Different Trains


 Signum Classics are proud to release the Smith Quartet’s debut disc on Signum Records – Different Trains. The disc contains three of Steve Reich’s most inspiring works: Triple Quartet for three string quartets, Reich’s personal dedication to the late Yehudi Menuhin, Duet, and the haunting Different Trains for string quartet and electronic tape.



What people are saying

"… the Smith Quartet’s intense sound re-emphasises the rhapsodic ending of the work. Duet and Triple Quartet are also featured here and are played to perfection"

Sunday Independent

  "the Smith Quartet on the admirable Signum label is beautifully clear, and played with a rather touching delicacy which brings out the subtle poetry of the ending"

BBC Music Magazine

    "This five-star Signum issue … conveys the emotional power or Reich’s uncompromising writing"

Music Week

      "the Smiths are impressive in both pieces"


The Guardian

The Smith Quartet

Release date:5th Sep 2005
Order code:SIGCD064
Barcode: 635212006429

BBC Music Magazine, September 2005
Performance **** Sound ****
Back in the 1960?s Steve Reich hit on a marvellously simple idea. He noticed that if a fragment of recorded interview was looped and recorded interview was looped and repeated, a melodic pattern would mysteriously emerge from it. In Different Trains, written in 1988, he elaborated on this idea, taking phrases from interviews with travellers and train staff and weaving them into a continuous musical texture of live and pre-recorded string quartets. The effectiveness of the piece hinges on the audibility of the process. We hear a musical motif suggested in the voice, and enjoy the way its made hard and definite ? crystallised, you might say ? in the thick weave of the layers quartet parts.
Where so much of the music is predetermined by pre-recorded tapes and speech samples, the space for different interpretation is severely limited. Nonetheless there are significant differences in the three recording currently available. The one on Disques Montaignes has the arrangement Reich made of different trains for string orchestra, alongside the orchestral version of another price for multi-tracked string quartet, Triple Quartet. It?s played by the Orchestre National de Lyon with finesse and dancing energy, but seem somehow impersonal and distant compared to the original quartet version. This is now available in two recordings: the new one by the Smith Quartet on the admirable Signum label is beautifully clear, and played with a rather touching delicacy which brings out the subtle poetry of the ending (Reich isn?t often credited with a power to move, but he certainly shows it here). But in the end I found I narrowly preferred the recording on Elektra/Nonesuch made by the work?s original dedicates, the Kronos Quartet. It has a more incisive dancing energy, a warmer and fuller sound, and is every bit a s alert to the music?s understated pathos.
Ivan Hewitt

Ivan Hewitt

 The Times

A shortish CD (47 minutes), though Steve Reich fans shouldn’t take umbrage at what the disc offers: clear, propulsive performances of two 15-year-old classics of minimalism with feeling, the music and taped speech melange Different Trains, haunted by concentration camps, and the more abstract Triple Quartet. The interwoven lines sound clearer still in the Kronos Quartet’s versions. The comparative novelty, Duet, is bland.

Geoff Brown

 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".

Ivan Hewitt

 The Guardian

The only CD rivals to these recordings are those on Nonesuch by the Kronos Quartet, who gave the first performances of both works. Those performances are only available on separate discs, however, each coupled with other works by Reich, so the Smith Quartet have the field to themselves for anyone wanting his works for string quartet together. The two pieces are strikingly different. In the semi autobiographical Different Trains the use of pre-recorded interviews generates the speech melodies on which the whole work is based, and places it closer to the documentary style of Reich’s video operas than to his other instrumental pieces. Triple Quartet is a virtuoso compositional exercise in which the live quartet is heard against two recordings of itself in a 12-part texture. If lacking quite the rhythmic edge and tension the Kronos bring to this music, the Smiths are impressive in both pieces. Also included is the exquisite little Duet from 1994, in which Reich’s music sounds disconcertingly like Arvo Part’s.

