WTC 9/11: The real problem with putting a photo of the 9/11 attacks on the cover of Steve Reich's…

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July 21 2011 6:50 PM

Looming Towers

The real problem with putting a photo of the 9/11 attacks on an album cover.

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Reich's composition is clearly the product of a mind working on several tracks with respect to 9/11. City-dwellers (as well as cable news watchers) naturally retain distinct memories of watching the buildings fall. But the variety of sources used in the piece suggests we have other intellectual and spiritual concerns about 9/11 worth investigating, beyond the re-enactment of trauma.

The cover art for WTC 9/11 captures none of this complexity. It's crass not because images of 9/11 are automatically crass but because the Nonesuch art department has had to interpret Reich's art very narrowly to let this image stand for the work as a whole. I'm not a graphic designer, but I can think of several more suitable images, suggested by the music, off the top of my head:

1. A phone dangling off the hook (to fit with the opening and closing notes of the piece)

2. Some representation of the women, who, according to the Nonesuch press release "kept vigil, or Shmira, over the dead in a tent outside the Medical Examiner's office, reading Psalms or Biblical passages" and who form the basis for the third movement (which features the reading of Psalms, among other things).

3. A picture of the current hole in the ground where the towers used to stand. (This image—upsetting in its own way—suits that haunting last line of the piece, "and there's the world right here.")

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Composer Timo Andres—himself a Nonesuch recording artist—has already fashioned an alternative cover for WTC 9/11 that simply removes the underlying photograph, preserving the Gotham script. *

For now, there's little known about what led to Nonesuch's decision. (Two emails and a phone message to Nonesuch's PR representative were not returned, nor was an email to Reich's publisher, Boosey & Hawkes.) Also worth noting: there are two other, non-9/11-related Reich pieces on the CD: "Mallet Quartet," and "Dance Patterns," which only makes the choice that much more puzzling.

What a strange mini-tragedy it would be if one of the best albums of 2011 carried some of the most misguided cover art of the year. One of the conventions of live concert reviews in the Village Voice is that the writer has to imagine an alternative experience to which the concert under review was preferable (i.e., "better than seeing Rebecca Black perform neighborhood karaoke to her own music"). When I reviewed the Carnegie premiere of WTC 9/11 for the Voice, I wrote that attending the concert was better than experiencing "the ritual, anniversary replay of news broadcasts from the morning of 9/11." Nonesuch has dragged the experience of WTC 9/11 back toward that all-too-familiar zone. They still have a few weeks to decide whether they really want consumers to think that's where this challenging, surprising piece of music will take them.

Correction, July 22, 2011: This article originally gave the incorrect name for the album cover font. (Return to corrected sentence.) 

Seth Colter Walls is a freelance reporter and critic whose writing has appeared in Newsweek, the Village Voice, the Washington Post and the Awl.

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