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.
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 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 première 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.