About Different Trains


Steve Reich and his Different Trains

José Luis García del Busto

Since 1965, Steve Reich’s musical propositions have been cutting through the habits and conventions that erect barriers between ‘popular’ and ‘art’ music, and helping to blur the demarcation line between the old, traditional musics of Africa and Asia and the music of Western creation. But other elements of no less importance come together in Reich’s work, and are part of what makes it so intensely personal. We could point, for instance, to his use of everyday, natural sound objects; his references to science, religion, the plastic and performing arts (theater and dance), new technologies and, in sum, the plurality of human thought; allusions to news and events from his (our) time, which typically reveal him as a committed artist; and the way his music converses with diverse brands of folk, with jazz, with rock, with pop… For the figure of Steve Reich transits with ease from concert halls to crowded open-air arenas, from communications media of all persuasions to the Internet space, and is equally at home headlining concerts at the Carnegie Hall with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philarmonic Orchestra or featuring in video creations with millions of YouTube views; most famously James Murphy’s Hello Steve Reich Mix, which starts with his fascinating Clapping Music then segues into a David Bowie song.

Born in New York in 1936, Steve Reich studied philosophy and went on to earn his PhD with a thesis on Wittgenstein. Musically, he trained as a pianist, and, while interested in the ‘great repertoire’ of European music composed from the 18th century to the year 1900 – with its hegemony over symphony and opera programs and recording catalogues – was not truly drawn in until he got to know early and contemporary music. He studied jazz with Overton, composition with Bergsma and Persichetti, and attended courses taught by Milhaud and Berio, where, he confesses, he mainly learned what he didn’t want to do.

He studied traditional Indonesian music (the gamelan) in Seattle and Berkeley, and African percussion at the University of Ghana. The repetitive patterns that are at the heart of both these popular musical forms, and the richness and subtlety of their rhythms, were, for Reich, a source of fascination and instruction, and would underpin many of his later works that became prototypes of repetitive music, the sound and musical version of minimal art. Reich also studied the traditional ways of declaiming Hebrew sacred texts – in the United States and Jerusalem – a formative experience in developing the interplay of music and speech that would feature in his own writing. In the U.S., he was an active participant in the first experiments in electroacoustic music and the concerts that launched the minimalist trajectory proposed by La Monte Young and Terry Riley. He also came into contact with the influential aesthetic and sound world of John Cage, and shared musical interests and, occasionally, platforms with Philip Glass at the start of their respective careers. Steve Reich has enjoyed a rich and lasting relationship with the world of dance, which has seen him work alongside choreographers like Laura Dean, Anne T. De Keersmaeker, Jirí Kylián, Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey, and Maurice Béjart, as well as collaborating extensively with creators in the visual arts. Loath to separate theory from practice or composition from performance, Reich has gone hands-on in disseminating his music worldwide, both solo and in groups of his own formation (Steve Reich and Musicians), and has contributed to a radical renewal of the forms of the concert, music theater and performance art, proposing new musical and creative experiences that enshrine different modes of communication and posit different kinds of space, while reaching out to new publics.

Among Steve Reich’s pathbreaking compositional experiments is his work on phasing: repetitive figures, in or out of synch, that may involve recordings only (It’s Gonna Rain, for tape), live performances or a mix of both types of sound source (Piano Phase, Violin Phase, Phase Patterns, Dance Patterns). Feedback from sounds produced live and captured by microphone, and the augmentation of durations, are procedures in which Reich has moved from the start with total assurance, and, of course, he has been quick to exploit the possibilities yielded by recent technological advances to prolong pre-recorded sounds without distorting their pitch or altering their intonation.

He has also explored the possibilities of rhythm and percussion in works that have become career milestones and carved out new creative paths; among them Drumming (for percussion) and Clapping Music (for musicians clapping hands), which also draw on the phasing technique. A landmark work from this fecund period is Music for 18 Musicians, in which phase patterns and rhythmic structures are enriched by contrapuntal concepts and original timbric and harmonic effects.

The New York composer’s fascination for Pérotin, choirmaster at the Notre Dame School in Paris (12th-13th century), shines through in compositions like New York Counterpoint (for clarinet or saxophones, in various versions) or Electric Counterpoint (for electric guitar and tape or guitar ensemble), as well as finding echoes in other Reich scores, like the just-mentioned Music for 18 Musicians.

The relationship in his oeuvre between music and speech is manifest in pieces like Tehillim (for voices and ensemble, based on Hebrew psalms) or Proverb (for voices and ensemble), and also in The Cave and Three Tales, with an added operatic (theatrical) dimension resting on the video creations of Beryl Korot.

