9/11 outcry forces Reich to pull incendiary cover art

American composer withdraws Twin Towers photograph from his tribute album.

Amid controversy and public protest, Steve Reich has removed an image of a plane flying into the World Trade Centre from the cover of the premiere recording of his memorial work WTC 9/11.

Reich composed the piece for three string quartets in remembrance of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York. The instrumental lines echo pitch fluctuations of pre-recorded vocals, sampled throughout, from air traffic controllers, interviews with locals who witnessed the fall of the towers and Jewish volunteers who guarded and prayed for the bodies of victims during the days and weeks that followed.

The album, featuring longtime Reich collaborators Kronos Quartet performing all three parts, was intended for release on September 6 to mark the ten-year anniversary of the cataclysmic event. It has been pushed back to September 20 to accommodate the altered design.

The original artwork for Nonesuch Records reproduced a photograph by Masatomo Kuriya capturing smoke billowing from the World Trade Centre, with the second plane on the skyline moments away from crashing into its target. The image had been treated with sepia tones and dark shadows, adding a patina of historical gravitas.

Reich, a New Yorker living mere blocks from Ground Zero when tragedy struck, has been shocked by the public response to the image. In an interview with Limelight he explained that he felt the photograph was the most appropriate visual expression of the subject matter and tone of the work. “The cover, chosen by myself and other people at Nonesuch, was basically the idea that a documentary piece would have a documentary cover.

“It stirred up an enormous controversy that I was absolutely amazed to see," said the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. "I couldn’t believe that people wouldn’t just say, ‘well of course, you know, we’re talking about 9/11, so here’s a picture of 9/11.’”

It isn't the first time the 75-year-old has explored the impact of terrorism in his music: his Daniel Variations (2006) is a tribute to Daniel Pearl, the American journalist held hostage by Islamist extremists in 2002 and brutally decapitated on film.

The unveiling of the WTC 9/11 artwork in July, two months ahead of the disc’s release, sparked a polemic online, all the more heated in the wake of the media frenzy surrounding the US operation to kill Al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden and subsequent calls for photos of his corpse to be published. One composer, Phil Kline, denounced the Nonesuch effort as “the first truly despicable classical album cover that I have ever seen.” The most vociferous detractors have argued that it is wrong to exploit such a harrowing reminder of the tragedy for commercial gain.

In an official statement issued on Thursday, Reich confirmed the image would be changed and gave his reasons for bowing to public pressure: “As a composer I want people to listen to my music without something distracting them. The present cover of WTC 9/11 will, for many, act as a distraction from listening and so, with the gracious agreement of Nonesuch, the cover is being changed."

He pointed out that the harshest criticism came from “people who had never heard the music” and that the feedback from performances of WTC 9/11 had been “extremely thoughtful and moving.

“To have this reaction to the music usurped by the album cover seemed completely wrong. Accordingly, the cover is being changed.”

Julian Day's interview with Steve Reich about WTC 9/11 and the CD review appear in the September issue of Limelight magazine, on sale this week. Buy your copy at Limelight's online store.

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9/11 outcry forces Reich to pull incendiary cover art
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