Echoes of “Different Trains”

Have you heard that great piece by Steve Reich called “Different Trains”? It’s a wonderful work for string quartet and tape written in 1988. Reich’s parents split when he was a toddler and one lived in New York the other in L.A. He spent a lot of time riding the train with his governess in the early 40s visiting his parents.

train_tracksTo recreate this experience he recorded interviews with his governess (then in her seventies), a retired pullman in his eighties, three holocaust survivors and period recordings of American and European trains. It’s a very moving piece commissioned for the Kronos Quartet and if you’ve never heard it, or haven’t heard it for a while, have a listen to the their fantastic performance. [1]

The interesting thing about this piece is the way Reich imitates the snippets of dialogue that he selects from the interviews. It makes you realize how musical our speech patterns really are. He captures the melodic and rhythmic nuances of each of the voices and transforms them into lines for the string quartet. The rhythmic motion and sounds of the train are also reproduced by the quartet to create a wonderful sensation of riding the rails.

I was reminded of this piece by two cultural events I attended this past week.

The first was a concert at the Wychwood Barns last Friday night featuring the music of Nicole Lizée.  It was the world premiere of her Hitchcock Etudes that reminded me of Reich’s Trains. Lizée likes to explore technological glitches hoping to “capture and replicate those beautiful mistakes.” In this piece for string quartet, percussion, tape
and film, she deconstructs and “damages” the soundtrack of a few middle period Hitchcock films notating the results so the quartet can recreate them. There was a particular passage from Psycho where Anthony Perkins is looped and stuttering along with the quartet that brought Reich’s piece to mind.

The second event was the play London Road written by Alecky Blythe with music by composer Adam Cork at the Bluma Appel Theatre last night. The play is about the affects of a series of murders that took place in Ipswich, one of the oldest towns in England. Blythe interviewed and recorded the “beleaguered residents.” To create the actors’ parts she had them use the edited recordings as the basis for their performances rather than learning their parts from a script. [2] Cork added the musical element which produced an effect very much like that achieved by Reich in “Different Trains.”

Great performances by all with an excellent musical ensemble under the direction of Reza Jacobs. Still time to see this show, it’s running until February 9th.

A couple of good nights out to be sure and an interesting synchronous experience where both independent events produced a wonderful echoes of Reich’s “Different Trains.”


[1] Here’s part one on Vimeo, ‘America Before the War
[2] For more information about this play and the “verbatim technique” see this
study guide for London Road

image: Scott Stensland


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