10th April 2021 Andrew Wildey

Different Trains

Yesterday the UK recorded zero new covid cases and so WW3 comes to an end. “The war was over” and the first piece of music that comes into my head is Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” (1988).

Steve Reich and Phillip Glass were the pioneers of minimalism – a form of avant-garde classical music that relies on layers of repetition, not too dissimilar to the techno music that would later emerge in the 1980s. “Different Trains” is a piece that explores how the experiences of people traveling on trains in the USA and Europe in the time before, during and after WW2 would differ, with pre-war trains as a means of speed and progress, during the war they carried armies into battle and Holocaust victims to the camps, then after to the safety of the new world. 

The piece employs a common device of Reich’s work in the repetition of samples taken from spoken recordings, in this case interviews with WW2 survivors. Another of his works notable for this technique is “It’s Gonna Rain” (1965), a piece that takes a small snippet of a sample of a Pentecostal preacher warning of the world’s end, of which Reich then modulates the sample length, thereby abstracting it into new sound shapes as each loop catches on the various sibilances of the words. Abstracting spoken word through repetition acts to strip away its linguistic meaning and reduces it down into raw, rhythmic sound material. Where “It’s Gonna Rain” uses the technique to dial into the hypnotic nature of repetition in religious oration, “Different Trains” employs repetition to interlock the subject matter to the theme of mechanisation that trains and the railroads brought in the 20th century.

Reich also employs his “speech melody” technique to build moments of unease and then by contrast ecstatic jubilation, mimicking the tone and cadence of the spoken samples using solo violins. He would use a similar technique in his “Daniel Variations” (2006), where operatic tenors sing the last words of journalist Daniel Pearl as recorded in a jihadi hostage video before his eventual execution at the hands of his captors.

Where “Different Trains” and Reich’s creative approach stands out is in how he takes a subject, sometimes very dark in its nature, and extracts from it many different perspectives of meaning, just as you can alter the meaning of a visual shot depending on how you film or edit it. Essentially you can find horror or beauty in anything depending on how you look at it and for how long. Reich’s use of repetitive samples act as a means to embed or bake the nature of the subject into the bricks of the compositions he builds. The same can also be applied to visuals with repetition and rhythm able to abstract and create new textures or new meaning. God level director Michel Gondry is the master of visual structural rhythm, in particular his videos for Daft Punk’s “Around the World” (1997) or the incredibly clever video for The Chemical Brother’s “Star Guitar” (2002) which uses passing scenery viewed from a moving train to represent the rhythm and dynamic envelope of the track.

As a piece in its own right “Different Trains” captures the pulse of the steam engine and the rapid beat of progress that trains represented, both good and bad. The highlight for me is the heart pounding euphoric symphonies produced in the third “After the War” act, which evoke a feeling that, after all the horrors of a war, those same train tracks you came in on can also be the tracks that lead you to the salvation of a new beginning. 

The world we will return to after lockdown will no doubt be very different to the one we left over a year ago, but if covid has taught us anything it is that we have learned nothing. The industrial revolution did indeed bring progress, but we failed to understand the potential that progress, in the form of mechanisation, could have in damaging our health, environment and human state. As we re-emerge with fresh clarity as to the devastation that can be brought in the name of “progress”, we can only hope and try our best to ensure that we treat the world now, ever so slightly better than we did before.