The Daily Telegraph
Tracks devoted to the railways – The Smith Quartet’s new recording will be launched in a train carriage.
The train now leaving… A first class train lounge isn’t an obvious choice of venue for launching a CD. But it seemed just right for the Smith Quartet’s new CD of Steve Reich’s 1988 classic Different Trains, released next Monday on the Signum label.
Different Trains: first class evocation of a vanished era
It’s a piece that mingles the sound of string quartets (live and pre-recorded) with the sound of trains, though not the prosaic sounds we hear these days: they’re the richly evocative whistles and horns and harsh metallic scrapes of American and European trains from the 1930s and 1940s.
Reich’s piece is an evocation of a vanished era, but it’s much more than that. It’s also connected with his own disrupted childhood, and the sinister uses of trains during the war in eastern Europe.
But none of this was on his mind when he started. "What got me going was technology. I’d made tape pieces out of little bits of speech in the ’60s, treating them almost as if they were musical phrases which could be repeated.
Then in 1988 I first came across a digital sampler, which really excited me because it gave me a way of repeating phrases at intervals in a precisely timed way. I didn’t know what to do with this idea, until I got a request from the American patroness Betty Freeman, for a new string quartet to be performed by the Kronos Quartet. So I thought, why not create a piece where the quartet would pick up and develop the melodies hidden in verbal phrases".
It’s a wonderfully simple, even naïve idea, which Reich has since combined with images in his "video opera-documentaries" such as Three Tales. But progress to begin with was slow, because Reich didn’t at first know what speech material to use.
At first he thought of using archive recordings of Hungarian composer Bela Bartók, one of Reich’s heroes and composer of the greatest quartets of the 20th century, but he abandoned it ("I realised you don’t want him sitting on your shoulder when you’re writing a string quartet.")
Then one day the idea of trains and the reminiscences of people who travelled in them came "like a light-bulb" into his head. "I’d spent a lot of time travelling on trains across the US between my parents, who had divided custody of me after they divorced. I used to make these trips with my nursemaid Victoria, and as she was still alive I started by recording her. Then I discovered one or two very old retired stewards of the old Pullman trains, and they were happy to talk about the old days."
But what about the European connection? Was that a later thought? "No, it came straight away, because when I imagined myself travelling across the US I thought of those other little Jewish boys forced to travel by train at the same time, who never came back from their journey. I was told of a recorded archive of Holocaust survivors".
Reich’s piece features the voices of Holocaust survivors
The fleeting voices of those survivors can be heard in the second movement of Reich’s piece: "Lots of cattle wagons there – they shaved us – they tattooed a number on our arms". It’s a dark and compelling piece, but there’s a hint of radiance at the end, where one survivor remembers "they loved to listen to the singing, the Germans".
When she stopped singing they said, "More, more". But it’s only a hint, as you’d expect from this most honest and least sentimental of composers.
"Yes, the oppressors are touched by music, but only for a minute. Afterwards they go back to their killing. If there’s one thing we learned from the war, it’s that artistic sensitivity doesn’t make anybody into a finer human being".