/11. It is a three-movement work lasting about 15 minutes, and it uses the quartet’s traditional string instruments as well as the pre-recorded voices of responders and witnesses. 

Steve Reich (foreground left) with members of the Kronos Quartet.
Steve Reich (foreground left) with members of the Kronos Quartet.

A decade later, this piece is proving, perhaps, to be the most significant artistic work reflecting that tragedy. It is only through music that we can so engage the human soul. Reich explains the work here.

What really matters is to experience the music itself. There are several recordings available. I am sharing one by the Spanish Cuarteto Quiroga, a live performance from Madrid’s Fundación Juan March on April 27, 2016. Unlike some other performances, it does not allow the voices to dominate; this is a true dialogue of music and voice, insistent yet deeply moving. Reich’s fellow composer Steven Lang pointed out to Reich that the initials WTC also mean the “World to Come,” but also evoke J.S. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, another landmark of Western music.

The world after 9/11 has become ever more disruptive, divisive, even threatening to planetary survival — we human beings are the architects of our own demise. As we look toward our leaders in Washington, we can’t help but wonder how much the balm offered by art truly matters in any collective sense. 

This is the ineffable reflection I had in the days following 9/11 as I sat stupefied in my small room in Donnybrook. I found no solace there, only insistent news updates of the smoking ruins and ragged, steel skeletons thrust against the summer sky. Let us pray this is not the “World to Come.”  

Next:

Robert Frank in His Own Words

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