Controversial album covers typically are not the province of classical music.
The last time I can remember a classical artist raising hackles with a choice of album art was Lara St. John's 1996 album Bach: Works for Violin Solo, which featured the fetching musician apparently topless, holding her violin over her breasts. By the standards of Britney Spears and Katy Perry, the image was modest. But in the classical genre, St. John's photo was seen as tantamount to porn.
When we talked to St. John a few years ago before a Norton Center for the Arts concert, she acknowledged the album cover had remained an issue well past its release date.
And no doubt, controversy over the cover art for the forthcoming recording of Steve Reich's WTC 9/11 by Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch Records will stay with that work for years.
The cover is based on Masatomo Kuriya's iconic photo of the second plane approaching the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, as smoke billows from the crash of the first plane. In Barbara de Wilde's design, the beautiful blue sky of that day is replaced by a sepia-toned brown haze.
The music itself, which has been presented at Carnegie Hall in New York and at Duke University in Durham, N.C., incorporates 9/11 radio communications from air traffic controllers, New York firefighters and recollections by friends of Reich, who lives four blocks from Ground Zero.
The announcement of the album cover at Nonesuch's Web site drew a distinctly negative response.
"Your art direction is vile," the first commenter wrote. "On one level it's pitifully ham-fisted, on another despicably exploitive. I put this on the same plane with the ghouls near the WTC site who sell photo albums of the burning towers."
Away from the label's home, on sites like NPR Music, response is more mixed: "It certainly isn't showing anything more than we've been able to view for years, with just two or three clicks on Google," wrote a commenter on the contemporary classical music blog Sequenza 21. "That the cover is so dark when it all occurred on such a sunny perfect day, I think highlights the visceral, almost apocalyptic emotion so many had and hold to this day."
The freshness of those emotions undoubtedly fuels the vitriol in response to the album art announcement.
Most of us have seen images of war and violence from events such as World War II and the Vietnam War used in art and media with scant protest. But 9/11 remains a clear memory because it happened just 10 years old and was the largest foreign attack on American soil in well over a century.
It still hurts, and it still scares us.
We're very familiar with the fact that seconds after that photo was taken, hundreds and eventually thousands of innocent people died horrible deaths.
Does that make the image verboten?
"It is understandable why some would prefer not to see the dark reminders of such a time, but if we are to really learn, we must remember the lessons," Virginia Bertram Rollins, owner of Richmond's Chestnut Tree Gallery and Still Waters Studio, wrote in response to a question on my Facebook page. "Great art, whether it be music or painting, is a reflection of life, and artists who choose must be allowed to reflect the full range of emotions, lest we be trained to see the world through a one- dimensional lens and not appreciate fully the lessons learned from all of its joys and its sorrows."
There is a lot of darkness in art, which is how we often deal with our horrors and sorrows.
The commenter who likened the album cover to the creeps who sell photo albums of the burning buildings is absolutely wrong. Those are nothing more than cynical efforts to make a buck off tragedy.
Reich's music, arresting and disturbing in the brief clip I heard on public radio's Performance Today, and the cover image are efforts to represent and contextualize this tragedy that is the single biggest event in 21st-century America. It asks us to look at the tragedy again, but with a purpose.