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Kronos Quartet Premieres Steve Reich’s “WTC 9/11”

The Kronos-Quartet

The Kronos Quartet

On Saturday, March 19th, Duke Performances presented Triangle audiences with Kronos Quartet • Steve Reich: Three Quartets, a breathtaking evening of music by the composer Steve Reich. Reich is an accomplished artist, having received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2009. He is a Grammy® Award winner, and has been hailed as a “living composer who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history” (The Guardian [U.K.]).

The Kronos Quartet is comprised of David Harrington and John Sherba (violins), Hank Dutt (viola), and Jeffrey Zeigler (cello). They are an acclaimed, influential group, having performed thousands of concerts around the world. In 2004, they won a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance; and in 2003 they were named “Musicians of the Year” by Musical America.

The connection between Reich and Kronos goes back decades. A piece called Different Trains, which was presented on Saturday evening, was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet in 1988. This piece closed the evening, and was a morphed reflection into Reich’s youth, traveling between Los Angeles and New York on a train with his governess; he thinks what the trains would have been like had he been in a different country during this time of 1939-42. Different Trains is broken up into three sections: I. America — Before the War, II. Europe — During the War, and III. After the War. Reich writes, “the piece thus presents both a documentary and a musical reality and begins a new musical direction,” regarding the blending of music, recorded voice, and forward thinking.

Steve Reich

Steve Reich

The long-lasting and solid relationship between Kronos and Reich is evident simply in the dedication shown Kronos’ playing of Reich’s music, and the obvious care Reich has in his composing. The quartet worked marvelously together. And with Laurence Neff’s simple, yet elegant lighting design, the mood of the pieces and the tone of the evening was strongly supported and enhanced. Scott Fraser and Brian Mohr also displayed skill in their sound designing and audio engineering. The Page Auditorium at Duke University is a beautiful space (with horribly cramped balcony seating), and the technical staff pulled together an elegant sound.

The performance opened with Triple Quartet (1999), a piece dedicated to and commissioned for Kronos. It is a piece for three string quartets; however, on this night, Kronos played one set of strings against prerecorded tracks of themselves playing the other two parts. It consists of three movements: “fast-slow-fast.” In this opening number, I wondered if, in composing, Reich ever considers the look of the instruments. At times all four bows were taking long, high movements — and the beauty of the music was enhanced by the beauty of the visual of the musicians. This may be inherent in strings, but it is a mesmerizing sight. Kronos’ David Harrington spoke prior to this piece, dedicating its performance to the victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The quartet is currently being filmed for a Japanese documentary to be released later this year regarding Kronos and Reich’s WTC 9/11; and Harrington called attention to the strength of the filming crew, all Japanese, who were far from home when the tragedy struck.

The second piece was selections from a documentary video opera called The Cave. While the music was wonderful, the pieces, out-of-context, were a little droll. The final selection, Interior Drone, was just that: several minutes of a droning tone that continued on for what felt like forever. Definitely not the strongest piece of the evening, it still was able to show off what Reich is capable of achieving. It is also the first time in the evening when we are introduced to Reich’s abilities in using prerecorded voices in his music and how words and sampled speech can enhance the notes on the page; lifting the entire piece into a category it would have never been capable of achieving otherwise: artistic and musical symbiosis.

The crown jewel of the evening was Reich’s world premiere of a piece also commissioned for Kronos: WTC 9/11. It is what it sounds: a reflection and response to the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The piece is broken into three parts: I. 9/11/01, II. 2010, III. WTC. This fifteen-and-a-half-minute long piece utilizes an abundance of spoken word, using archival audio of dispatchers, air traffic controllers, and interviews from Reich’s friends and neighbors who were in Manhattan when the attacks occurred. What Reich does with the musicality of voice is extraordinary. Somewhere during part II, you realize there is a cacophony of sound, a chorus supporting the fleeting and constant movement of the notes; but what you may fail to recognize is that choral sound is actually comprised of one word. Perhaps it is silent, each syllable having been elongated and stretched, while a violin will play a note that supports the word.

The use of sound and spoken word begins instantly. The first sounds we hear in Part I is the warning buzz of a phone gone off the hook. The violin comes in, countering the sound; but the measure of the notes match that of the buzz. Throughout, melodies parallel the syllables in a sentence; so that the words and melody to the text “you could feel it,” played moments later without the words, is recognizable. That is brilliance.

The text used is chilling. From the FDNY dispatchers: “go ahead / Plane just crashed — / Plane just crashed into the World Trade;” from NORAD, “No / contact / with the pilot / whatsoever;” from an FDNY officers and the first ambulance driver to arrive at the World Trade Center, “My eyes just kind of shot up / flames…Everyone was running / running / Everyone was running and screaming / Then — / Then / The second plan hit;” and then psalms from a woman who sat among the bodies, “Hashem yishmor tzaytcha uvoecha may atah va-ahd olahm / The Eternal will guard your departure and your arrival from now till the end of time.” The piece closes with the words, “and there’s a world / and there’s a world right here.”

Reich’s new, electrifying work lingers with you. It haunts you. Much like the events of Sept. 11th still haunt the American people. The piece has no slant, it has no bias, it does nothing but elicit from you an emotional response. It’s almost like you’re back there, on that day, reliving the ordeal all over again. And for those who were more directly impacted by the events, having lost a friend, relative, or loved one, or having survived it all, the response can be overwhelming.

And, perhaps, this is what WTC 9/11 is all about. Remembrance of tragedy, acknowledgment of our survival, grieving those we’ve lost, and the embodiment of the strength needed in order to move ahead. Reich comments in his summary of this new piece, that Part III, “WTC,” can also mean “World to Come.” And as the voice in this part tells us, there’s a world right here. Hopefully, Steve Reich will continue to write powerful, penetrating, stirring pieces of music to document our world, right here.

SECOND OPINION: March 20th Durham, NC The Thread: Duke Performances Blog review by Chris Vitiello: and March 18th interview with Steve Reich by Chris Vitiello: March 20th Raleigh, NC Classical Voice of North Carolina review by Jeffrey Rossman:

SHOW: VIDEO PREVIEW: PRESENTER: VENUE: OTHER LINKS: Kronos Quartet: (official website) and (Wikipedia). Steve Reich: (official website) and (Wikipedia).


Jesse R. Gephart is a Raleigh, NC actor, director, and theater and music critic. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line.

To read all of Jesse R. Gephart’s Triangle Theater Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click

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