Classical Cover Controversy: Steve Reich's WTC 9/11

By , Columnist

Cover art for recordings of classical music typically features one of three things: paintings, often from the Renaissance or Impressionist periods, that may or may not relate to the music; soothing nature photos; or tasteful portraits of the performers (though sometimes the attempts at taste fall somewhat short of the mark). What you don't usually get is controversy, but that changed this week when the Nonesuch label released the cover art for composer Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11, to be released September 6, in time for the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center attack that the piece is about.

The piece was written for string quartet and recorded voices, and uses actual audio from air traffic controllers and first responders on the day of the attack, as well as prayers recited by women holding vigil over the dead, and words from witnesses and survivors interviewed years later. The Kronos Quartet premiered the piece earlier this year and made the recording as well.

Masatomo KuriyaWTCsq.jpgThe cover art uses photographer Masatomo Kuriya's photo of the second plane flying toward the second tower, while the first tower burns and belches smoke. But the photo has been modified with an overlay of black and brown stains and gritty horizontal lines, obscuring the cloudless blue sky that we remember from that day.

Reaction to the cover has been swift and impassioned, with commenters using words like "vile," "repulsive," and "despicable," though others thought the image fit the subject matter. My impression from reading through comments in various places was that the overwhelming consensus gives a thumbs-down to the image, but a poll featured on one site showed the voting fairly evenly split at the time I viewed it, at about 48% in favor and 51% opposed.

It's not a new thing for a classical composer to address tragic events in a piece of music. A classic example is Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, which combines the Latin Mass text with the anti-war poetry of Wilfrid Owen into both a commemoration and indictment of two world wars. But using an image this graphic -- an image of the actual event, that is, not an artistic representation -- in connection with a piece of classical music is less common.

220px-RageAgainsttheMachineRageAgainsttheMachine.jpgOne commenter made a comparison to Rage Against the Machine's album cover using the iconic self-immolation photo of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức. The commenter has a point; it's just that the classical world isn't accustomed to that level of shock. But maybe it should be.

Another arts blogger asks, "What do we want from our artists in terms of providing meaning to the world we live in?" I think we need artists to mediate painful experiences and give us works that help us process and commemorate them. There's always the risk of crossing a line into sensationalism, but that's just one of the hazards of the job.

I do find this cover disturbing; that's a real plane about to hit a real building, resulting in the deaths of real people. And while we can't pretend it didn't happen, I have mixed feelings about how often and it what context the photographic evidence should be viewed. But my main objection to this cover is that there is very little actual art in it. Throwing some lines and dark shadows over a familiar photo doesn't help me come to terms with what happened that day. I would prefer either the undoctored original photo, or a work of art that gets much further from any literal source material - something far more transformative.

From available descriptions, it seems that the music itself does that. A writer at Slate who has heard a live performance of the piece remarks that the cover art doesn't capture the level of complexity resulting from how the composer grapples with his source material, and makes his own suggestions for more suitable imagery.

I also agree with another commenter who noted, "What I dislike about the cover is the prominence of [the composer's] name across such an iconic, powerful image; in fact, I find that belittling of the moment much more offensive than the use of the picture."

Ultimately, of course, the music is what matters, and I'm looking forward to hearing the piece when the recording is released.

What do you think? Does the image fit the topic, or is it in poor taste?

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Miss Music Nerd is the nom de net of Linda Kernohan, composer, pianist and music journalist. Her music has been played across the U.S. and Europe, and she has performed in a wide variety of venues, from a West Hollywood nightclub to the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican. She also writes at missmusicnerd.com…

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