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Steve REICH (b. 1936)
Different Trains (1988) [26:38],
Piano Phase* (1967) [19:17].
Marc MELLITS (b. 1966)
String Quartet No. 2 (2004) [14:38]
Andrew Russo; Marc Melitts * (pianos)
The Duke Quartet
rec. London, January 2006, *New York, May 2005
BLACK BOX BBM1097 [61:53]

By new music standards, Different Trains is almost basic repertoire. The best known recording is probably the original 1989 version by the Kronos Quartet, close friends of Reich and specialists in his music. Another well-regarded version, from 2004, is that by soloists from the Orchestre National de Lyons, conducted by David Robertson. They, too, are new music specialists, and have been so for decades. Robertson, who conducted Ensemble Intercontemporain after Boulez, has conducted most American modern composers. The Duke Quartet also has a good new music pedigree and have performed Reich many times. If they’ve worked a lot with groups like Simple Minds and Blur, that’s no problem. Reich is inclusive and embraces populism. Indeed, a great many Reich fans came to “serious” classical music through the art rock scene.
Different Trains was a new departure for Reich in that the recorded voices in the piece are the voices of real people, not performers, and the music is built around them, rather than their being one of several components. This is perhaps his most directly personal work, because the voices here are of real human beings. As a boy, Reich was shuttled between Los Angeles and New York. Hence, the first part, America-before the War, is built around the voices of the train porter, and of Reich’s governess. Then he progresses to the war years when people his age were being shunted across Europe in trains for a very different reason. The voices in the second part are the voices of people who survived the cattle cars and death camps of the Holocaust.
Hence, “different” trains. The very simplicity of the survivor’s words is chilling. “On my birthday” says one. It’s repeated over and over without explanation. Like moments of silence in music, words like that hang in the consciousness even more powerfully, “because” you fill in the blanks yourself. In the last section, After the War, the words of the survivors, the train porter and governess are spliced together as the music progresses relentlessly. The porter - an old man with a lovely, resonant accent, named Lawrence Davis - repeats “they’re all gone”. He’s referring to the trains of America, once a proud symbol of progress. But the same applies to European society before the Holocaust.
The relentless, repetitive character of Reich’s music lends itself to images of trains, traffic and unstoppable impersonal forces. This is an occasion on which the form works together with the ideas in the text rather than against, or despite them. Thus the tapes of “train sounds” enhance the pounding repetition, giving it purpose. The sad thing about this kind of minimalism is that it’s just too much like industrial noise, so a little goes a long way. Different Trains is popular, and worth listening to, because it makes sense of the form.
That’s something that can’t really be said about the second piece, Piano Phase. Of course there are good ideas in it, but multiplied ad nauseam, even with variations, its initial freshness runs thin. Quite probably it’s my own fault for not relating to this, but I did find it difficult to concentrate on it for its full nearly twenty minutes. The two pianos are played beautifully, though, so obviously the performers, and no doubt others, too, get a lot more out of it.
Marc Mellits shows he is a good pianist in Piano Phase, so it’s interesting to listen to his own String Quartet No. 2. Its first part is titled Groove Canon and the last, Groove Machine. Normally, I don’t worry too much about what things are called, but in this case, the titles express the music so accurately that they say more than I can. Groove music seems to play itself. I think the term arose from the 1960s phrase “it’s in a groove” i.e. relentlessly following the groove of an LP. That said, Mellits’s groove is more open-ended than Reich’s, allowing for some quite interesting flights of invention, particularly in the second part. It’s the unique selling point of this recording because it is the world premičre of a major work of one of Reich’s admirers, who composed it for the Kronos Quartet. Incidentally, the booklet notes, written by Andrew Russo, who plays with Mellits in Piano Phase, are very good.
Anne Ozorio


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