WTC 9/11, Mallet Quartet, Dance Patterns
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Reich : WTC 9/11, Mallet Quartet, Dance Patterns
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Steve Reich's WTC 9/11 marks the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, which is the subject of Reich's piece. Commissioned for and recorded by Kronos Quartet, WTC 9/11 is scored for three string quartets and pre-recorded voices. The album also includes Reich's "Mallet Quartet," performed by S Percussion, and "Dance Patterns," featuring members of Steve Reich and Musicians, as well as a DVD with a live performance of "Mallet Quartet" by S Percussion.
WTC 9/11 reflects on the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001, when Reich and his family lived only four blocks away from the site of the tragedy. "On 9/11 we were in Vermont, but our son, granddaughter, and daughter-in-law were all in our apartment. Our phone connection stayed open for six hours and our next-door neighbors were finally able to drive north out of the city with their family and ours. For us, 9/11 was not a media event," the composer says.
The piece is scored for three string quartets; Kronos recorded all three parts for the album. WTC 9/11 also uses pre-recorded voices, the speakers' final vowels and consonants elongated in a stop-motion sound technique that Reich says is the "means of connecting one person to another-harmonically." Those voices and their texts belong to NORAD air traffic controllers, as they raised the alert that the airplanes were off course; FDNY workers on the scene; friends and former neighbors of the Reichs, recalling that day; and women who kept vigil, or Shmira, over the dead in a tent outside the Medical Examiner's office, reading Psalms or Biblical passages. The relationship between Steve Reich and Kronos Quartet spans more than 20 years. This is the third quartet the composer has written for Kronos; all three have been recorded by Nonesuch.
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Steve Reich’s “WTC 9/11” I must say fails utterly to communicate that day’s specialness. Listening to it has brought back nothing for me, unlike writing the paragraph above, which was emotionally meaningful. Reich has in fact written a pretty much standard order piece for his post-1990 period. The Kronos Quartet plays some repetitive patterns that mimic the prerecorded spoken fragments mixed in by Reich, fragments related to 9/11 that come from various interviewees, including firefighters and ordinary residents. (Btw, Reich lives near the WTC site but wasn’t in New York on that day.) It doesn’t really cohere into anything and a lot of it is forgettable. I’m just not feeling it.
Also included here is “Mallet Quartet” from 2009 and a slighter and less polished earlier “Dance Patterns” from 2002. I’m a lifelong fan of Reich and admire many of his works, but the whole album, has something uninspired and unfocussed about it. There is literally no moment in this release which I consider riveting musicmaking that made me think Reich was creating with urgency and full focus.
Technically, it is a well done album. So Percussion strikes me as providing us with a technically accomplished rendition of the “Mallet Quartet” and the sound engineering is very good. The music just doesn’t grab me. I don’t think it represents top shelf Reich.
WTC 9/11 is Steve Reich's third string quartet and, like its predecessors, was composed for the Kronos Quartet. Composed in 2010 the piece bears a striking resemblance to Reich's first quartet Different Trains in that it features the quartet interacting with prerecorded voices, as well as an element that Reich made use of in his second string quartet Triple Quartet, which is writing for one live quartet and two prerecorded. There are three movements: I. 9/11, II. 2010, III. WTC. It commemorates the 10-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York City, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
The prerecorded voices were compiled from recordings from NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), New York City Fire Department, and a series of interviews of his friends and neighbors that Reich conducted in 2010. The NORAD and FDNY recordings very chillingly capture much of the confusion and horror on the day of the attacks through the very intense radio calls made at different moments during the day. The interviews, while no less detailed, provide reflection on the events from 9 years away. Bang On A Can's David Lang makes a guest appearance in these interviews. These voices have been manipulated to elongate the final vowels or consonants of the speakers' phrases to provide and eerie timbre that Reich uses harmonically. The combination of both the electronically manipulated speech and the content of the speech itself by and large add the most weight to the work.
As with Different Trains, the strings play off of the various melodic and rhythmic patterns that are provided by the spoken text. The difference in WTC 9/11 is that the strings, rather than acting in conjunction with the prerecorded speech or even using the speech as a departure point, act as more of a supportive role with the speech as a focal point. The resulting product is presented as more of a prerecorded-tape-with-string-quartet-accompaniment piece than the converse. The speech is griping and powerful, nonetheless. The moment where the ensemble and tape seamlessly merge as one unit occurs in the third movement, which is titled after David Lang's mention that "WTC" has a double meaning of also being "world to come." In this movement, Jewish residents are heard signing and reciting Psalms as part of the Jewish practice of Shmira, which is the protecting of the bodies and souls of recently deceased by reciting Biblical passages. This strikingly meditative moment in the movement presents some of Reich's most gorgeous writing to date.
At 15 minutes in length, WTC 9/11 feels as though one is hearing only bits and pieces of a harrowing experience from a man who obviously has much more to say than is being told. Reich admits in the liner notes that despite attempts at creating a larger and more expansive work, the materials felt as though they "wanted to be terse." Indeed, the materials move along in a hurried, almost rushed pace that shift rather abruptly between harmonies, sections, and movements. Even the pacing of the prerecorded voices feels a bit compressed, especially during the second movement. Yet, there is an intensely dramatic arc that pushes through the quartet that gives a sense of completion and finality, while at the the same time concluding with an open ended question of what is nature of the "world to come?" The Kronos Quartet delivers a commanding and powerful performance of a piece that could very easily fall victim to a more subversive treatment of the ensemble's role.
With an album whose cover is dedicated entirely to WTC 9/11, with a focal point as dense and heavy as September 11th, it is very easy to over look the remaining two pieces that make up the release. Reich's Mallet Quartet and Dance Patterns present Reich's more familiar and playful approach to instrumental writing. Mallet Quartet, composed in 2009, adheres to the three-movement, "fast-slow-fast" form that has become a staple of much of Reich's works. The quartet is scored for two vibraphones and two five-octave marimbas, and is performed with the precision and confidence that defines the playing of So Percussion. The deeply resonating, pulsating marimba of the first movement acts as a finely woven tapestry on which the vibraphone dances about rhythmically, melodically, and harmonically. This gives way to a much more exposed second movement, where the marimba only lightly colors the more static vibraphone, before returning in the third movement to the highly rhythmic character of the first.
Composed in 2002 for a film by Thierry de Mey and choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Dance Patterns offers up in 6 minutes a perfect sampling of Reich's sound world of recent years, even hinting at the familiar three-part form. Members of Steve Reich and Musicians give a spirited and energetic performance that at times seems to teeter between finely tuned and rhythmically unstable.
In what appears to be an attempt to remove some of the weight given to WTC 9/11, this disc release comes with a DVD consisting only of a performance by So Percussion of Mallet Quartet. The video, shot by Mark Wessels, captures the intimate nature of Reich's music as the ensemble plays the piece from memory in close quarters resembling the same type of rehearsal space usually reserved for a neighborhood garage band, complete with mood lighting. While the package suggests that the main attraction is WTC 9/11, Mallet Quartet is more than capable of standing on its own as a well-crafted Steve Reich work that deserves careful attention as well, and Dance Patterns is a charmingly concise piece, perfect for the Reich fan on the go.
George Heathco is a composer, electric guitarist, collaborator, and teacher that lives in Houston, Tx with his wife and daughter.
Originally published on I Care if You Listen