Over the past five decades, Steve Reich created and honed a recognizable style that has made him one of today’s top American composers. In the process he has helped propel so-called minimalist music into the mainstream. Reich turns 75 in October and recently composed a work that commemorates the September 11 attacks.
"WTC 9/11," named for The World Trade Center and September 11, debuted just weeks before Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces near Islamabad. Scored for double string quartet and tape, it was performed last week by the Kronos Quartet at New York's Carnegie Hall.
Reich lived a few blocks away from Ground Zero but was hours away from home on September 11, 2001.
"My son, my granddaughter and my daughter-in-law were in our place, four blocks away. My son called about eight-thirty in the morning and said, 'I think they’ve bombed the Trade Center again.' So we all turned on our TV just in time to see the second plane hit and, I said to my son, 'Don’t hang up!' and the phone actually stayed miraculously open for about six hours."
Kronos Quartet had asked Reich to write a piece using recorded voices. At first, Reich was not focused on September 11.
"Finally, after several months, I realized, 'Hey, 9/11, that’s what I need to be doing, and I will simply use the public domain materials from NORAD, the North American air controllers who were the first to notice that [flight] American one was off course and was going south when it should be going west to L.A."
The piece begins with the familiar, yet jarring, sound of a phone off its hook.
"If you don’t hang up soon enough, this very loud, insistent beep takes over," he says. "It turns out, that beep is in F pitchwise, so I thought this is a perfect way to begin this piece. It’s an alarm. It’s like a wake-up call and that’s exactly what 9/11 was."
The tape portion in the first movement consists of voices of the air traffic controllers that Reich manipulated. The second movement brings us to the present. For that, Reich recorded recollections of September 11 by his friends and neighbors.
"Our next-door neighbors’ little girl, who is now 17, said - and that's how the second movement begins - 'I was sitting in class, four blocks north of Ground Zero.' David Lang, a composer and very close friend, said, 'I was taking my kids to school,' and the plane went over his head and right into the building."
For the final movement, Reich was inspired by a Jewish ritual for the dead.
"There is a law in Judaism that from the time of death to the time of burial, you don’t leave a body unattended," he says. "You don’t leave it alone. You’re obliged to sit near the body and recite Psalms or passages from the Bible, which is quite a beautiful thing to do."
In the days following the attack on the World Trade Center, women from synagogues near Ground Zero performed that ritual.
For "WTC 9/11," Reich asked cellist Maya Beiser to chant a verse from the 121st psalm.
In manipulating the recordings, Reich used what he calls stop motion. He came up with the idea in the 70s, but had to wait for technology to catch up.
"Slow motion is a very old cinematic trick or cinematic function of the camera and I always thought, 'Gee, wouldn’t it be great if you could just slow down a recording without turning into Darth Vader,' because in the days of tape recorders, if you slowed something down you lowered its pitch and if you sped it up you raised its pitch. With the advent of computers, gradually the ability to slow or to speed up any musical or non-musical sound without changing its pitch became increasingly possible, and with better and better quality."
Although Reich’s music is widely referred to as minimalist, he rejects that term.
"I think it’s a useful term for journalists. I think it’s a useful term for music historians. But for musicians, I think it’s terrible."
Reich turns 75 on October 3, just weeks after the September 11 anniversary. Birthday commemorations include the Kronos Quartet’s European tour this month, a concert series in Paris and an all-Reich performance by the London Symphony Orchestra.