Earlier this year, Carnegie Hall celebrated the 75th birthday of composer Steve Reich. That concert included the New York premiere by Kronos Quartet of Reich's WTC 9/11.
Originally published in April of this year, the composer explains the background to the piece, and his close connection to the events of that day 10 years ago.
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."
There was an incident that happened in the days following 9/11 which caught my attention. It struck me as a very beautiful response to the whole thing. There is a law in Judaism called shemira, which requires that from the time of death to the time of burial, you don't leave a body unattended. Someone is obliged to sit near the body and recite Psalms or passages from the Bible, which is quite a beautiful thing to do.
I heard that people from a synagogue on the Upper West Side—pretty far away from where the bodies were taken to on the east side of Manhattan—started coming down there in shifts so that the bodies would be attended at all times. But there was a problem for them because they were many, many, many blocks away and on the Sabbath—from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown—if you're really observant, you don't take the subway or the bus or a cab. You walk. Well, it turned out that in that neighborhood is Stern College—the women's college of Yeshiva University—and there were several women there who said, "We'll do it. We can walk over on the Sabbath, no problem." And they did.
Somehow this got to the attention of the fire department and the police who were there. They were moved by this, and The New York Times published an article about it, which is how I discovered the whole thing. And it stuck in my head.
When I started doing this, I began to think, "Well, I'd like to interview some of the women who did this," and it turned out I was able to do that with two of the women who took part. The practice is to recite the words in Hebrew or English. It would be nice to chant them or sing them, but the tradition for chanting or singing sounds is lost in the West. So I went to cellist Maya Beiser, for whom Cello Counterpoint was written. Maya has a good voice, and she's an Israeli, so her Hebrew is impeccable. When her mother passed away, she did this for her mother and also played Kol Nidre on her cello for her. I told her the whole story and said, "Would you say this part of the 121st Psalm?" She said she'd love to. So Maya chanted this one verse from the 121st Psalm several times, and I recorded it and made a two-voice and a three-voice canon out of it.
Throughout the piece, the strings are doubling the voice-speech melody, holding these long tones at the end of what they say—"He came from Bostonnnnnnn"—and the cello is doubling the voice of the speaker from NORAD. When Maya sings, the strings double her as well. I've never done a speech piece where somebody actually sang and it has quite a different effect. Then [composer] David Lang's voice comes in, saying, "The World to Come." Immediately after that, I recorded Cantor Sherwood Goffin—the cantor of the Lincoln Square Synagogue—chanting part of the wayfarer's prayer from Exodus. "Behold I send an angel before you to guard you and to lead you to the place that I have prepared," which is, I think, a pretty beautiful thing to say in the presence of a body that's going—well, you really don't know where. And he sings that in the traditional Torah trope, but in this case I asked, "Let's make it in C major," and he did.
And then when he finishes and holds the last cadence on C, there's a return, a sudden return to the very beginning of the piece. I think everybody in the audience will jump out of their seats a little bit. Did you ever notice when you have your telephone off the hook? First you get a recording, "Please hang up." And if you don't hang up soon enough, this very loud, insistent beep takes over. Not like an ordinary busy signal. It's, like, "WILL YOU PLEASE HANG UP YOUR PHONE???!!?" Well, it turns out that beep is in F, pitch-wise, so I thought this would be a perfect way to begin this piece. It's an alarm—like a wake-up call—and that's exactly what 9/11 was. So the piece begins with that pulse from the telephone, doubled by the first violin playing an F and the second violin playing an E natural, so you've got this minor second at the very beginning of the piece. And at the very end, after the cantor has sung this perfect C-major cadence, this pulsing F with the two violins and the minor second jumps back in and you're back in F minor, where the piece began.
Hear WTC 9/11 in its entirety on NPR Music First Listen.