← Back home

Steve Reich, Different Trains (1988)

  • digital video and audio excerpt, with background information

  • the method of Different Trains: Mr. Reich's 1988 piece, Different Trains, marked a new compositional method, rooted in It's Gonna Rain and Come Out, in which speech recordings generate the musical material for musical instruments. The New York Times hailed Different Trains as "a work of such astonishing originality that breakthrough seems the only possible description....possesses an absolutely harrowing emotional impact." Mr. Reich has an exclusive recording contract with the Nonesuch label; in 1990 he received a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition for Different Trains as recorded by the Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch.

  • on Reich and the Different Trains project: Recognised as one of the foremost composers of our time, minimalist Steve Reich was, for many years, considered unashamedly avant-garde. Much of his early work experimented with mind-bending tape loops (It's Gonna Rain, 1965 & Come Out, 1966), austere and repetitious multi-keyboard works (Four Organs, 1970) and mesmerising Gamelan-inspired percussion works (Music For Mallet Instruments, Voices & Organ, 1973). By the eighties, Reich gravitated toward a more ambitiously scaled and expansive orchestral canvass (Desert Music, 1984) which seemingly began to bring his music to wider, more accepting audience. Though still based on repetition, his increasingly grandiose sound stages and a more obvious progression of thematic material, lend his later work more colour and substance than before. Different Trains, released in 1989, captures Reich harnessing a return to using speech patterns in his work, as in 'Rain,' with a spare though startling string accompaniment in the form of the Kronos Quartet. The 'Different Trains' theme originates from Reich's childhood, several wartime years spent travelling with his governess between his estranged parents, his mother in Los Angeles and his father in New York. Exciting, romantic trips, full of adventure for the young Reich but many years later, it dawned on him that, had he been in Germany during the ethnic cleansing by the Nazis, his Jewish background would have ensured that the trains he would have been riding on would have been very 'different trains.' He set about collecting recordings to effectively recreate and document the atmosphere of his travels to contrast with those of the unfortunate refugees. By combining the sound of train whistles, pistons and the scream of brakes with extracts of speech by porter Lawrence Davis, who took the same rides as Reich between the big apple and Los Angeles, governess Virginia and three holocaust survivors (Paul, Rachel and Rachella), Reich creates music of great intensity and feeling. The rhythmic patterns and pitch of the voices establishes the phrases and course of the music heard in the quartet: 'crack train from New York,' and '1939' for example, heard in the invigorating, steam-driven opening movement, America-Before The War. The slow, middle section, Europe-During The War, finds the refugees in the midst of their nightmare, 'no more school' and being herded into the cattle wagons. 'They shaved us, They tatooed a number on our arm, Flames going up to the sky- it was smoking.' Sirens from the Kronos help to convey the despair and confusion of the Jewish plight. Reconciliation is achieved in part three, After The War, where Paul, Rachel and Rachella are transported to live in America. There is an incredibly poignant moment when Paul proclaims '... the war was over,' Rachella, in sheer, fragile disbelief, asks 'Are you sure?.' The New York Times hailed Different Trains as 'a work of... astonishing originality' and the piece was subsequently awarded a Grammy in1989 for Best Contemporary Compostion.

  • brief bio: Steve Reich was born in New York in 1936. He studied drumming when he was 14 with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra timpanist; later he took a degree in philosophy at Cornell (1953-7) and studied composition at the Juilliard School (1958-61) and at Mills College (1962-3) with Milhaud and Berio, also becoming interested in Balinese and African music. In 1966 he began performing with his own ensemble, chiefly of percussionists, developing a music of gradually changing ostinato pattems that move out of phase, creating an effect of shimmering surfaces; this culminated in Drumming (1971), a 90-minute elaboration of a single rhythmic cell. From circa 1972 he added harmonic change to his music, and later (Tehillim, 1981) melody. He has also worked with larger orchestral and choral forces (The Desert Music, 1983). Different Trains (1988), for string quartet and tape, won a Grammy for the best new composition.