Ten years after the September 11 attacks, Reich makes sense of the tragedy in a haunting new work.

Reich: WTC 9/11 (first movement).
Kronos Quartet
Nonesuch 528236 

One autumn morning in 2001, Steve Reich was fast asleep at his home in rural Vermont. Shortly before 9am he awoke to the phone. It was his son Ezra calling from the family apartment in lower Manhattan, describing a chaotic scene unfolding just blocks away. A plane had just flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

“It was a pretty wrenching experience,” explains the composer. “Basically I told him ‘don’t hang up’. The phone connection was open for six hours. I told him to get these little hardware store masks that we had in our bathroom and to put them on himself, his wife and our granddaughter, who was a baby at the time. Because I knew that outside was going to be chaos and full of debris and unbreathable materials.”  

The family bundled into a neighbour’s car and, dodging road closures, somehow escaped to meet a relieved Reich in the country. Their New York apartment was so close to Ground Zero it fell within what the US Army called the “no-go zone”. It would be another month before they could return home safely.

These experiences have become the starting point of Reich’s new work WTC 9/11, released to mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Reich has long absorbed the sounds of the immediate world into his music, beginning with his early tape recorder experiments in the 1960s.

“Certainly I wouldn’t have written WTC 9/11 if I hadn’t been involved in it personally,” he says. “It was a very powerful experience, not just something I watched on television but something that intruded right into my personal family life.”  

Reich, who turns 75 next month, has been described by The New Yorker magazine as “the most original thinker of our time”. His ideas have always come wrapped within ravishing sonic surfaces, from such large-scale instrumental pieces as the mesmerising Music for 18 Musicians through to his video opera Three Tales, with its groundbreaking use of sampling.

Despite being seen for many years as a rebellious outsider who prefers to perform music with his own ensemble, Reich has gradually enjoyed wider recognition, and even official sanction. In 2009 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his Double Sextet.

WTC 9/11 continues a relationship with the Kronos Quartet that began a quarter of a century ago with Different Trains, a work that interleaved Reich’s memories of childhood train journeys with spoken testimonials from survivors of the Holocaust. Likewise, WTC 9/11 adds pre-recorded voices, in this case those of firefighters and air controllers – as well as Reich’s friends and neighbours – who experienced the attacks first-hand.  

WTC refers both to “World Trade Centre” and the “world to come”. Reich describes the work’s mood as alternately tense and reflective. It’s also, for Reich, unusually short. “I hope it’s a moving piece. It’s a piece that I put a lot of energy and time into.”

Julian Day’s full interview with Steve Reich and a review of the album WTC 9/11 appears in the September issue of Limelight, on sale now. Kronos Quartet gives the Australian premiere of the work at the Melbourne Festival in October.