I’m not usually one for big statements in music. If albums try to do too much I find they get bogged down and lose sense of what should be their main purpose: musicality. So, Different Trains, which sees Steve Reich at his most ambitious, pulling out all stops to compose a complex exposition that details the breadth and suffering of the second world war’s incessant tragedies, shouldn’t work for me. Then why does it?
The three passages of Different Trains are distinct enough to stand on their own, each detailing a distinct aspect and period of the war, but also becoming immensely richer in the tapestry of the wider composition. In essence, the music here is built around a select variety of short vocal samples, lifted from what appears to be a significant variety of interviews across different periods. The string and other arrangements are composed with the sole purpose of complementing the tone of each individual sample, which, although odd, works to deepen the emotion and helps craft a unique atmosphere around each individual loop. There’s a very honest feel about the way the stories are presented, the distinct decision to remove the more specific context working in favour of the composition, preventing it from becoming overly dense. There’s a deft awareness exhibited by Reich regarding the balance and harmony of spoken-word storytelling against the importance of the creation of melody. It’s also very easy to picture some sort of visual accompaniment to the music, perhaps in the form of splices of short documentary material: trains going back and forth, archival interviews, tired landscape shots, grainy war footage and so forth. This footage would naturally loop alongside the music, over and over, haunting, hammering home the bleakness of the narratives to be etched into minds forever.
Where popular media and entertainment’s portrayals of historical events, particularly in war, often fail, is in the capturing of subtlety and nuance of narratives. Instead creators may opt for over-dramatisation over accuracy or fall victim to inherent bias. What Reich does well to handle this, is to immediately acknowledge his distance from the centre of the atrocities by placing himself and subsequently part of the composition’s broader story in the distant land of America. While this might sound selfish or purposeless, it actually helps to personalise the record’s thematic story and offers a unique humanistic viewpoint into the time period from an outsider. Reich’s own reflections on his train journeys across the northern continent lead to a humbling self-realisation of incredible fortune, given his family background of Jewish descent. As Reich explained himself: he could easily have been travelling on very different trains at the time.
The piece immediately opens with a recurring group of oddly catchy string arrangements which are quickly joined by the sounds of travelling trains. The way that the horns from the trains are manipulated to create a sort of melody is astounding and exceptionally powerful. The vocal tracks of America, Before the War detail the journey of simple passengers to-and-fro across the continent, personally evoking memories of Reich’s own experiences. The sense of progression is constantly in the foreground, ’1939, 1940, 1941 I think it must have been,’ chugging along, for better or worse. In contrast to the first composition, there is an immediate transition in feel and atmosphere upon the beginning of Europe, During The War. Instantly, the music becomes slower, starker and more drawn out. The familiar train horns from the first piece are replaced with siren-like sounds with acute focus, signalling immediate danger and fear. It’s an abrupt teleportation into a completely different landscape from America, Before the War, a transition from simplicity and routine into a very real, tangible sense of dread and loss. There are hints of personal narrative that appear, fragments of a larger story, “I was in second grade,” tangled with urgency, “he said don’t breathe / into the cattle wagon.” The real importance, however, is of the collective anguish of the storytellers, the sharing of the struggle between them. Listening too intently sees whistles and high pitched noises merge into piercing screams. At times it’s too much to bear.
In the third segment, Reich constructs a complex piece that is hard to grasp at first listen. It’s a combination of the prior movements, interjecting dialogue from both Americans and Europeans. Every time the piece seems to sound hopeful or relieving, the mood quickly returns to sombreness. As a woman sighs, “the war is over,” another immediately retorts, ‘are you sure?.’ The repetition of the ‘From New York to Los Angeles’ loop from America, Before the War transforms into something quietly beautiful with the addition of a short, bright violin phrase that helps to reinforce the tender, tentative change. Overall the passage is a solemn reminder that even after the cloud of war is lifted for some, the impacts of the destruction can still linger for others, the roots of violence intertwined in family history for years to come. The final coda is stark and eerie, a girl’s wavering song conveying images of an overlay of mist that surrounds the unpredictable future to come.
Hearing the more comfortable rise into the beginning of Electric Counterpoint immediately after thus comes as quite a shock and a necessarily comforting relief from the chilling end to Different Trains. The piece is significantly less dense and utilises less musical elements in its composition. The focus is now placed on guitar melody instead of orchestral backdrops, having been commissioned for a single musician. Nevertheless, the beginning of the piece is immediately recognisable as Reich with its repeating undulations that rise and fall like natural waves. The first key moment is when the guitar moves away from the repetitive rhythm just after the two minute mark, becoming distinct, almost as if it’s learnt some kind of independence. Here, two guitar tracks play a short relaxing phrase, each offset from the other, essentially filling in the gaps of the other. Later, more guitar layers enter with prominent roles in the mix, building upon the same melody, again in a slightly different way, before the original rippling pattern returns for an early highlight.
II. Slow continues promptly with a transition into a quieter, more reflective passage that makes use of the same electric guitar backbone. Its merits come from the effective exploration of space and genuinely uplifting guitar playing that infectiously seeps through. III. Fast introduces bass lines and acoustic chord playing to round things off for a climactic finish. The song’s infamous key change at the 2:10 mark is fun and unexpected, if not a little overhyped. The composition finishes strongly, with the same familiar guitar melody, expectedly comforting and organically easing into a silent fade out.
Reich’s decision to pair the two vastly different compositions onto the same album is certainly odd, as apart from sharing some elements of traditional minimalist composition, they couldn’t be more different in tone, structure and purpose. However, when considered separately, or even listening to them in their order on the record, their merit cannot be denied. Different Trains remains one of the most moving and aspiring pieces of music I’ve ever come across. Every time I listen, I find myself completely enamoured and awestruck by some new cello note or whistle or vocal loop that somehow I’d previously missed. Electric Counterpoint similarly grows and evolves every time I let the soft, purposeful melodies entrance me into a tranquil state, washed over by the elegant playing. Superlatives fail to describe just how important I find the two compositions, Reich and the musicians behind the recordings to be. Masterful.