Steve Reich’s instrumental scores, devised for varied and often atypical ensembles, include works for string and symphony orchestras, with titles like Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards, Three Movements, The Four Sections, For Strings…, and others where the instruments are joined by voices, such as The Desert Music, Daniel Variations or the piece that concerns us here.

Different Trains

Written for a string quartet plus a pre-recorded tape featuring interventions from three more string quartets, talking voices and American and European train sounds from the 1930s and 1940s, Different Trains was premiered by the Kronos Quartet in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on November 2, 1988. In 1989, it won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition.

Different Trains is a kind of sound-musical chronicle in three parts or movements that run into each other. Played over the sound of live musical instruments – two violins, a viola and a cello – the tape features spoken excerpts from recorded interviews with American and European citizens reliving their experiences on the eve of, during and immediately after the Second World War.

In the first movement, ‘America – Before the war’, we hear through the music the voices of Virginia, the governess Reich had as a young child, and Lawrence Davis, a retired American railway worker. The two reminisce about their long coast-to-coast train rides across the United States, while the sounds of these trains and their piercing whistles play out in the background. Here the author evokes the interminable train journeys he would make as a child to visit his mother, who had settled in Los Angeles after his parents’ divorce while the father stayed in New York.

In the second movement, ‘Europe – During the war’, three survivors of the Nazi Holocaust (Paul, Rachel and Rachella) pronounce loose phrases about their experiences, including the fateful train journeys that took them to the concentration camps; evidently very different trains from those Reich knew. The recording the composer uses comes from the Yale University sound archive, and in it we hear the sounds of European trains and sinister sirens in what is a truly chilling sequence.

In the third part, ‘After the war’, we encounter the same Holocaust survivors (‘And the war was over’… ‘Are you sure?’…) in the years following the conflict, this time mixed in with the recorded voices of Virginia and Davis, while the sounds in the background revert to those of American trains.

In Different Trains, Reich experiments, as he has elsewhere, with techniques for generating melodies (themes) from recorded speech, in this case with the help of a digital sampling keyboard, in order to enrich the content of the tape running concurrently with the quartet’s live performance. Sampling is a sound technology developed in the 1970s, when it became possible to record sound digitally, that is, in a format readable by a computer, so it could be ‘played with’ (manipulated) and the results played back. In the first part of the work, Steve Reich chooses the viola to ‘personify’ the female voice and the cello, the male voice, while throughout the string quartet play repetitive rhythmic cells rather than melodies, lending the piece its characteristic force.

The originality of the compositional approach is plainly manifest and its expressive power beyond question. Reich has referred to the work as ‘a musical documentary’ and there is certainly no shorter or more apt description.





The cinematographic recomposition of Different Trains

Miquel Martí Freixas

Revisiting, rethinking, looking back upon past events are artistic attitudes of our time. A very active cultural stance in recent decades, which explores especially the legacies of the twentieth century. This revisitation of the past offers a detailed reflection of times lived, inscriptions in memory that run deeper than those actually existing. We might understand this return voyage as a posthumous chapter of the preceding century.

The twentieth century is also the first in which humanity possessed a variety of tools so as to leave extensive records and interpretations of the experiences lived. It is a century that has been printed, photographed, set to a soundtrack, filmed day by day. In the twenty-first century, these multiple tools that record developments have become globalized and supersaturate their own function. It is a time that is written down, photographed, set to a soundtrack, filmed, shared and experienced virtually every minute in a diversity of formats and platforms. The enormous and rapidly growing body of material that records the testimony of our time impedes a calm and distant gaze. Perhaps these obstacles to the comprehension of the twenty-first century also encourage the search for reasons along the trails of the twentieth century. One of the characteristics of these times of multiple records is the way they intersect. They are mixed, interactive, participatory expressions. A distinctive feature that is also adopted in contemporary art. An example of this are the reinterpretations under way in many artistic environments: palimpsestic forms and creations that are hybrids of various disciplines, the limits of which are blurred, or polyhedral approaches that allow to delve deeper into the object of study.

The work of Beatriz Caravaggio is created in this post-cultural framework. At the start of the twenty-first century, she looks back onto the key years of the twentieth, those of the Holocaust. The work, a film, is a reconstruction of memories composed in musical form in the 1980s – Steve Reich’s biographical compositions that reflect upon the collective experiences of those who suffered the barbarity of Nazism during the thirties and the forties. Thus, in our present, we are offered a singular and complex diaristic-musical-cinematographic work that spans some eight decades.

