Review Summary: The girl still sings.“different trains every time”
Steve Reich came up with the concept of his 1988 piece Different Trains
while pondering on his train journeys made during the war years. He visited his seperated parents via train from New York to Los Angeles, but, being a Jewish man, if he was in Europe, he could have easily been on very different trains. Wars of any kind have always been a problematic subject to deal with artistically, so Reich couldn't just put an unexceptional amount of effort into this work and create a subpar musical momento to these events.
“one of the fastest trains”
Reich's earlier works until Different Trains
had consisted of tape loops and phasing techniques, but for Different Trains
, Reich truly innovated: he interviewed Holocaust survivors and used their voices and answers as the basis for his string melodies. Often musical stunts like this seem gimmicky and contrived, but Reich used it to make something truly harrowing.
“from Chicago to New York”
The first section of the piece, entitled “America-Before the War,” starts off with the chugging of a train and an intense rhythm played by the strings. A high-pitched train whistle then enters, and not only does it not distract from the music, but complements it. From the beginning, you know what it is like to have the musical ear of Steve Reich: to hear the hidden melodies of industrial life, to hear the rhythms of everyday conversations, to hear life itself as a beautiful symphony. Immediately the genius of the section reveals itself: the chugging intensity perfectly describes the hustle and bustle of prewar life, as the streets filled with the tension of a country on edge economically. Once the melody of the interviewees' voices appear, the genius of Reich is only magnified. The melodies built from the voices are not at all cumbersome or awkward, but fit as a perfect musical background to their answers. Though Reich only samples a small part of the answers the survivors gave, you somehow get the feeling that you've known these people a long time.
“the Germans walked in”
Section two, called “Europe-During the War,” introduces both a new set of interviewed survivors and their stories, but also a new atmosphere: the music is absolutely chilling, using dissonance to illustrate the utterly frightening stories of the interviewees. The chugging of trains is replaced with the screeching of war sirens and various industrial noises. The calm musical atmosphere is completely turned on its head, just as it was when World War II started.
“and he said: 'Don't breathe.'”
As the survivors go through various accounts of how the war affected their lives, the strings somehow form around them, pulsing and vibrating, while the voices' melodies play out. You feel as if the real scariness is not in the unsettling string arrangements, but in the stories the various survivors tell. The interviewees are commanding the music; the strings are just following their lead.
“flames going up in the sky – it was smoking”
As the second section comes to an end, the strings suddenly come to an eerie halt as one survivor recalls the flames of a Holocaust camp. Only the alarms and ambient noises are left, backed up by the melody of her voice. Reich creates a truly musical chilling moment out of near-silence.
“and the war was over”
Section three, titled “After the War,” should, by all accounts, be simply optimistic, but it isn't as simple as that. The music returns to the chugging strings of the first section while vocal melodies that tell stories of going to America are delivered. The end of the war was about finally getting back on track rather than celebrating. It was only hoped that the tracks that they would get back on would be the tracks of very different trains.
“going to America”
In a completely literal sense, Electric Counterpoint
, the second piece featured on this record, is an utterly unrelated piece to Different Trains
. Emotionally, however, they feel like they should always be together. In some ways, for Reich, Electric Counterpoint
is a step back from Different Trains
. While on Different Trains
, Reich experimented and came out with a huge success, on Electric Counterpoint
, he reverts to his old methods and makes a piece based on pulses and phasing, not unlike Music for 18 Musicians. However, he completely perfects both methods on Electric Counterpoint
, making a piece both emotionally powerful and extremely listenable.
“from New York to Los Angeles”
Like the first section of Different Trains
, section one of Electric Counterpoint
, simply entitled “Fast,” starts off with a bang, simply chugging and pulsing. However, while “America-Before The War” used strings and alternating notes, this section simply uses pulsing guitar chords. However, these guitar chords are so rich and warm that they simply don't need any additions or complements. Reich, not one to be a one-trick pony, transitions into his phasing techniques and instead uses repeating guitar lines, all playing at different lines, sometimes playing together with and sometimes filling in the musical holes of each other. Reich then adds the pulsing guitar chords and the phasing guitar lines together, and creates something truly special.
“1941 I guess it must have been”
Section two of Electric Counterpoint
is also similar to its Different Trains
counterpart. Titled “Slow,” it has a certain unsureness about it, as if something is on the verge of happening, but exactly what it is, nobody knows. The section uses the phasing techniques of the first section, but also borrows the phasing guitar chords. The piece itself is somewhat eerie but vaguely beautiful, something like an atomic sunset seen from afar.
“the war is over”
Section three, once again titled “Fast,” is exactly what you expected the third section of Different Trains
to be. The phasing guitar line is unendingly optimistic as various guitar chords are added over it. The section raises the bar when the guitar line unexpectedly changes keys and the music somehow sounds even happier, yet subtly wary. Reich also throws another musical curveball when the guitar chords are removed and the guitar line suddenly appears to have switched to a swing rhythm. Despite the optimistic nature of the song, the note it ends on is only a little bit eerie, as the guitar line switches keys for a third time and then abruptly stops.
“there was one girl, who had a beautiful voice”
Both Different Trains
and Electric Counterpoint
are performed by brilliant artists at the top of their game: the former is performed by the famous Kronos Quartet, known for doing film soundtracks and contemporary music, while the latter is performed by Pat Metheny, a famous jazz guitarist. The pieces themselves are performed flawlessly and filled with emotion, such as in the heartbreakingly beautiful conclusion to the third section of Different Trains
, when a survivor recalls a girl singing beautifully.
“and they loved to listen to the singing, the Germans”
Artistic tributes to the Holocaust have always seemed heavy-handed, considering the horror of such events is near-impossible to condense into a simple piece of art created by an inherently flawed person. There's no need to worry, though: Steve Reich has created far and away the best musical tribute about the Holocaust that I have ever heard. With Electric Counterpoint
, he has also created one of the most successful examples of his famous pulsing and phasing techniques, and one that serves as the less emotionally burdened cousin to Different Trains
. Both works are brilliant separate, but somehow gain a deeper emotional power when together.
“and when she stopped singing they said, ‘More, more’ and they applauded”