Now that the initial furor over Nonesuch’s cover for the upcoming Steve Reich/Kronos release WTC 9/11 has dissipated, I want to point out something about the brouhaha that should be clear but seems not to be: The album cover suits Reich’s recent music perfectly, but it’s impossible to prove empirically that either is immoral.
In a Slate piece on the offending (and boy, was it, especially to New Yorkers) cover, Seth Colter Walls compared the “complexity” of Reich’s piece to the brazen imagery that will accompany it. I haven’t heard the piece, but I promise you that if I did, the adjective “complex” isn’t the one I’d use to describe it, based on the descriptions I’ve read and my knowledge of Reich’s music from the past fifteen years. That music beats you over the head with instrumentalized rationality and prepackaged satisfaction with the present-as-exciting-moment. At best, its unmistakably skillful “design”—in the Ikea sense of the word—draws your attention to the contradictions that produced it and resurface in listening in a novel and insightful way. At worst, it hails you as a sympathizer to Reich’s aesthetic politics on whatever axis the piece happens to settle. (Three Tales is an especially guilty culprit here.) I’m not debating the importance of Reich’s contributions to the field and the vitality of his early work; what would be the point? He’s canon material, and no album cover from Nonesuch, no matter how tacky, can change that. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t be surprised that Reich’s music has found its way into the 9/11 industry.
People complain about the multitude of truck adornments, black velvet paintings, garish .JPGs, and so on that presume to memorialize 9/11, but these items wouldn’t exist if they didn’t meet a need; more importantly, they establish beyond doubt that one person’s definition of taste is likely to diverge widely from another’s, and that there is—to borrow an old expression—no accounting for it. (Actually there probably is, in an anthropological sense, but at any rate there’s no holding people accountable for it.) Walls quotes Phil Kline’s assertion that Reich’s cover is “the first truly despicable classical album cover that I have ever seen”; Kline may find it despicable, and plenty of others do too, but can they prove that it is? There are a lot of classical album covers and a lot of things that people might find despicable: I don’t see why a cover that hypersexualizes a female body or glorifies an oppressive political organization couldn’t be despicable too. I find the WTC 9/11 cover manipulative and disappointing; however, I also find most of Reich’s recent music manipulative and disappointing. But no matter my feelings about WTC 9/11 (which will of course have to wait to take shape until I hear the piece) I recognize that Reich and Nonesuch have the constitutionally protected right to release whatever music and imagery they wish, and—unlike the “despicableness” of the cover—that is a fact.