Rhythms, fragments and compositions of memory

Steve Reich’s work Different Trains is the description of a thought. In his childhood, the composer traveled the United States coast to coast to visit his divorced parents. A child in large trains, journeys that lasted several days, long hauls lived as adventures. In his mature years, and in the process of inquiring into his Jewish roots, the composer understands that while he was enjoying these spectacular journeys, desperate stories circulated on other railways, with the deported Jews destined for confinement or death. The composer becomes conscious of his good fortune, perhaps of the importance of destiny, as a Jew in a country far from the Europe of Nazism and the Holocaust.

Repetition is an outstanding feature of Reich’s musical composition, in which elements that recall the action of a train are strongly present. The piece is composed of moments that combine quickness and slowing down, expressing the vehicle’s different speeds. Whistles characteristic of the operation of a railway are easily distinguishable. And most patently the work reflects the unmistakable, ceaseless rattle that ends up becoming an internal rhythm for the traveler. The American composer renders this with an enveloping reiteration of sound, as though in an auditive trance that opens the mind to a singular state. It is in this more intangible sphere where the connection with other, distant physical spaces occurs, with other trains and other human beings. This rhythmic mental voyage shall be the basis of their memory.

Beatriz Caravaggio interprets Steve Reich’s ideas, giving the piece a visual life. Her reading builds on a montage of archive images related to the subject matter and belonging to the same period; that is to say, images that have a documentary connection with the described history.

The film moves from a setting of nature and landscapes, with an admiration for the majestic trains, to return to large cities and significant buildings, a grey urban world after World War II, having traveled through the horrors of the Nazi genocide. Throughout this passage of time, the author brings together archive images belonging to concentration camps, deportation, extermination and liberation; footage filmed in places and circumstances where witnesses were few, by the Nazis themselves or later, by the allied forces. In the painstaking process of selecting the archive material, the video artist’s creative work lies in an excellent reordering of all these images, a methodical and precise elaboration made frame by frame. As a result of this process, the construction of a narrating gaze, the documentary origin is rewritten to create a storyline.

An important feature of the montage is the division of the screen into three parts, offering a range of readings. On the one hand, the triptych is slightly arrhythmic, which offers us a fragmentation of time; fractured memories. Reminiscences that appear somewhat scrambled, shaped with a diversity of dynamics, movements and voices. The triptych is also a complex composition of movements, forms and textures, constructed with an evocative richness by means of coordination, similarities and contrasts. Its a collagistic work, but at the same time, the variety of archive sources is presented with a visual uniformity which offers us a cohesive story.

Caravaggio also maintains the original structure that divides the work into three movements, and it is in the third that the triptych acquires a new value through the contrast of meanings. The survivors arrive at their new destinations and the quotidian rhythm of these cities saturates their lives, however they cannot but continue to bear the indelible marks of the Holocaust. Thus the course of the present will coexist with memories of the past.

Significance and legacies

The artistic representations related to this subject have been many, beginning in the concentration camps themselves (painting, drawing, music, literature, poetry, among other expressions) and lasting until today. A few among them have become cultural milestones, but besides highlighting individual talents and successful renderings, the conglomerate formed by the most ethical, rigorous, profound or representative among them constructs a collective memory of events.

In different disciplines, an influential legacy is shaped by written memoirs, literature and poetry (Paul Celan, Anne Frank, Imre Kertész, Eugene Kogon, Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, among many others), by film-makers (Alain Resnais, Claude Lanzmann, Andrzej Munk, Harun Farocki, László Nemes) and music, as in the case of Steve Reich’s work and Beatriz Caravaggio’s cinematographic recomposition. Also, memorials and museums the world over perform the function of unifying historical memory, including artistic memory. We might also include works that reach a mainstream audience and, although less profound than those mentioned earlier, maintain an ethical position and a true interest in the subject matter and, in their popularity, influence a large stratum of the population. This would be the case of Steven Spielberg’s famous film (and let us not forget his essential work with archive material) or comic books, such as the pioneering work of Bernard Krigstein or Art Spiegelman’s famous graphic novel.

Together, they forge a rich and multiple legacy of inscriptions in memory. A monolith whose engravings proclaim the importance of never forgetting what went before. In addition, we also find hope of a future heritage, a hope that the history lived in the twentieth century, the Holocaust and all its causes and consequences will be part of the memory of the future. As though human beings might be heir to a common knowledge that impedes their repetition, instilling the extreme lessons and experiences of that time in their cognitive learning.