Reich turns page on 9/11 CD cover

To follow the Yuja Wang dress flap, here’s yet another controversy about the often fraught relationship between image, marketing, and exploitation in classical music.

For the cover of the premiere recording of his searing piece “WTC 9/11” on Nonesuch, Steve Reich selected an image of the burning towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001: a stark image of horror unfolding on a beautiful day. When the cover image was first released in July, in advance of the Sept. 20 release, there was tremendous outcry from people who felt this was a disrespectful and disturbing use of the photograph -- so much so that, as Reich announced Thursday morning in a statement on the Nonesuch website, the cover of the CD is being changed.

The 9/11 attacks led to a wide-scale confluence of the personal and the political in a culture that’s already increasingly inclined to take a proprietary air toward tragedy and public expression. A recent article in the New York Times, in the vanguard of the coming flood of 9/11-related stories as the 10th anniversary approaches, talked about the difficulty of diagnosing PTSD in the wake of the attacks: how involved did you personally have to be to experience “trauma”? (The article gave one estimate of 10,000 cases.) Figuring out how to respect the personal anguish of others and not step on any toes in the wake of such a wide-reaching event has been a crux of the tormented debate around the rebuilding of Ground Zero, the most visible sign of the nation’s efforts to process its agony: you can’t put a mosque there! and you can’t put a cross there, either! It will cause pain!

The thing about “WTC 9/11” is that Reich -- who lived in downtown Manhattan when the towers fell -- has written a piece of music that is about exactly the process of dealing with tragedy: the way people gradually work the overwhelming reality of what happened to them on that day into a story that can be told, and made their own. (I reviewed this piece when the Kronos Quartet played it at the University of Maryland this spring.) To me, the original image on the cover, which was selected with input from the composer, clearly reflects the content of the album (which is actually pretty rare, in this field). It takes the original photograph, by Masatomo Kuriya, and gives it a memorializing patina, as if setting it in bronze, or tinging it with a sepia that transforms it from the arena of reportage into history.

I’m surprised, and I’m sure Reich was surprised, at the reaction. After all, this is a kind of image we were inundated with for weeks, months, even years after the event: newspapers and magazines and television screens and the covers of books were flooded with all manner of pictures of towers being hit, towers burning, towers falling, rescue workers standing numbly amid the rubble of the towers, with red-rimmed eyes. The glut of images was part of the initial phase of processing what had happened: every morning, the front page of the paper or the TV screen was there to remind you, Yes, it really did. It really did.

Reich certainly isn’t making light of this process. “WTC 9/11” is a terrific, powerful, moving piece. Nor is it an isolated event in his oeuvre. While he’s done lots of work that’s apolitical, he has written pieces dealing with the Holocaust (“Different Trains”); the religious views of Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans (“The Cave”); and, on commission, the murder of Daniel Pearl (“Daniel Variations”). “WTC 9/11” is not sensationalist or attention-grabbing or opportunistic, any more than John Adams’s 9/11 piece, “On the Transmigration of Souls,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

So why is this cover, in the words of the composer Phil Kline, “the first truly despicable classical album cover that I have ever seen”? Why is it exploitation to present an image that achingly painful but eminently germane to the piece of music that accompanies it?

It seems to me that the pain of the experience bleeds over into our response to the image: this picture evokes a strong reaction, so it must be bad. I even wonder if some boundary confusion hasn’t taken place between art and journalism. We know it’s wrong when a newspaper doctors a photo of a real event; so to alter a news image for a CD cover seems to some people equally inauthentic. We know it’s wrong to merchandise certain images for profit -- putting, for instance, a picture from Haiti or Somalia or Afghanistan on a mug or T-shirt -- so to mass-produce an image on a CD cover, a form of entertainment, seems to some people inherently base.

I don’t think Reich and Nonesuch advocated the use of this image lightly or unthinkingly. I believe that the image is completely in line with the honorable point of a powerful work. But Reich is also right to recognize that the feelings surrounding this issue are so supercharged that the impassioned outcry arising in the name of defending them can obscure the integrity of the original debate.

In Reich’s statement on Thursday, he said, “As a composer I want people to listen to my music without something distracting them. The present cover of WTC 9/11 will, for many, act as a distraction from listening and so… the cover is being changed.”

It’s the right decision. But the debate is, for me, a warning that, in the well-meaning wish to guard everyone’s feelings, we risk losing sight of the inherent transformative process of a work of art.

What do you think? Was the original cover in poor taste? Was Nonesuch right to change it?

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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