The first controversial hurdle this release had to leap over was its cover. Prior to its release, the Steve Reich/Kronos Quartet collaboration WTC 9/11, Mallet Quartet, Dance Patterns was under attack for using a specific photograph from the September 11 terrorist attacks, one that people probably want to forget. Instead of showing the second United Airlines flight just milliseconds away from smashing into the second tower, Nonesuch opted for a more cryptic image of billowing debris clouds. The target of censorship was a little weird in this case since neither Reich nor Kronos have ever been perceived as exploiters out for a quick buck. But everyone’s collective shudder at these images just reminds us that we are human, and we all probably have sickening memories of that day. The three-movement suite “WTC 9/11,” commissioned by the Kronos Quartet and composed by Steven Reich, demands that you face those ugly memories from new perspectives—control tower recordings, panicked hollers to a dispatcher from ground zero, and stories told from eyewitnesses. The rest of the CD is reserved for two unrelated compositions, “Mallet Quartet” for the Sō Percussion ensemble and “Dance Patterns” for the film Counterphrases of de Keersmaeker’s Choreography. If you look at the cover you’ll see the name Kronos Quartet on the bottom right. Pop it in your computer and your software will recognize it as a Kronos Quartet release and alphabetize it under ‘K.’ Yet Kronos’s contribution accounts for less than 50% of the music on this release. Not to belittle the contributions of Sō Percussion or the musicians gathered to perform “Dance Pattern,” but that’s the amount of power the “WTC 9/11” suite wields. It is bound to overshadow anything standing next to it.
“WTC 9/11” is actually written for three string quartets and prerecorded tape. As is the case with many of Steve Reich’s double or triple compositions, the string quartet here plays against two recordings of themselves while voices from NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), the Fire Department of New York, and people around the neighborhood drive the narrative. The speech inflections of those speaking are matched by the strings and sometimes provide a recurring melodic theme. The first movement, “9/11,” features voices from NORAD and FDNY on that fateful day. The music starts by the strings mimicking the warning tone a phone gives you when you’ve left it off the hook for too long. This continues as the music grows more and more tense, following the plane’s diversion from its route to the calls of “mayday” as rubble fell around rescue workers. What’s especially troubling to listen to are the NORAD recordings warning “They came from Boston – Goin’ to L.A. – and they’re headed south – They’re goin’ the wrong way…no contact with the pilot whatsoever.” The prickly thing about this is that you know more about what’s to come than the air traffic controllers at the time. You know those expressions of blood turning cold or a chill shooting through your bones? I don’t know what kinds of temperature fluctuations human blood can go through, but I’m pretty sure I’ve felt it every time I’ve heard these voices.
The second movement, “2010,” is people recounting their stories from nine years prior. These are people who live, work, or go to school near the financial district and were directly affected by the events of that day. The voices are calmer by this point, naturally, but the music is no less tense. It appears to be pacing itself more than the first movement seeing as that it is twice as long. Reich’s signature moves continue to play a prominent role in the piece, especially when the low end string instruments use syncopated eighth notes to accompany the story of the ground’s vibration and subsequent collapse of the first tower. As one person discusses the silence that followed the collapse, Kronos naturally brings the dynamics down several notches. The last voice rhetorically asks “What’s gonna happen here next?” The movement certainly doesn’t resolve harmonically.
The last movement gets to play on a double meaning. “WTC” can either mean “World Trade Center” or “World to Come.” This is the point in the story where a cantor and a cellist watch over the dead bodies that were being kept in a tent in east Manhattan. Properly identifying so many bodies was a problem and many of them stayed in the tent for months. In Judaism, there is a practice called Shmira where one sits near a dead body to keep the soul company as it hovers above the body, waiting for a proper burial. A Jewish cantor tells her story of singing Psalms all night for the dead bodies all through the night, every night. In this case, they were passages from Psalms and Exodus: “The Eternal will guard your departure and your arrival from now till the end of time” and “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared” respectively, both sung in Hebrew. They are of little comfort to the man who pessimistically states “The world to come / I don’t really know what that means / and there’s the world right here.” The final note has a terse, cinematic feel to it, reminding the listener that our collective future is as uncertain as the future we faced that day.
The other two pieces featured on the CD seem so slight after all of the above. But not only are they emotionally outweighed by “WTC 9/11,” but “Mallet Quartet” and “Dance Patterns” sound like so many other Steve Reich compositions that they just come and go without leaving an impression. “WTC 9/11” can’t help but leave an impression. “Mallet Quartet” follows Riech’s usual three-movement formula ( 1. Fast 2. Slow 3. Fast) that includes slam-on-the-brakes tempo shifts and equally abrupt key changes. It’s scored for two marimbas and two vibraphones, the former giving the composer some trepidation since he has never written for five-octave marimbas. He had nothing to worry about since, for better or worse, “Mallet Quartet” comes across like so many other minimalist percussion works (A DVD included in the package shows Sō Percussion performing the piece live in their rehearsal space – nothing else occupies the DVD). “Dance Patterns” offers a little more color than the last piece, though the vibraphones and xylophones accompanying the piano give it a familiar ring. It goes through the same sorts of changes, albeit faster, packing multiple movements in just six minutes.
Last year I had the chance to review a recording of Steven Reich’s Pulitzer prize-winning composition “Double Sextet.” And as much as I liked the piece itself, I felt that the corresponding work that filled the rest of the CD, “2x5,” dragged down my overall impression, and consequently, the grade I gave it. The same thing happens here. “Mallet Quartet” and “Dance Patterns” feel inconsequential on their own and even more so when sharing CD space with “WTC 9/11.” But that’s the way it goes with these extended works. A weak link doesn’t always equal a weak release, but it still weakens it all the same. The focus of WTC 9/11, Mallet Quartet, Dance Patterns is and always will be the Kronos Quartet’s recording of “WTC 9/11,” a brief fifteen-minute suite that will never sort out the overall inhumanity of that sunny Tuesday morning but may help you face that decade-old demon hidden in the dust clouds.