Carnegie Hall: Did you have the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in mind when you started composing WTC 9/11?
Steve Reich: When I started the piece, I had no idea what it was going to be about. All I knew was that I was going to take vowels that end a word and elongate them. So if someone said, "zero," it would be "zeroooooooo," and the "o" would go on indefinitely. That was the idea. There was no content. I didn't know who was talking. I didn't know what it was about. And for four or five months, it remained that way. I just couldn't figure out what this piece was going to be about. The idea came from Kronos Quartet, who said, "Please write us a piece—the kind that uses pre-recorded voices." I hadn't done anything like that for seven years.
When 9/11 happened—and the reason why I ended up doing the piece—is that for 25 years, we lived four blocks from Ground Zero. On September 11, 2001, my wife Beryl and I were in Vermont, 300 miles north of there, but my son, my granddaughter, and my daughter-in-law were in our place, four blocks away. My son called about 8:30 AM and said, "I think they've bombed the Trade Center again"—he couldn't quite see it from where we lived, but he could hear it. So we all turned on our TV just in time to see the second plane hit, and I said to my son, "Don't hang up!" Miraculously, the phone actually stayed open for about six hours. By 4 PM, our next-door neighbor managed to get his three kids, himself, his wife, my son, my daughter-in-law, and my granddaughter all in his minivan, and drive up to his mother's in Westchester. We had to stay away for the next 30 days because we were below Chambers Street. That was an absolute no-entry zone, even if you lived there. After that, you had to show ID to get in. So, it was not a media event—it was a very personal experience.
It took me about three or four months in 2010 to wake up to the fact that I had, in a sense, unfinished business. By that I mean, when 9/11 happened, people approached me and asked, "Are you going to do a piece about this?" because I had already done Different Trains and The Cave with Beryl, so people knew I would take documentary material and use it in a piece of music. My response was, "Well, you know, not at the moment. I have no ideas about it and I'm very busy with this new piece (Three Tales) and when that's done, I think I'm going to be doing instrumental and vocal music for the indefinite future." And for seven years after Three Tales was completed in 2002, I did nothing but instrumental and vocal music—Cello Counterpoint, You Are (Variations) , Daniel Variations, Variations for Piano, Vibes and Strings, Mallet Quartet, Double Sextet, and 2x5.
So, when Kronos asked, I thought, "Well, it would be interesting to go back to this way of working," because that pushes you to do things that you would not otherwise do, and I felt it would push me into some new territory. Finally, after several months, I realized, "Hey, 9/11. That's what I need to be doing." I used the public domain materials from NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) controllers—who were the first to notice that American Flight 11 was off course and going south when it should be going west to LA—and also the public domain records of the FDNY who were there—the heroes of 9/11, many of whom are not with us anymore. These are actual recordings with the intensity and the grit that is embodied in people who were there who didn't know what was going on. They couldn't see and they couldn't breathe after the first building came down.
I thought that would be a very long first movement. Well, it took three minutes. At the end of the three minutes, I said, "I gotta make it longer." There was no way to make it longer without just padding it, which would be unthinkable. So I said, "Well, now there's going to be a very, very long second movement," and indeed, the second movement is the longest movement in the piece, but still nowhere near as long as I anticipated.
The second movement jumps to 2010—nine years later. I asked my friends and neighbors what they remembered about the day that it happened. Our next-door neighbors' little girl, who is now 17, said, "I was sitting in class, four blocks north of Ground Zero"—and that's how the second movement begins. David Lang, a composer and very close friend, said, "I was taking my kids to school," and the plane went over his head and right into the building. So these remembrances from various people who were living or working in the area comprise the material for the second movement. As David pointed out to me, "WTC" are good initials for a number of things, one of which is obviously the World Trade Center, but another of which is "World to Come."
Part 2 of Steve Reich's response to our question about WTC 9/11 will be published next week.
Related: April 30 Music of Steve Reich