For the cover of the premiere recording of his searing piece “WTC 9/11” on the Nonesuch label, 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 first appeared in July, in advance of the Sept. 20 CD release, there was a tremendous outcry from people who felt this was a disrespectful and disturbing use of the photograph — so much so that, as Reich announced Thursday in a statement on the Nonesuch Web site , the CD’s cover is being changed.
The Sept. 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 talked about the difficulty of diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder 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 aftermath 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 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/
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