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World to come

from Wednesday, August10th of the year2011.

I have been watching an unbelievable amount of cable news in the last week. I had a crazy thing where I got back from London and immediately flew to Iceland and then flew home, and all the while, this debt ceiling thing has been raging. I got kind of obsessed with it, because it seems like both sides are working with entirely different sets of facts, rather than interpretations of the facts. I have never seen so many people shout at each other, “that’s just not true!” on television before! We are having a problem of definitions. I am normally used to arguments being about interpretation, as in the case of Steve Reich’s upcoming album cover for his piece WTC 9/11. Read this article (and the entire comments thread) here. One interesting thing in this post by Bob H is that he doesn’t include one of the interesting glosses Reich provides us about his title:

Reich opens up a second meaning of the initials “WTC,” as the World to Come. He draws in the voices of some of those who attended to the Jewish obligation of shmira in the days after 9/11: sitting near the bodies of victims before their burial, reciting and singing Psalms and other Biblical passages ceaselessly. In Reich’s treatment, shmira is almost is an act of willing a new reality into being, though none of us is sure what actually is to be: “The world to come,” as one of Reich’s interviewees muses, “I don’t really know what that means.”

I took that from NPR, but it’s been discussed in other places. Reich’s music has, in the last 30 or so years, taken on a more nuanced motoric cross-referencing between the energy of New York and the devotional practices, both solemn and ecstatic, of traditional Judaism (viz. Tehillim, Daniel Variations, etc.) This is particularly poignant in his large music-theater work The Cave, which I feel like we should all take a second to appreciate:

Steve Reich The Cave
Who is Abraham?

So, what this is is speech fragments taken from interviews Reich and his wife conducted in New York in 1992 with people from artists (Richard Serra) to astronomers (Carl Sagan, who weirdly gives the most historically intense description of Ur) to scholars (Saul Rosenberg) about, essentially, Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael and how all that ish brings us to the Cave of the Patriarchs. The speech is doubled, literally, by the instruments in Reich’s ensemble: strings, clarinets, vibraphones, pianos. It’s a combination, as much of Reich’s work is, of documentation and weaving the disturbances in real life into a fabulous and moving tapestry. He has been up to this since Phase Patterns, but for me, it really reaches a wonderful ripeness in The Cave. I bought the disc the second it came out, and remember being so insanely moved by the chords 3:14 in (“God speaking to you) and the wonderful bit of fancy at 5:05 in this excerpt: from the linear “Father of the faithful” to the percussive and dynamic “father of faith” half a minute later. That sequence delivers us to a piece of straight up technical bad-assery, when Reich doubles Carl Sagan’s folksy baritone with his percussion instruments, and slams the punctuation with bass drum and piano. It still makes me as happy as it did sixteen (!) years ago.

Ooh Fr├ęttir! They’re gonna change the cover!

Does anybody else think that Sarah Palin’s hair is laid like the meme of Tracy Chapman looking like the predator?


  • Thank you for bringing my attention to similarities between Chapman/Predator. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    In other news, I excitedly ordered the music for the piece you wrote for the Now Ensemble from musicroom dot com since it includes bass. I got an email a week later saying it will be dispatched when becomes available. I wasn’t sure what they meant by that and now I’m wondering if Now Ensemble has exclusivity on it in the states? ….. or is it just a matter of Musicroom getting their act together and printing a copy? I might be able to get in touch with Mark Dancigers as well to get to the bottom of this.
    Thank you for any insight you can provide

  • […] So hey: here’s Nico Muhly with some thoughts on the work of Steve Reich, The Cave in particular. […]

  • Hi Nico, I tweeted regarding Skip Town! Wasn’t sure how else to get in touch, or if your ‘Contact’ e-mails would get to you directly. Thanks!