Nonesuch Records recently published the cover of the forthcoming album featuring Steve Reich's WTC 9/11, performed by Kronos Quartet. The cover and our publishing of it have elicited a considerable response both on this website and elsewhere. Nonesuch Records President Robert Hurwitz offers a comment.
Nonesuch Records recently published the cover of the forthcoming album featuring Steve Reich's WTC 9/11, performed by Kronos Quartet. The cover and our publishing of it have elicited a considerable response both on this website and elsewhere. Nonesuch Records President Robert Hurwitz offers this comment:
While the covers of the more than 700 albums we’ve released have no set style or pattern, the process, the goals, and the ambitions of those covers have not changed over the 27 years we have been producing them.
The goals include the desire that the cover should reflect and amplify what is on the recording itself; that it should be fresh the day it is released and look good and be relevant 15 or 30 years later; and that, above all else, it is a cover that the artist fully wants and approves—after all, it is their name that appears there.
The cover selection process can unfold in a few different ways: some artists (like Ry Cooder, Björk, k.d. lang, The Black Keys) completely take over the endeavor, find their own art directors, and hand us a finished product. Some (as in recent experiences with Joshua Redman and John Adams) have a group of similar photographs in mind and ask us to design something based on those pictures. For others, we are asked to engage a favorite art director and have them turn in many ideas—this is what took place, for instance, with the new Steve Reich recording. Some—often new artists—look to us for guidance, and, along with our art director or designer, we might suggest a range of options. In some instances (films, Broadway shows, licensed records), we are given a cover or image from a third party we are legally obligated to use. In the end, though, we won’t put out a record unless the artist feels happy and comfortable with the package that has their name on it.
Of those 700 covers, there are a few that we regret, because we felt they were not up to our own aesthetic ambitions, and we blame ourselves for our own creative miscalculations; there have been a few where we simply disagreed with the artists, but in the end always went along with their decisions because—as stated—it’s ultimately their record. (Full disclosure: There was one instance in which we did not release an album because we could not accept the artist’s cover choice due to its graphic content. We told him we would not ask him to change it as a condition of putting it out, and that if he felt that strongly about it, he should put it out himself. He did.)
On a number of occasions—especially in the case of WTC 9/11—the media or the public have stated that we tried to use images to “commercialize” a record. In some instances, including incredibly successful albums like Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, Kronos’ Pieces of Africa, or the Górecki Third Symphony, it was remarked that the cover was part of a massive marketing campaign used to manipulate the public. We aren’t that big, or smart, or evolved in the world of design to do something like that. (When those records came out, we had a total staff of five or six people working at Nonesuch.) With the artists we sign and the records we release, we care deeply that what we send out into the marketplace is something we love. The same goes for covers. In the case of the Kronos, Górecki, and Bulgarian recordings, we were months late in getting them out because we didn’t want to release them until the covers were right and were something we felt the artists and we could live with. It was a sense of pride more than a sense of commerce.
Yes, we do live in a commercial world, but we have followed the long-standing, dying, possibly dead tradition of labels like Blue Note, Columbia Masterworks (where I worked my first two years out of college), and ECM (where I worked for nine years after that), which each had an individual aesthetic that dominated the covers of its records. In an odd way, this worked commercially, because, for people like me, it drew us to the recordings. But the one thing all three had in common was a consistent aesthetic and sense of quality; one looked forward to seeing new covers and appreciated the high level of craft—and often art—in how music was portrayed. This notion had a huge impact on my thinking when I started at Nonesuch and has dominated our thinking over nearly three decades.
Which brings us to the Steve Reich recording of WTC 9/11. About a year ago, Steve began talking to me about the piece, and several months before the recording took place, he gave me a MIDI version of the music: all of the pre-recorded voices that would be featured in the piece were in place, as were fairly accurate approximations of the actual sound of the instruments that would be on the recording. The first time I heard it, it was overwhelming. It was a piece that did not wait to announce itself; within 15 seconds, I was fully engaged and brought back to one of the most terrible days of our lives. Like everyone else, I had seen hundreds of images of that day—including a number similar to the one on the cover—but the power of actually hearing the sounds without any images had a profound impact. I immediately felt it was one of Steve’s greatest compositions and certainly as moving as any piece of music he has written.
The process for creating the album cover was like many other records we’ve made in our history: Steve likes working with the designers John Gall (who has done many of his covers) and Barbara deWilde (who did City Life, Daniel Variations, and Tehillim). We all decided this time on Barbara. Steve asked Barbara for ideas, and she created a number of sample comps using different images. Steve was immediately drawn to the image we are using. We were all in agreement. Never did any one of the half dozen people involved in the process think about anything but making the cover the best it could be.
