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July 25, 2011 - 3:07pm



Let's take a look at the controversial cover to Steve Reich's 9/11 composition, WTC 9/11. Why is it controversial? Should it be?

The cover is an iconic photograph from that morning, showing the second plane about to hit. The cd designers have darkened and muddied the image considerably from the pure blue clarity of that September morning.

Indeed they have sepia-toned it, giving it an archival quality. The image seems to say, like the last line of Yvor Winters' poem, At the San Francisco Airport, I am the past, and that is all.

The designers have deepened this sense of pastness by perfectly composing the image. The smoke above and the buildings below create tightly enclosing borders (this event can be 'contained'); the white copy above and below this provide yet more lines of balance and containment. The plane is perfectly poised right in the middle of all of this containment.

If you make 9/11's worst moments a perfectly symmetrical image, manipulate them into orderly balanced beauty, superimpose on them an artist's name -- you give the event the status of something at cross-purposes with the artist's intention. Instead of an enigmatic wound calling out for aesthetic catharsis, 9/11 looks like something that's already been securely assimilated into the long history of massacres. If you can enlist the event into marketing, compose it into perfect harmony, then you seem to be saying that the culture has satisfactorily claimed it, and we don't need cutting-edge artists to jolt us into recognition of it.

Compare Don DeLillo's cover for his 9/11 book, Falling Man. Note that it is above all abstract, and that the author's name appears at the bottom of the image. The abstraction lies in the photo showing both cloudy sky (above the towers, presumably), and two very thin long black parallel lines - again, a representation, a symbolic condensation, of the twin towers. Note also that the image actually begins with the bright blue sky that Reich's image sepia tones away. A truer, more human narrative suggests itself in DeLillo's image - we began with a blue sky and an ordinary day, and then things became dark and cloudy.

Instead of standing grandly above the event, as Reich's name does, DeLillo's lies at the bottom of the parallel lines, as if to say I will now humbly enter those sacred and complex precincts, and I will do my best... His book's non--symmetrical, inchoate image prompts the thought that the writer will plunge into the clouds of 9/11 and attempt to come out of them again with something of intellectual and emotional value.

Art is not reality. Art is artifice; it is the transfiguration of the real into something unreal, but something at the same time very powerfully real, in its intellectual and emotional effects. To simply take the iconic 9/11 photograph is to signal - arrogantly? - that your art represents a total capture of the 9/11 reality. It is also to undermine your artistic gesture as art, because the image is archivally documentary, not transformative.

In fact, despite the Big Picture big picture on its cover, Reich's piece itself focuses on small, graspable, human-sized aspects of 9/11. Seth Colter Walls, who has heard the piece, describes its fragments of voices and sounds from that day:

WTC 9/11 opens with the familiar sound of a phone that's been left off the hook, a repeated F note which is ominously matched, in the same rhythm, by the members of the Kronos Quartet. The opening section also features digitally manipulated samples of real-life chatter from NORAD trackers and NYPD first-responders. This is hair-raising material.

But the entire piece, which is all of 15 minutes long, spends less than one-third of its running time playing off these sounds from the day itself. The majority of "WTC 9/11" focuses instead on dealing with the tragedy after the fact. The long second movement is titled "2010," and contains taped testimonies from people who sound as though they are thinking as much about remembrance as about those first frenetic pulses of fear and panic. The process of Jewish mourning, known as Shmira, is evoked in the third movement...

Of the three cover image ideas that Colter Walls offers as more appropriate to the piece, two are of small objects: a telephone, and a small group of mourning women.

Of course they are. As DeLillo writes:

The cellphones, the lost shoes, the handkerchiefs mashed in the faces of running men and women. The box cutters and credit cards. The paper that came streaming out of the towers and drifted across the river to Brooklyn backyards, status reports, résumés, insurance forms. Sheets of paper driven into concrete, according to witnesses. Paper slicing into truck tires, fixed there.

These are among the smaller objects and more marginal stories in the sifted ruins of the day. We need them, even the common tools of the terrorists, to set against the massive spectacle that continues to seem unmanageable, too powerful a thing to set into our frame of practiced response.

...The writer begins in the towers, trying to imagine the moment, desperately. Before politics, before history and religion, there is the primal terror. People falling from the towers hand in hand. This is part of the counternarrative, hands and spirits joining, human beauty in the crush of meshed steel.

In its desertion of every basis for comparison, the event asserts its singularity. There is something empty in the sky. The writer tries to give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space.


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