[Pt. V Proj.2] – The Classical Era- Project 2- String Quartets ~ Research point 5.4 – Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988). 400 words

Research point 5.4 – Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988). 400 words. Different Trains (1988) is a string quartet by the American composer Steve Reich (1936-). The composition incorporates recordings of train sounds and speech on which the melodies and rhythms of the instrumental parts are based.

Listen to Different Trains, reading a score if you can. Write 400 words discussing the important features of the piece and aspects you find particularly intriguing.

Include some background information on the composer, and include a discussion of the following points, as well as more of your own: 

What is particularly string quartet like about this composition?

How are the instruments employed?

What do you think the recorded part brings to the composition?

Different Trains (1988)

Steve Reich (1936 – present day) is a minimalist, Avant-Garde Jewish American composer from New York. He commenced his musical studies as a drummer under the New York Philharmonic Orchestra timpanist and he also studied at the Juilliard School. He also studied African and Balinese music and started his musical career as the percussionist of his own ensemble. It is during this time he started using layered polyrhythmical ostinato patterns which gradually would move out of phase with each other. His most notable work in this style being ‘Drumming’ (1971). A year later he started adding harmony to his music and decade later he progressed to including melody. He eventually created work for orchestras and choral works. Different Trains (1988), for string quartet and tape, was one of these works, commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. The record, released on the Nonesuch label, won a Grammy for the best new composition.

According to Reich himself the narrative behind ‘Different Trains’ is based on Reich’s own life and reflections on being a Jew, safely located in the U.S during WWII and extrapolating how different the train journeys of the European Jews were to his own. He had been traveling between N.Y and L.A as a child whilst simultaneously European Jews had been transported to concentration camps by train. Reich decided to make a piece of music around this theme. He interviewed the train porter of his childhood train, Lawrence Davis, his governess Virginia and three holocaust survivors Paul, Rachel and Rachella. He then took speech samples of these tapings and created themes from them. The rhythmic speech patterns and pitches of the samples form the basis for string motifs. The recorded samples are crucial to the entire piece and are the foundation from which the string motifs have been made and they also dictate the mood and narrative putting the meaning and feeling across. It is very much the heart of the composition and simultaneously what makes it a modern and experimental work.

He divided the composition into three movements driven by vocal samples for each section and a solo melody derived from the vocal and accompanied by the other strings playing paradiddle rhythms. Various train sounds are added for the different movements, like sirens, bells and the train rhythms itself. The string quartet was also multitracked creating a much bigger ‘orchestra’ through overdubbing.

I. ‘America-Before the War’.

American Pullman train sounds and whistles. Speech samples of governess Virginia and train porter Lawrence Davis.

From Chicago to New York.’ ‘One of the fastest trains.’ ‘The crack train from New York.’ ‘From New York to Los Angeles.’ ‘Different trains every time.’ ‘From Chicago to New York.’ ‘In 1939.’(Virginia). ‘1939 ‘(Lawrence Davis). ‘1940. 1941. 1941 I guess it must have been.’

II. ‘Europe-During the War’.

European train sounds and sirens. Speech samples of three holocaust survivors Paul, Rachel and Rachella.

1940. On my birthday. The Germans walked-walked into Holland. Germans invaded Hungary. I was in second grade. I had a teacher. A very tall man, his head was completely plastered smooth. He said, “Black Crows- Black Crows invaded our country many years ago. And he pointed right at me. No more school. You must go away. And she said, “Quick, go!” And he said, “Don’t breathe” Into the cattle wagons. And for four days and four nights. And then they went through these strange sounding names. Polish-Polish names Lots of cattle wagons there. They were loaded with people. They shaved us. They tattooed a number on our arm. Flames going up in the sky. It was smokey.

III. ‘After the War’.

American Pullman train sounds. Speech samples of everyone in previous movements.

Then the war was over. Are you sure? The war is over. Going to America. To Los Angeles. To New York. From New York to Los Angeles. One of the fastest trains. But today they’re all gone. There was one girl who had a beautiful voice. And they loved to listen to the singing. The Germans. And when she stopped singing they said, “More more!” and they applauded. Send “Different Trains: