[midlife 150] #110: steve reich “different trains – after the war”
November 16, 2010
Steve Reich should need no introduction since he is probably the world’s (certainly America’s) greatest living composer, particularly following the sad death of Henryk Górecki last week. More than any other single artist he has defined what the concept of minimalism means in music, and as such has been instrumental in the development of subsequent genres that eschew traditional notions of theme, development and resolution: ambient, techno, post-rock and beyond.
Choosing just a single track of his for inclusion in this list feels wrong – each movement is expressly created to be heard, in sequence, alongside the others in the work – but rules are rules. So, somewhat arbitrarily, it is the final movement of Reich’s seminal meditation on the Holocaust, Different Trains, that makes the cut.
Alongside Music For 18 Musicians (1976), Different Trains is Reich’s most celebrated work (it was a Grammy winner). Weaving sampled oral testimony with a rhythmic quartet it compares the role of trains in America and Europe before, during and after World War 2, creating a deeply affecting poem that belies the common accusation that minimalist music is a soulless form that can neither articulate nor stimulate powerful human emotion.
Its musical conceit is its use of snippets of recorded speech – from Reich’s childhood governess, a 1940s Pullman porter and a trio of holocaust survivors – as jumping off points for melodic phrasing explored by the Kronos Quartet, juxtaposing nostalgia for a golden age of US rail travel (first movement America – Before The War) with personal recollections of being chosen for the “cattle wagon” journey to concentration camps (Europe – During The War).
Finally, with the war over, the third movement briefly reflects on the new-found peace before climbing on board the Pullman once again. Memories of what has gone before remain, however: “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.”
Reich’s decision to rescue this image of vitality and beauty from the horrors of that time captures the work’s devastating poignancy perhaps best of all.
This review is part of close to 94‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.