An amazing event took place in Liverpool last night. On a railway station platform a mile from my home the American composer Steve Reich appeared on an outdoor stage to present a world exclusive presentation of his iconic 1988 composition Different Trains, performed for the first time with a film accompaniment created by documentarist Bill Morrison.
In one sense, the event was a celebration of two birthdays, one 80th and one 180th. Next Monday will be Steve Reich’s 80th birthday (he was born on 3 October 1936), while last month marked 180 years since Edge Hill station opened, replacing an earlier station, opened six years before, which was the first passenger station in the world. Edge Hill is the world’s oldest active passenger station, and trains ran through the station during the performance.
Different Trains for string quartet and tape is one of Steve Reich’s most acclaimed works, composed for the Kronos Quartet in 1988 when it won a Grammy award. It is also his most personal work: as a child during World War II, following his parents’ separation, Reich would make train journeys across America, from New York where he lived with his father to Los Angeles to visit his mother. In conversation on Radio 3’s Composer of the Week in September, Reich spoke of how, as an adult, he would recall those journeys made in the same time years that Jews in Europe were being transported east in trains to the Nazi concentration camps. He reflected that had he been a child in Europe at this time, his Jewish faith would have caused him to experience a train journey of a very different kind:
If I had been born in Rotterdam or Budapest, then I would have been transported east instead of being here.
That was the basis of Different Trains which is scored for string quartet, sampled voices, and sampled train sounds from the 1930’s and 1940’s. Some of the voice fragments are taken from interviews which Reich conducted with his governess who would accompany him when he travelled back and forth between New York and Los Angeles between 1939 and 1942, and with Lawrence Davis, a retired black porter, who worked the trains between New York and Los Angeles at that time. Other voices are extracted from the Yale University sound archives of the Jewish Holocaust. So Different Trains becomes a journey through Reich’s childhood, but also a meditation on the impact of railways, and the part they have played in the modern world.
The voices recorded by Reich were chosen partly for what they had to say, but more importantly for their melodic tone. As the composer Neil Haydock has observed:
What is so revolutionary about the work is the fact that the human beings’ speech intonation has become the libretto, which directly forms the music. Reich has ‘sampled’ fragments from his interviews, and then meticulously notated the melodic line of the speech.
As Reich explained in Composer of the Week, developments in music technology in the late 1980’s enabled him to something so complex that it would have been impossible earlier. The technical process of selecting fragments of speech for their melodic tone which are then echoed by the live instruments (every time a woman speaks, the viola echoes her speech; every time a man speaks, it’s the cello that doubles his speech, their voices are doubled by train sounds) enables Reich to produce a work whose subject is the Holocaust without in any way dramatising the material. The American music critic and historian Richard Taruskin has described Different Trains as ‘one of the few adequate artistic responses to the Holocaust in any medium’. As for Reich himself, on Radio 3 he said:
The reason it works, I believe, is because I am not writing music: I am taking dictation and you are hearing the voices of people who are talking about their own lives. Their speech doubles the train sounds, so that you have this melding of documentary and live music at all times. It was a labour of love…
If you asked most people who Steve Reich is, they might not know him by name. Yet his music has seeped into our culture in the recent decades, influencing the work of musicians across genres.
The event at Edge Hill station had been organised by Metal, the arts project based in one of the disused station buildings, and supported by the Liverpool Biennial and the Southbank Centre. The stage and screen were located at the foot of the cobbled Victorian carriage ramp that leads down to the station platforms, and some 1200 of us crowded onto the ramp to see the performance. The quality of the sound was excellent; it was just a shame that the sight lines were so poor. If you were short of stature, halfway back there was no chance of seeing the musicians.
The show was introduced by Jude Kelly, whose roots were in Liverpool and is now artistic director of London’s Southbank Centre. She spoke strongly and with real passion about the importance of the arts in bringing people together and how crucial it is that we cherish and preserve our cultural spaces, before welcoming to the stage Steve Reich and Bill Morrison, who wondered whether this was ‘the first rave performance of Different Trains.’ He had a point – what was really heartening was that not only had so many people turned out for this extraordinary event, but that the crowd were so youthful.
The music got under way with a stunning performance by Mats Bergstrom, a guitarist from Stockholm, of Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, a piece he performed at the Proms in 2011 which involved a complex interplay between his guitar and an additional audio track triggered by the notes he played. It must be extraordinarily difficult to play, but he did so with flair and perfect timing, accompanied by visual images of tranquil landscapes and the ebb and flow of waves.
After a short interlude we heard the string quartet play the first urgent chords of Different Trains, pounding chords that immediately bring to mind a steam train surging across the plains of the mid-west. As the performance continued it was accompanied for the first time by a film specially made by Bill Morrison, assembled from archive footage of train journeys during the second world war gathered from archives in Europe and the United States.
Different Trains is divided into three movements: America Before the War, Europe During the War, and After the War. In this performance, the four live musicians were supplemented by additional prerecorded instrumentation played by the London Contemporary Orchestra. The video below explains how this was achieved at Parr Street Studios in Liverpool. The experience of the music was subtly enhanced, not only by Bill Morrison’s visuals, but also by the fact that trains were constantly passing through the station to either side of the stage.
At the conclusion of the work, Reich and Morrison joined the musicians on stage to acknowledge the rapturous applause of the audience. For Metal and everyone who had worked to make this event happen this was a triumphant evening. To have seen one of the seminal works of the 20th century performed in the presence of the composer, and in a historical setting that related to the music’s theme was to have experienced something truly extraordinary.
‘Different Trains Every Time’: a film about the recording of Steve Reich’s Different Trains
This short film tells the story behind the work and documents the recording of the latest incarnation of the piece, performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra at Parr Street Studios, Liverpool.
Watch the live video stream
The live video stream by Boiler includes some background chatter and the musicians tuning up before the programme starts. Different Trains starts five minutes into the stream.
- A guide to Steve Reich’s music (Guardian)
- Steve Reich on his Different Trains at Liverpool’s Edge Hill Station (Liverpool Echo)
- World’s oldest station hosts Steve Reich’s Different Trains concert (BBC)
- Steve Reich: interviews and music (BBC Music)
- Composer of the Week podcast (BBC Radio 3)