The piece, WTC 9/11, is a triple quartet that Steve wrote for Kronos based on his own personal experiences on the tragic date of the terrorist attack, when he lived four blocks from the Twin Towers. He writes: “On 9/11 we were in Vermont, but our son, granddaughter, and daughter-in-law were all in our apartment. Our phone connection stayed open for six hours and our next-door neighbors were finally able to drive north out of the city with their family and ours. For us, 9/11 was not a media event.”
The music itself deals with this event in a way that reflects all that Steve has composed up until this point. It is filled with incredible invention. “The piece begins and ends with the first violin doubling the loud warning beep (actually an F) your phone makes when it is left off the hook,” as Steve says, evoking his family’s own phone connection on September 11, 2001.
WTC 9/11 also uses pre-recorded voices, the speakers’ final vowels and consonants elongated in a stop-motion sound technique that Steve says is the “means of connecting one person to another—harmonically.” Those voices and their texts are recordings of NORAD air traffic controllers as they raised the alert that the airplanes were off course that day; FDNY workers on the scene; friends and former neighbors of the Reichs, recalling that day, nine years later (including the first ambulance driver on the scene); and women who kept vigil, or Shmira, over the dead in a tent outside the Medical Examiner’s office, reading Psalms or Biblical passages.
Clearly, much of the raw material in WTC 9/11 is documentary. It seemed apparent to us that an iconic photograph of that day would best represent the music. I understand why this image—or, in fact, any of the images from that day—can be upsetting. It was one of the most awful days that any of us has ever experienced. When I was in junior high, I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a book that affected me as much as anything I read during that time of my life. The book itself was about an utterly horrifying event, and it took us much deeper than simply seeing a film or photo of the atomic bomb; it opened my eyes to the level of unimaginable suffering that took place that day in 1945. On the cover was a photograph of the Hiroshima bombing, and to this day I cannot imagine it being anything else. The images I saw as a child of the destruction of World War II and the Holocaust have stayed with me forever; the idea of having these things hidden from view is unimaginable. September 11, 2001, was a tragic, terrible, unforgettable day, but it happened. The words spoken on WTC 9/11, and by the people who survived that day, happened. And the pictures from that day happened.
In 1989, Nonesuch released a record called The Wound-Dresser, with a photograph by Matthew Brady of one of the hospitals that is described in John Adams’ composition of that name, a piece that depicted another period of profound suffering during another terrible moment of our history, the Civil War. Should we not have used that image? Where do we draw the line?
Whether or not a work offends people is a question that artists have had to contend with from time immemorial, and I hope that, in our quick-to-respond, politically correct world, artists will not let fear of a Twitter campaign prevent them from standing up for what they believe in. Artists with whom we have worked through the years, like Steve, John Adams, Laurie Anderson, Kronos Quartet, Ry Cooder, Youssou N’Dour, Björk, Randy Newman, Wilco, John Zorn, Oumou Sangare, Caetano Veloso, David Byrne, Henryk Górecki, Emmylou Harris, Gidon Kremer, Philip Glass, Mandy Patinkin, k.d. lang, and others, have made extremely strong political statements through their compositions, songs, and recordings, or for the causes to which they have dedicated themselves. Many have taken a lot of heat for doing just that. What message does this send out to younger artists who might have something to say that makes people uncomfortable? That they’d better be careful not to offend anyone?
We understand that, as a record company, we are fair game in terms of people questioning our integrity or motives; it comes with the territory. But in the questioning of Steve Reich’s integrity—well, if people are in fact going to do that, I would hope they have a total understanding of what Steve has done, and what he has stood for his entire career. I have noticed that several composers and musicians, as well as others in the music business, have made harsh comments about the cover on different blogs or in tweets. I wonder how many paused to think what it would be like to be in Steve’s shoes, and imagined how they might feel if they had labored over an important piece of music and then had their colleagues make snap judgments about their work, publicly, for all to see on the Internet? Is this the way a community of artists supports one another?
Though I know it would be more in keeping with these times to reduce this quite complicated issue to a sound bite, it is far too nuanced, emotional, and personal to do so. This is not to deny we live in a time where we all have the ability to react instantly to everything we see, hear, or read. One would hope, however, in our dialogue about the world of art and artists that we would respect the fact that it still takes time and effort—sometimes an enormous amount of time and effort—to create (or even be in the position to create), and that we might show more care and understanding before rushing to judgment.