Steve Reich's memorial composition WTC 9/11 -- out tomorrow, Sept. 20, on Nonesuch -- starts with the ferocious beeping of a phone left off the hook, doubled by David Harrington, violinist of the Kronos Quartet. Layers of strings pile on, and then: "They came from Boston - Goin' to L.A. - and they're headed South - They're goin' the wrong they're goin' the wrong way --"
The voices of the first responders from NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and the New York Fire Department are chilling, each word shadowed by Kronos Quartet's cellist or violist, the last syllable of every phrase dragging out before blending into the long chords that run under the panicked voices. And all the while, in the background, there's the incessant beep beep beep beep beep of the telephone.
When Kronos Quartet approached Reich in 2009, asking for a piece with prerecorded voices, Reich had no idea what his subject matter would be. "The only idea I had was that the last syllable of a word would go on long, and I would build up chords of people talking together as a means of connecting people harmonically," he tells SF Weekly.
Then Reich realized he had "unfinished business," having turned down suggestions to write a piece in response to Sept. 11 in the years after the attack. "I was taking a shower one day and I left the phone off the hook and I heard this beep beep beep beep beep," he says. "I said to myself, that's it. It's a wake-up call. It's an alarm. It's how it would begin."
WTC 9/11 is a piece in three movements. The first belongs to the first responders and the victims, witnesses at the instance of the attack. The second movement is for the survivors, recalling the attack almost a decade later. Reich interviewed his neighborhood residents, a Fire Department officer, and the first ambulance driver to arrive on scene. Their voices piece together a memory of that day. "I was sitting in class... I was taking my kids to school..." they say, as if in conversation with one another. "But we all thought it was an accident ... I knew it it wasn't an accident right away..."
The last movement was inspired by a story Reich read in the newspaper about women from Stern College holding an ongoing vigil at the Medical Examiner's office. "There is a Jewish tradition that says one must guard a body from the time of death to burial," says Reich. "For 9/11, this was very complicated. Some women volunteered to sit and recite Psalms and Bible passages 24/7, in shifts that went on for 7 months. It is an incredibly beautiful religious observance -- you have no idea who they are, what religion they are, but you are devoted to doing what you think is the right thing."
Quieter and more solemn than the other two movements, the last movement is eerie, with the voices of the cantors floating over the strings. "The final movement, to me, is astonishing. It really is transcendent," first violinist Harrington tells SF Weekly.
Kronos Quartet debuted WTC 9/11 at Duke University last March and since then, has performed it all over the world to glowing reviews. For the quartet, though, playing in New York was by far the most difficult performance.
"Playing WTC 9/11 on stage in New York City is something I will never forget," says Harrington. "I knew that we'd have people who had actually been right there, some of whose voices were in the piece. All I can say is that it's an incredible experience, a privilege to be able to be part of that."
Reich reflects, "In New York, I was spooked. People are loathe to start applauding. It was a quiet intermission."