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 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 in the spring.) To my eye, the original image on the cover, which was selected with input from the composer, clearly reflects the content of the album. 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 moves 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 pictures of towers being hit, towers burning, towers falling, rescue workers with red-rimmed eyes standing numbly amid the rubble of the towers. 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.
So why, 10 years later, is this CD 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 is 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 whether some boundary confusion has 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 point of view of a powerful and moving work. But it’s also clear that feelings about this issue are so supercharged that the impassioned outcry arising in the name of defending them can obscure the integrity of the original debate.
Reich feels that way too. In his 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 red flag 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.
This article originally appeared on Anne Midgette’s blog, the Classical Beat, www.washingtonpost.com/
blogs/classical-beat, The Washington Post’s one-stop online source for classical music news, reviews and opinions.