Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Question of When

When I interviewed every friend and every neighbor I asked them one question which never appears in the piece, which is, "Do you think this could happen again? And do you think it could happen again in New York?" and everyone said, "Do I think it could happen again? It's not a question of it, it's a question of when!
- Steve Reich

I'm still thinking a lot about Steven Reich's WTC 9/11, which I wrote about in July. Now that I've had more time to digest the music itself I want to elaborate a little bit more on those arguments, especially now that it easy to listen to the whole thing on the NPR web site and there has been a flurry of well-timed publicity. As I wrote in the earlier post, the central question for me is this: what is this act of remembrance and mourning trying to accomplish? The more I get a sense of what he is trying to accomplish, I don't think I like it.

The obvious structuring element of WTC 9/11 are the sampled voices, what Reich calls "documentary materials." The first movement features recordings of voices, including elements from the attack itself—air traffic controllers, fire department radio communications. The second features interviews with friends and neighbors. The third hinges upon latter-day recordings of women who sat shemira for the unidentified bodies.

All ove this is set against a very typical-sounding (I have to hedge a little bit, because I don't have a score) Reichian pulse. As in Different Trains, instruments imitate the melodic contours of those snippets. There are some new techniques as well. The second movement features a technique that Reich explains in his Guardian interview. Phonemes from certain words are digitally extended into a long drone, so that for example the "n" sound at the end of "plane" becomes a humming sound, the "s" sound at the end of "chaos" becomes a long sibilance. In the interview Reich seems pleased to have invented this, but fans of the avant-garde will immediately think of Robert Ashley's 1967 sonic portrait of alienation "She Was a Visitor," which achieved the same effect with a choir rather than a computer. In both Ashley and Reich, the sound of a droning phoneme is unsettling and foreboding.

In a NY Times video interview, Reich explains why he used prerecorded voices. It would be "vulgar," he says, to write a 9/11 "musical fantasy" that consisted only of his own perspectives. He claims a kind of documentary impulse, just recording what happened. Just the facts, ma'am.

In that Guardian interview, which I very much recommend listening to, Reich doubles down on this kind of rhetoric, explicitly connecting it to his 1960s tape works like Come Out, where the musical story is about the voices of real people without composerly intervention. And he goes further with a somewhat mystic appeal to the musical characteristics of their speech as some kind of repository of truth. (paging Wagner!)

I'm a big fan of Reich's music. He's always appealed to my inner classicist, the part of me that really gets into the aggro-aesthetic autonomy of Music for Eighteen Musicians or indeed the Mallet Quartet included on the Nonesuch release. I don't seriously buy that claim of aesthetic autonomy, but doing so at least fits into a certain kind of tradition. However, it's just bizarre how he's trying to do the same thing for something like WTC.

Of course these voices are not just neutral facts. Reich chose them; he even specially recorded some of them. And having chose them, he set them musically so as to reflect his own point of view. It shouldn't bug me this much, but it annoys me how he evades responsibility for what his own music does. Because it's not hard to figure out. Sumanth Gopinath has written brilliantly on the cultural politics of Reich's music, and I draw on him here to point out Reich's political transformation from radical artist of the 1960s, to professionalized composer of the 1970s, to his current position. The most obvious aspect of his music of the past few decades is his exploration of Jewish themes, but as Gopinath points out there is also an ever-present concern with apocalyptic thinking: the Holocaust, Islamic fundamentalism, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, nuclear bombs, and now the second WTC attack.

This compositional voice is relentlessly pessimistic and negative. Just to take one example, my former student Ben Norris wrote a great paper about Desert Music, in which Reich takes the poem of William Carlos Williams—an ambivalent but not-pessimistic mediation on the possibility of renewal after the nuclear desert—and turns it into a nightmare of sirens and impending doom. And this is of course also what happens in WTC 9/11. He uses these documentary materials and the various techniques of musical anxiety because he wants us to return the listener to the fear and anxiety of that day.

Which he actually makes quite clear in that NPR interview, quoted at the top of this entry. It's the invisible logic behind the piece—as he says, never appearing in the work itself. For Reich terrorism is imminent, and the lesson of 9/11 is the need for vigilance. That is, of course, exactly the sort of mourning promoted so effectively by the Bush administration in the first decade of the twenty-first century. It's a kind of mourning that calls for a fundamental transformation of country into one governed by paranoia and a permanent state of war. As many, many people have pointed out, it entails a radical reaction against those "American values" supposedly being defended. Which Reich seems quite content with. As he said recently, "I've actually come to dislike all cities and particularly New York." What a turn of events there! Terrorism might indeed strike New York again, but Reich isn't going down with that sinking ship.

Let me just end with a quote from a much wiser composer, Aaron Copland's famous speech at the 1949 Waldorf-Astoria peace conference. It's a famous quote from the dawn of the Cold War, and one that I discuss at length in my own scholarship on American music during McCarthyism. Different era, but it seems to me a very relevant warning:
Artists, by definition, hate all wars—hot or cold. But lately I’ve been thinking that the cold war is almost worse for art than the real thing—for it permeates the atmosphere with fear and anxiety. An artist can function at his best only in a vital and healthy environment for the simple reason that the very act of creation is an affirmative gesture. An artist fighting in a war for a cause he holds just has something affirmative he can believe in. That artist, if he can stay alive, can create art. But throw him into a mood of suspicion, ill-will, and dread that typifies the cold war attitude and he’ll create nothing.

h/t Kendra for the Deutsche Welle interview.