Steve Reich revisits tragedy with 'WTC 9/11'

A few minutes before 9 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001, Steve Reich was awakened by a phone call from his son, Ezra, who lived in the family's apartment five blocks from the World Trade Center. The composer and his wife, Beryl Korot, a video artist, had been asleep in their rural home in Vermont.

Reich clicked on the TV and saw the second plane crash into the South Tower. He and Korot were shot with panic. "Don't hang up," Reich instructed Ezra, who was 23 and lived with his wife, Davies, and their 1-year-old daughter, Orah. "Keep the phone line open."

The first tower collapsed and Ezra yelled. A massive cloud of debris enshrouded the apartment. "It's black, it's completely black," he cried out. Reich told him disposable dust masks were stored in the apartment. "Put them on the baby, your wife and yourself," he said.

In his frightened mind's eye, all Reich could see was the radio tower atop the World Trade Center crashing down on his family's building.

Late in the afternoon, a neighbor managed to find his car and drive Ezra, Davies, and Orah out of Manhattan. A desperately relieved Reich met them at a relative's house in upstate New York.

Two weeks ago, as Reich, 74, recounted his native New York's darkest day, the dread in his voice gave way to satisfaction. On April 6 at Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, the pied pipers of innovative music, the Kronos Quartet, will perform his new work, "WTC 9/11," a signature Reich piece that blends pulsating strings with recorded voices from people at Ground Zero.

Sitting on a sofa in his airy, Modernist house in a woody hamlet in New York's Westchester County, Reich was anxious to describe his new work. But before he did, he wanted to make something clear about 9/11. "This was not some media event for me," he said. "It was a terrifying personal experience that I will never forget."

Personal directness is the heart of Reich's music and influence. In the late 1960s, Reich revolutionized classical music, which had become too academic, by stripping it down to an emotional core, said composer David Lang in a recent interview. Lang, 54, won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2008. "The lesson of Steve's music was: If you have something to say, just say it."

Reich pioneered a new minimalist sound in American music by writing simple patterns. Played on percussion, or keyboards, the repetitious patterns gradually changed, like the sound of a stream, weaving a spell over listeners. Reich's style of minimalism, said composer John Adams, "was the most important stylistic breakthrough in the latter 20th century."

Retaining hypnotic rhythms at the heart of his compositions, Reich went on fashion rich harmonies and melodies with brilliant arrays of instruments. His 1976 masterpiece, "Music for 18 Musicians," creates a magic ride on the pulsating tones of marimbas and pianos, clarinets and female voices. His 2009 chamber work, "Double Sextet," won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Like no American composer before or after him, Reich reanimated recorded voices into scintillating tones and pitches. His sources have stemmed from the Bible and the poems of William Carlos Williams, biologist Richard Dawkins and journalist Daniel Pearl.

Since the early '70s, Reich's musical influence has been undeniable. Those minimalist repititions, subtle counterpoints and mesmerizing harmonies that course through the music of artists from Adams to Pat Metheny, Brian Eno to Radiohead, spring from Reich's pioneering works.

This year, to marking Reich's 75th birthday, major concert halls in New York, London, Paris and Krakow, Poland, are holding festivals devoted to his music.

Creating art out of an event like 9/11, Reich knows, is a risky game. Artistic imagination can peter out in the fathomless depths of tragedy, and sentimentality can leave audiences feeling cheated and sad.

The solution, Reich said, was composing from experience, in the fire of emotion, telling a personal story. "If music doesn't come out of emotional intensity," he said, "that music doesn't last."

Reich had ventured into the hell of history before with "Different Trains," his 1988 work that summons the Holocaust. But as he explained, "'Different Trains' didn't start with the Holocaust; it started with the fact I had divorced parents." In the late 1930s, Reich, then a little boy, and his nanny frequently traveled on a train between New York and Los Angeles, where his respective parents lived.

Commissioned for the Kronos Quartet, who play it ferociously, the story of a boy on a train crossing America conjures up a boy on a different train, crossing Europe. "What was going on in the world at that time?" Reich asked rhetorically. "Hitler was trying to take every little Jewish boy like me off to Poland. If I was born in Germany, I wouldn't be sitting around talking to the L.A. Times."

