Steve Reich on WTC 9/11 Part 2 of 2
In the second part of his response to our question about the conception of his new piece WTC 9/11, composer Steve Reich explains how he was inspired by the Jewish funeral ritual of shemira ("guarding"), as practiced in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
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.
Related: April 30 Music of Steve Reich