Music Week 

Steve Reich’s Different Trains, completed in the late Eighties, has lost none of its power to shock and challenge. Its relevance is driven home in this compelling performance by the Smith Quartet, recorded at the time of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The work contrasts Reich’s childhood experiences of train journeys across the US with those of European Jews deported to the death camps. This five-star Signum issue, released on September 5, conveys the emotional power or Reich’s uncompromising writing.

Andrew Stewart

 Sunday Independent

Written for the Kronos Quartet in 1988, Different Trains is an iconic experiment in applying speech rhythms to music. In three succinct movements, it contrasts the cross-continent trains of Reich’s American childhood with the cattle trucks to Auschwitz, using fragmented recollections from three Holocaust survivors, Reich’s governess, a conductor, and recordings of the trains. Does it bear re-interpretation?  Not exactly, though the Smith Quartet’s intense sound re-emphasises the rhapsodic ending of the work. Duet and Triple Quartet are also featured here and are played to perfection.


Anna Picard

 Musical Pointers 

The Smith Quartet have taken upon themselves the UK mantle of the pioneering Kronos Quartet and present here works for extended quartet with which the Kronos were first associated.

Triple Quartet required pre-recorded tapes which they made so that the instrumentation as heard is a twelve piece string ensemble. It is all fluently and efficiently done, with impeccable recording and engineering. But is more less on CD? I suspect the experience would be far more vivid and effective seen with live quartet flanked by two absent ensembles heard through loudspeakers either side? presumable a good alternative (worth doing in a college chamber music department?) would be to have it played by three quartets, possibly programmed with Mendelssohn’s Octet and Milhaud’s Octet (his Quartets Nos 14 & 15, designed to be performed simultaneously).

Duet for two violins with a chugging accompaniment by 4 violas and 4 celli (which must limit possible performance) is a simple and attractive little piece written as a tribute to Menuhin’s ‘international understanding’.

The core of Different Trains has is the use of repetitive fragments of recollections of exciting train journeys in USA, and those of Holocaust survivors settled in America who suffered contemporaneusly memories of their horrific journeys to concentration camps in cattle trucks. But in Reich’s tape manipulation treatment they are totally dehumanised. The contribution of the quartet is overwhelmed by the supposedly evocative phrases of those recorded memories, speech samples turned into ‘speech melody’, then imitated by Reich’s writing for the strings. Train noises are added to the mix and three string quartets are added to the tape, all very clever but I found it unconvincing and unmoving and – dare I say – exploitative on first hearing and do so again. Undeniably popular with Kronos and Smith audiences, none of this is music that I would want to hear again. But mine is a minority reaction, so you should hear it for yourself.



Peter Grahame Woolf

 CD News

New Chamber Music Releases

The Kronos Quartet was  … responsible for Steve Reich’s excursions into the string quartet repertoire. They commissioned Different Trains, one of his most successful scores, as well as the Triple Quartet, one of his most derivative. The Smith Quartet has included them on a single disc, lasting well under 50 minutes, alongside Duet, in a version for two solo violins, four violas and four cellos.

In Different Trains Reich reverted to the use of the melodic and rhythmic patterns of speech, with which he had embarked on the minimalist experiment. They now functioned as the basis of the music for string quartet, which, together with sounds associated with trains, produces a haunting effect. Different Trains was also the first in a sequence of documentary projects which decreased in success in proportion to their increasing complexity, ultimately incorporating video.

Notwithstanding a few subtle nuances, especially in the slow movement, the Triple Quartet pounds the rhythmic aspect of the second movement of Bartók’s Fourth Quartet into oblivion, thereby minimizing the original. Yet for anyone wishing to include an example of minimalism in their collection, this interpretation of Different Trains is worth it.

John Warnaby

  1. Triple Quartet – Movement 1 – Steve Reich – 7.11
  2. Movement 2 – Steve Reich – 4.05
  3. Movement 3 – Steve Reich – 3.31
  4. Duet – Steve Reich – 5.14
  5. Different Trains – America – Before the war – Steve Reich – 9.00
  6. Europe – During the war – Steve Reich – 7.29
  7. After the war – Steve Reich – 10.25