Different Trains

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Steve Reich (born October 3, 1936) is an American composer who pioneered the style of minimalist music. His innovations include using tape loops to create phasing patterns, and the use of simple, audible processes to explore musical concepts. These compositions, marked by their use of repetitive figures, slow harmonic rhythm and canons, have significantly influenced contemporary music, especially in the US. Reich’s work took on a darker character in the 1980s with the introduction of historical themes as well as themes from his Jewish heritage, notably the Grammy Award-winning Different Trains.

Reich’s style of composition influenced many other composers and musical groups. Reich has been described by The Guardian as one of “a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history”, and the critic Kyle Gann has said Reich “may…be considered, by general acclamation, America’s greatest living composer.

Different Trains (1988), for string quartet and tape, uses recorded speech, as in his earlier works, but this time as a melodic rather than a rhythmic element. In Different Trains Reich compares and contrasts his childhood memories of his train journeys between New York and California in 1939-1941 with the very different trains being used to transport contemporaneous European children to their deaths under Nazi rule. The Kronos Quartet recording of Different Trains was awarded the Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition in 1990. The composition was described by Richard Taruskin as “the only adequate musical response-one of the few adequate artistic responses in any medium-to the Holocaust”, and he credited the piece with earning Reich a place among the great composers of the 20th century.

During the war years, Reich made train journeys between New York and Los Angeles to visit his parents, who had separated. Years later, he pondered the fact that, as a Jew, had he been in Europe instead of the United States at that time, he might have been travelling in Holocaust trains.

In Different Trains, after each melody in the piece is introduced, usually by a single instrument (viola for women and cello for men), a recording of the spoken phrase from which the melody derives is played. The melody is then developed for a while, with the instruments playing along with the recording of the phrase or part of the phrase. The music for the strings makes extensive use of paradiddles rhythms, with alternating pitches instead of alternating drum sticking. In addition to speech, the piece includes recordings of train sounds, as well as of sirens and warning bells, and prerecorded multiple lines by the string quartet, thus effectively creating four quartets out of one.

The recorded speech that forms the basis for Different Trains is taken from interviews with people in the United States and Europe about the years leading up to, during, and immediately after World War II. In the first movement, America – Before the War, Reich’s governess Virginia and Lawrence Davis, a Pullman porter, reminisce about train travel in the U.S. American train sounds are heard in the background. In the second movement, Europe – During the War, three Holocaust survivors (identified by Reich as Paul, Rachel, and Rachella) speak about their experiences in Europe during the war, including their train trips to concentration camps. European train sounds and sirens are heard in this movement. The American train whistles are long perfect intervals of fourths and fifths, while the European train whistles are mostly short triadic shrieks. The third movement, After the War, features the Holocaust survivors talking about the years immediately following World War II, along with recordings of Davis and Virginia. There is a return to the American train sounds from the first movement. Reich developed his ‘speech melody’ work further with projects such as The Cave (1993) and City Life (1995).

Reich created these works by transferring his speech recordings into a digital sampling keyboard (a Casio FZ-1). Musicians in the pop, dance and electronica fields had been using samplers for years, but this was one of the very first ‘classical’ works to utilize samples in melodic development. City Life actually used sampling keyboards in performance (rather than using a backing tape) and the samples are notated and played in exactly the same way as the conventional instruments.

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