Censoring Steve Reich's 9/11 vision

In which our critic opines on the lunacy of self-appointed drive-by critics with nothing substantive to say. Photo: Nonesuch

WASHINGTON, September 11, 2011 – It seems hard to believe, but it’s already been ten years since Middle Eastern terrorists weaponized three commercial jetliners and flew them into the Pentagon, the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center, and—not by intention—flat into an abandoned coal field just outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Timed to coincide with the tail end of a busy morning rush, the attacks were meant to maximize the death toll eagerly anticipated by the crazed religious fanatics who carried them out.

Today’s date, a decade after this monstrous mass murder, is being marked by commemorative ceremonies at all three sites. But sadly, the national unity we all experienced on that bright, sunny, horrendous morning is increasingly missing. And there’s no better evidence of this than the foolish and unfortunate brouhaha surrounding the Nonesuch CD release of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steve Reich’s commemorative composition, WTC 9/11.

Reich, who—along with Philip Glass and John Adams—is among the best known of the American Minimalist composers—was, like virtually all New Yorkers, deeply affected by the events of 9/11. And perhaps a bit more. He lived in an apartment just a few blocks away from the attack site.

Steve Reich cover.

The original Steve Reich/Nonesuch ‘WTC 9/11’ CD cover the Thought Police don’t want you to see. Now you see it.

Reich himself was in Vermont at the time. But, as he points out at the Nonesuch website, “On 9/11 we were in Vermont, but our son, granddaughter, and daughter-in-law were all in our apartment.” In contact with his extended family by phone, he remembers that the “connection stayed open for six hours and our next-door neighbors were finally able to drive north out of the city with their family and ours. For us, 9/11 was not a media event.”

Deeply affected by the tragedy—and by his family’s narrow escape from it—Reich was unable to respond to the event musically until long after the fact. The resulting composition, WTC 9/11, is a short, three-part work that blends live music with the actual recorded sounds of the day’s events playing in background and foreground.

One web-poster elaborates further, noting that Reich “composed the…score with the Kronos Quartet in memory of the terror attacks. The recording includes samples of air traffic controllers, first responders and women who kept vigil over the dead.”

The Nonesuch disc was scheduled to be released, appropriately, today, 9/11/11. But it’s not going to happen. The ever-vigilant Thought Police have seen to that.

For the CD jewel case “album cover,” Reich and Nonesuch chose the striking, iconic Masatomo Kuriya image of the Twin Towers under attack. This classic photo, taken from the Jersey shore, shows one tower already engulfed in billowing, black smoke while, horrifically, the second airliner is poised to strike its twin.

As if to place this image in the haze of collective memory, the cover artist chose to alter the bright colors of this photo by applying a sepia filter to the image and adding faint, horizontal bars, creating the impression that the image is being viewed in a newsroom on a flickering monitor.

The image is simply brilliant. Haunting, evocative, elegiac, it’s an artistically enhanced reprise of that awful, original image adrift in time. It immediately reminded this reviewer of an equally iconic image of the last century: the smoking hulk of the half-sunk battleship Arizona, its crew, along with many others, obliterated by Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. The historic parallels are unavoidable. Both sneak attacks were shocking and horrendous, from the appalling loss of life to the unimaginable destruction. And both galvanized nearly all Americans to oppose the forces of destruction and pursue them so that they might never be able to strike again.

In many ways, however, 1941 was a simpler time. In the midst of today’s ongoing Great Recession, it’s easy to forget that the America of 1941 had never quite exited its own Great Depression. Beaten down economically, most Americans of that time still believed in the greatness of the United States, reacting almost as one to a sudden external act of aggression. It was, perhaps, the high point of what’s come to be known as American exceptionalism.

Today, it didn’t take long for the squabbling to begin after 9/11. Cranks of all stripes created elaborate theories—which they have yet to abandon—blaming either President Bush, the Jews, or both, for staging a murderous hoax to gin up a pretext to attack the Middle East en-masse, the better to assure a steady supply of oil to the capitalist machine.

More subtly, others took it upon themselves to “own” the iconography of 9/11, particularly as it pertains to images of the Twin Towers. Understandably, friends, relatives, and associates of the direct victims of 9/11—particularly those who perished in the towers themselves—have become hair-trigger touchy about how such imagery is used.

Such touchiness has been useful to a point. It blunted and forced a change in the original, Blame America First curational concept that was to illustrate the 9/11 story in the Twin Towers museum (to be dedicated in ceremonies today). And it iced a ridiculously phony multicultural sculpture dedicated to the New York firefighters who perished in the Twin Towers—an insult to the mostly-Irish firefighters who were there.

Yet the touchiness has persisted long past the point of usefulness, which gets us back to Reich’s Nonesuch CD. When advance publicity unveiled the image in early August, a month before the CD’s scheduled release, a small but intense blast of indignation ensued, some of it via the blogosphere and the media, but much of it via the fleeting but omnipresent pulse of Twitter.

For whatever reason, the album cover’s chief, media go-to antagonist was composer Phil Kline, quoted in a number of sources as asserting that WTC 9/11’s cover art was “the first truly despicable album cover that I have ever seen.” The notion is laughable, really, to any connoisseur of rock album covers over the last five decades.

The meme of Reich CD-opponents was pretty much the same whatever the original source. The cover art “commercialized” the tragedy of 9/11 and was therefore despicable. For more over-the-top ridiculous, unsupported-by-the-facts commentary, check here.

The outcry clearly had nothing to do with Reich’s composition. This is its first recording. It was only recently been premiered. And almost certainly, virtually none of the complainers has ever heard the music. The grievance was almost certainly generated by hyper-touchy New Yorkers who’ve appointed themselves guardians of 9/11 imagery, aided and abetted by the media coverage (notably Slate and NPR) of reflexively leftist scolds who don’t want to be reminded that the U.S. is not always the bad guy in the arena of human events. And it’s this latter group that really made the album cover an issue.

