Steve Reich – America’s greatest living composer, according to New Yorker music critic Alex Ross – has responded to the atrocities that befell his hometown a decade ago with a this startling piece. Using verbatim samples of voices speaking about the tragedy, Reich weaves a wretched portrait of that terrible day.
“I had one idea only originally,” Reich told NPR, “and that was a totally abstract, structural, musical idea. Whoever was speaking – whatever they were speaking about – their last syllable would be prolonged. So,” he begins half-singing, “‘They came from Bostonnnnnn’ – and the n would go on indefinitely – and that could be doubled by viola or by a fiddle or by a cello. “Then the next person would speak: ‘Goin’ to LAaaaaa’ – and the a could go on, and that could be doubled by another. And you start building up these textures of what the memories – or the vapor trails, if you like – of what people had said.”
Though it recalls most obviously Different Trains or his early voice works, this a visceral piece, drastic in intent and free from the beauty, melody and rich, vernacular humanity that characterises of much of his music. An unrelenting, brittle piece too close to the horror to soften its message with context. You can hear it here on NPR, along with two recent piece, Mallet Quartet and Dance Patterns.