Commemoration Music: Narrating 9/11

In WTC 9/11, Steve Reich follows the repetitions and cyclical structures of minimalist and post-minimalist music, but applies a heavy editorial hand to his sources and their setting to construct an unambiguous emotional and affective narrative. Tim Rutherford-Johnson concludes his examination of memorial music with a piece that creates a sort of minimalist realism rather than an abstract space for contemplation.

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Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet in 2009, separately from their 9/11 memorial program discussed in my previous post. Now one of the best-known post-9/11 works, it was not initially intended as such at all. The original request was for “a piece using pre-recorded voices,” following up on the idea behind Reich’s Different Trains, which the quartet had commissioned in 1988. The idea of using recordings from 9/11 only came to the composer several months later.[1] In its use of speech and concrete sounds to create melodies, harmony, and rhythm, it is similar to Different Trains. (In addition to Reich’s familiar speech melody technique, in WTC 9/11 the beep-beep-beep of a phone left off the hook provides both the tempo and an underlying harmonic pedal for the work’s first movement.) The structure of WTC 9/11 also resembles another Reich piece based on documentary material, the video opera Three Tales.

Different Trains, Three Tales, and WTC 9/11 all contain a two-part structure that moves from representation (of a traumatic event or events) to reflection, with an additional third part at either the beginning or the end. In the case of Different Trains, the trauma of the Holocaust represented in the second movement is prefigured in the first and reflected on in the third. In Three Tales, two traumatic events are represented: the explosion of the Hindenburg and the removal of indigenous inhabitants from Bikini Atoll. “Dolly,” the third part, considers the phenomena of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, using them as an opportunity to reflect on the merits and risks of technological advancement as described in the first two parts.

WTC 9/11 begins immediately with representation: after the beeping phone, the first recorded sounds heard are the voices of NORAD air traffic controllers tracking American Airlines Flight 11. They are joined by recordings from the New York City Fire Department and, in the second movement, testimonies from witnesses and survivors of the attacks. In contrast to Different Trains’ structure, now it is the third movement rather than first that extends the representation–reflection dyad, the third movement here evoking the realm of the spiritual with chants from the Psalms and the Torah, as well as the voices of two Jewish women who helped sit vigil (shmira) over the bodies of the Twin Towers’ dead until they could be identified and buried.

Robert Fink has shown how the repetitions and cyclical structures of minimalist and post-minimalist music resemble those of commercial television.[2] This is even more true of 24-hour news broadcasting, in which a finite amount of actual footage and information must fill long periods of air time: on September 11 itself, news channels even resorted to looping what little footage they had to make it fill the large amount of time the event’s importance seemed to demand.

Reich follows this pattern of repetition, sequencing, and flow, but applies a heavy editorial hand to his sources and their setting to construct an unambiguous emotional and affective narrative.

In WTC 9/11, Reich follows this pattern of repetition, sequencing, and flow, but applies a heavy editorial hand to his sources and their setting to construct an unambiguous emotional and affective narrative. This is especially clear in the first movement. The chosen samples broadly narrate the events that took place on September 11, 2001: planes hijacked, towers hit, emergency services scrambled, towers fall. This sequence is now extremely familiar, but in his chosen samples and his translation of them into music, Reich adds several layers of musical intensification: the retelling of the events themselves runs in parallel with a movement from speech to noise, an increase in harmonic dissonance, and an increase in rhythmic complexity. Each of these heightens the psychological and physical tension of the music, taking it into increasingly uncomfortable sonic territory. Two more narratorial devices further heighten this tension: the words themselves become increasingly panicked and personalized (from “It came from Boston” to “I can’t breathe”), and there is a steady shift of viewpoint from the air traffic controllers remotely observing the aircrafts’ movements to individuals trapped in the rubble of the towers.

All of this narrative exposition sets up movements two and three, in which the emotional aftermath is explored. In turning themselves to matters of shock, grief, understanding, and commemoration, these movements occupy similar territory to many 9/11 memorial works, including some of those I have discussed in this series of posts. What is unusual about Reich’s piece is that its emotional territory is given such a clear frame through the first movement’s recounting of events. For his One Sweet Morning (2010), commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to mark the tenth anniversary of the attacks (and written only a year after Reich’s piece), John Corigliano resolved to avoid any possibility of specific recollection, which might conflict with the recollections of his listeners. “So many in the audience of this piece will have images of the frightful day itself … burned into their retinas … How could I instruct the audience to ignore their own memories?”[3] WTC 9/11 contains no such ambiguity: its signs and their meanings are clear; its control of affect is complete.

If we turn back to Erika Doss’s categorization of monuments vs memorials described in my opening post,[4] we can see that WTC 9/11 occupies an unclear position in relation to that schema. The spiritual and emotional spaces opened up in its second and third movements are contemplative and memorial-like; they also focus on forms of private response, through the testimonies given in movement two and the vigils of movement three. However, the first movement unavoidably colors our response to the later two, so strongly does it determine the work’s emotional palette. This side of the work is more monument than memorial. There are aspects of heroism—the voices of the firefighters, for example. Its realistic presentation is more traditional, too. Most significant to this interpretation of the work are its overt emotional management, through the devices described above, and its shaping of a single historical narrative.

On this analysis at least, Reich’s musical language in WTC 9/11 represents an inversion of Michael Kimmelman’s diagnosis that minimalism (within public art) is the aesthetic best equipped to convey emotional ambiguity and flexibility. By drawing on the vocabulary of 24-hour broadcast news and using gradual processes to support a particular narrative drive, WTC 9/11 creates a sort of minimalist realism rather than an abstract space for contemplation. These tendencies have long been latent in Reich’s music and aren’t necessarily features of all minimal or post-minimal musical commemorations, but the case of WTC 9/11 suggests that musical responses to 9/11 can differ greatly from those in the visual arts. The success that WTC 9/11 has enjoyed suggests also that there remains a desire—in music at least—to seek stabilities and certainties within a musical and memorial landscape that can often prioritize transience, impermanence, and fluidity.


2. Robert Fink, “Going with the Flow: Minimalism as Cultural Practice in the USA since 1945,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music, ed. Keith Potter, Kyle Gann, and Pwyll ap Siôn (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013), pp. 201–18.

3. John Corigliano, program note for One Sweet Morning (2010),

4. See also Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 2010).

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