Controversy, after all, sells newspapers (to those remaining few who actually read them), click-throughs, whatever. So while Reich’s CD could have quietly gone on sale in the largely unseen classical music community, the media scolds have happily posted the original cover image the better to sell their own bogus stories, a number of them starring Phil Kline, whose standing and authority in this incident is dubious at best. So who’s commercializing whom?

As a serious composer, Kline’s claim to fame has focused most recently on what we would regard as his “stunt” compositions, such as his version of “Silent Night” in which audience-participants toting individual boomboxes randomly blast the Christmas carol into the night. Problem is, American composer Charles Ives did much the same thing a century ago with acoustic instruments, making Kline’s sonic novelties far from original.

More to the point, though, one wonders who appointed Kline or anyone else as the tastemaker of another, arguably greater man’s art or the packaging of the same? And under what authority do either Kline or a batch of nattering Twitterers have the right to censor the artistic expression—including the packaging—of another?

In this case, the artistic community as a whole has plunged itself into a mess of its own making. A great many, if not most, in the written and performing arts world become greatly outraged if, say, Catholics and Christians demand the removal of an offending image from a museum, as in the relatively recent kerfuffle over the “Dung Virgin” exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. That’s censorship. But the Kline-Twitter flap over the Reich CD cover—that’s not?

You can’t have it both ways, although that never seems to perturb many in this community. Making things even more complicated, we never saw much outrage in the arts community over, say, Islamofascist threats against cartoonists who dared to draw “blasphemous images.” One assumes that in this case, real or imagined death threats can quickly alter an artist’s moral outrage.

In Reich’s case, the composer, sadly, took the sensible way out. He’s asked Nonesuch to withdraw the image and Nonesuch has complied. Of necessity, this delays the release of the CD a couple weeks from the 9/11 anniversary, somewhat damaging the release’s historic timeliness which, of course, is of no consequence to Kline and his fellow censors. They all now get to preen themselves in public about their self-righteousness, which, of course, came without any cost to them.

But Reich was gracious about it, realizing perhaps that an army of determined cranks and censors could gratuitously smear this CD release forever. In a statement made to Limelight, he defended the cover art, noting that it “was basically the idea that a documentary piece would have a documentary cover.”

Through Nonesuch, he elaborated: “When the cover was being designed, I believed, as did all the staff at Nonesuch and the art director, that a piece of music with documentary material from an event would best be matched with a documentary photograph of that event. I felt that the photo suggested by our art director was very powerful, and Nonesuch backed me up. All of us felt that anyone seeing the cover would feel the same way.”

Unfortunately, this “stirred up an enormous controversy that I was absolutely amazed to see,” he continued in the Limelight interview. “I couldn’t believe that people wouldn’t just say, ‘well of course, you know, we’re talking about 9/11, so here’s a picture of 9/11.’” Well, believe it, Steve. It’s the censorship of the self-righteous, who claim ownership of 9/11 imagery while denying it, arbitrarily, to others.

As our earlier cited blogger notes, others besides Reich “were surprised too. ‘This is a kind of image we were inundated with for weeks, months, even years after the event,’” he quotes our crosstown colleague Anne Midgette writing in the Washington Post. “‘Newspapers and magazines and television screens and the covers of books were flooded with pictures of towers being hit, towers burning, towers falling, rescue workers with red-rimmed eyes standing numbly amid the rubble of the towers.’ So why, 10 years later, is this cover any different?”

Through Nonesuch, Reich provided his reasons for giving in on the image issue. “As a composer I want people to listen to my music without something distracting them. The present cover of WTC 9/11 will, for many, act as a distraction from listening and so, with the gracious agreement of Nonesuch, the cover is being changed.” But he also noted, as we do here, that the nastiest slandering arose from “people who had never heard the music.” He also noted, tellingly, that audiences who’d actually heard his piece had reacted favorably with virtual unanimity.

Reich concluded that to have this positive reception of his actual music “usurped by the album cover seemed completely wrong. Accordingly, the cover is being changed.” Unfortunately, it appears that the cover will be reduced to using the same lettering on a plain, death-black background, essentially resulting in a far more negative, depressing image than the original, which at once conjured up a sense of horror and hope along with reflection on the past and on the future.

It’s funny. Not many have ever complained about the provocative photo, taken during the Vietnam War, of a South Vietnamese policeman about to shoot a captured Viet Cong member point-blank in the head. Or the photo of the screaming, naked, napalmed Vietnamese girl running for her life. Or of the photos taken portraying the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Or even of that iconic image, both in film and in stills, of the burning battleship Arizona.

Apparently, the Vietnamese and Iraqi photos are okay because they portray America and its allies as imperialists and villains. And the Arizona images are okay because they happened long ago and most of the people who vividly would have remembered them are now in their graves. But the ex-Reich CD art is not okay because … Well, because the self-apointed Puritans of the Thought Police say so. And we’re not allowed to see it because it doesn’t comform to their world view.

There is something very wrong in a society that revels in negative images of itself while ignoring the evil that holds sway in much of the rest of the world by effectively not allowing us to consider it.

Just what kind of society have we allowed ourselves to become?

Steve Reich wanted his commemorative 9/11 piece to remind us of provocative questions like this. Oddly, both Kline and Reich’s other detractors may very well be fine with this notion at least on one level.

But what motivates them to take as their own the choice of how to visually express Reich’s musical idea? 

So who are the censors now?

Who appoints the Thought Police today?

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing insights, visit his WT Communities column, The Prudent Man in Politics. 

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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