Is the cover of Steve Reich's 'WTC 9/11' striking or crass?
This week, Nonesuch records unveiled the cover art for minimalist composer Steve Reich's new work "WTC 9/11," performed by the Kronos Quartet. In its live performances, the piece received positive reviews for lacing string quartet arrangements with digitally treated voices of 9/11 first-responders and NORAD recordings.
But the cover art is, to say the least, unsubtle. In its manipulated take on photograph by Masatomo Kuriya, designer Barbara deWilde took an already-iconic image in the American imagination and added a doom-laden sepia filter. The reaction to the cover, an atypical one from the usually restrained Nonesuch label, was swift and unforgiving. In Slate, critic Seth Colter Walls said it "looks like something swiped from Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign press shop circa January 2008." In the comments section of Nonesuch's announcement, it appears renowned composer Phil Kline also chimed in to say "I think you may have broken new ground. This is the first truly despicable classical album cover that I have ever seen."
Colter Walls' considered Slate piece chastises the cover not for being exploitative, but for doing an injustice to the delicacy and emotional complexity of the music. Other comments likened the art to Jerry Bruckheimer's films and the video game "Call of Duty," neither intended as compliments. It stands in stark contrast to the sepia cover for Reich's "Different Trains," in part an exploration of Holocaust survivors' memories as seen through the mechanics of how they were moved across Europe.
Reich and his family lived mere blocks away from the World Trade Center site on 9/11, and he has a better claim to imagery from the day than just about any other musician. But is the subtlety of the piece accurately conveyed by this incredibly blunt and literal cover?
-- August Brown
Photo: Cover of Steve Reich's release, "WTC 9/11." Credit: Nonesuch Records