Reich said that when he received a commission in 2010 from the Kronos Quartet, who wanted an electronic piece with recorded voices, "I was absolutely blank about what the subject matter would be." Four long months passed until he had his epiphany. "I have unfinished business," he said he thought. "I haven't dealt with 9/11."

"The experience of writing 'WTC 9/11' had more surprises than almost any piece I can remember writing," Reich said. "It wanted to be terse. It wanted to be understated. It's very intense subject matter and you don't need much to feel it."

The three-movement piece opens with a violin drone in F, the note a phone makes when left off the hook. The strings then amplify recorded voices, edited to evocative sentences. They include the voice of the first ambulance driver to arrive at the World Trade Center and an air traffic controller who rhythmically utters, "No contact with the pilot, no contact with the pilot whatsoever."

Reich acquired the voices of emergency officials from public-domain sources. He also made recordings of those who lived near the World Trade Center, including his son's neighbor, who eerily states in the piece, "Suddenly it was black outside."

Reich also includes his friend and fellow composer Lang. On 9/11, Lang was walking his son Ike, then 7, and daughter Thea, then 5, to school, three blocks from the World Trade Center. The first plane flew directly over their heads, causing them to duck and run for cover. In the piece, Lang's voice slowly declaims, "I was walking my kids to school."

("Of course it's a really serious piece and a heavy event, and it's really horrible," Lang said. "But God, my voice is in a piece by Steve Reich. I can get hit by a bus now!")

The closing movement draws on Reich's devotion to Judaism. It honors the Jewish tradition of shmira, in which a person watches over a dead body and sings or recites psalms or biblical verses. As Reich explained, prayers keep the neshama, or soul, company until the body is buried. "And after burial the neshama is free to go wherever it's going to go."

In the days and weeks after 9/11, Jewish volunteers sat shmira beside bodies, and body parts, stored in tents outside the New York City medical examiner's office. Reich interviewed some of the volunteers, whose voices are heard in the piece, as is the voice of Israel-born cellist Maya Beiser, who sings a psalm verse.

On March 19, Kronos premiered "WTC 9/11" at Duke University (the first New York performance will be next month). "It was an astonishing experience," said violinist and Kronos founder David Harrington. "Not only are you taken back to those early moments of Sept. 11, you're taken forward to the way people are dealing with that event. I think Steve accomplishes something very rare. And that is a transformation of that collective experience."

Harrington said playing "WTC 9/11" moved him as profoundly as playing "Different Trains." He could feel the music coming from the same deep place in the composer, which perhaps he helped inspire.

"It's interesting how memory works," Harrington offered. He explained he had not asked Reich to compose an electronic work with voices. "What I really asked him was, did he think it would be possible to make a bookend to 'Different Trains?' I didn't know what that would mean. I was talking about an emotional bookend. The idea of voices didn't come into my question at all."

Reich acknowledged he had listened to Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning composition about 9/11, "On the Transmigration of Souls," which employs voices from family members of 9/11 victims. But Reich was quick to stress his taut, minimalist work bore no resemblance to Adams' symphonic one.

"John is very much indebted to Sibelius and Mahler," Reich said. "And he's a master at working with the orchestra. But the way he uses the [9/11] sources is very coloristic and big. It's nice, but it's not something, obviously, I would do."

Despite his weighty subjects, Reich possesses a lighter side, which he displayed as he offered a tour of his house. He and his wife fell in love with the geometric house the moment they saw it in 2006. When they discovered it was built by the same architect who designed the Manhattan synagogue where they were married, "We thought, 'Wow, this is fate,'" Reich said. He was also delighted to learn that "The Blackboard Jungle" author Evan Hunter, better known by his detective-novel pseudonym, Ed McBain, had lived here.

As Reich stepped into his composing room, where the score for Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" sat on his piano, he said it was gratifying when musicians acknowledged his influence. (In addition to "WTC 9/11," the April 6 program of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, features the Kronos playing a roster of works by contemporary composers inspired by Reich, including Laurie Anderson and Bryce Dessner of the National.) "But if you really want to know what's most gratifying of all, it's that people all over the world are playing my music," he said.

And would all the performances of his music this year cause him to reflect on his storied career? "Oh, no," he said. "I just hope, God willing, I live for several more years. I'm on the five-year plan now. Because that's the way the classical music world works. Every five years, after you get to be 60, you get an extra boost of birthday concerts."

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