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Music Essays
electronic music pioneers part 1 electronic music pioneers part 2
steve reich - minimalist a short history of the american composer

Different Trains
different trains - part one introduction and the use of music technology
different trains - part two thematic development
different trains - part three thematic development and continuity
different trains - part four dynamics and conclusions
different trains - table 1 tables 1.a. to 1.c
different trains - table 2 tables 2.a. to 2.g



different trains

part one - introduction and the use of music technology




The purpose of this essay is to analyse "Different Trains" in terms of the transformation of words into music, the use of computer technology, thematic development, harmonic movement, and dynamic change (by the use of contrasting timbre). This critique will also look at themes such as continuity (examining how Reich manages to create this against a backdrop of many different rhythms), social and philosophical influences on the piece, and the effect of previous compositions on the work. However, we shall commence with a short synopsis of "Different Trains".


"Different Trains" was first performed by the Kronos Quartet at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on the 2nd November, 1988. The piece is scored for a live string quartet, two pre-recorded string quartets, sampled voices, and sampled train sounds from the 1930's and 1940's. Some of the voice fragments are taken from interviews Reich conducted, others are extracted from the Yale University sound archives of the Jewish Holocaust.

“Different Trains” concerns a journey through Reich's childhood covering the years 1939 to 1942 when he travelled back and forth between New York and Los Angeles with his governess (Reich's parents were divorced). She is interviewed along with Lawrence Davis, a retired black porter, who worked the trains between New York and Los Angeles. Had Reich been in Europe at this time, his Jewish faith would have caused him to experience very different train journeys, hence the title. The work falls into three movements: America before the war, Europe during the war, and the subsequent post-war situation.


Different Trains: a music documentary

It would seem that through this work a new genre has been born.
Reich speaks of the work as a "music documentary" (Reich discusses this in an interview on Channel 4 Different Trains, broadcast in the UK on 8th April, 1989) and anticipates many more examples of this style in the future. What is so revolutionary about the work is the fact that the human beings' speech intonation has become the libretto, which directly forms the music. Reich has "sampled" fragments from his interviews, and then meticulously notated the melodic line of the speech. Developments in music technology in the late 1980's enabled Reich to return to the root of music, namely, language. What Arnold Schoenberg attempted with "Sprechgesag" (music half-way between spoken words and melody, such as in "Pierre Lunaire", in 1911) merely foreshadows a previously undreamt of genre were diction and music could be inextricably bond together as one force. We might observe that such a form enables social "truths" to be exposed more accurately. Compositions such as "The Desert Music" and "Tehillium" (concerning the oppression of the Jews) betray Reich's inclination for depicting social and political issues in word setting. The American poet, William Carlos William (1883-1963) when writing "The Desert Music" sought to compose verse,
" ... that was closely matched to the idiom, to the rhythmic
cadences, of American speech".

(Scharz, R. Maximising Minimalism, The Listener {London, 25th July 1985}, p.36) However, Reich's love for exploring the roots of language and music could now be fully realised in the "music documentary" synthesis of "Different Trains".


Music Technology and Different Trains

Let us now consider the role of electronics in this piece in closer detail. Firstly, it would appear that the work represents an about­turn in Reich's philosophy on music. In an interview with Meirion Bowen, he states,
"I prophesied in 1970 that electronic music per se would die out, and it’s largely true". (Bowen, M. Different Trains , The Guardian (London) , October 1988)
This is not exactly what he wrote,
"Electronic music as such will gradually die and be absorbed into the ongoing music of people singing and playing instruments".

(Reich, S. Writings About Music {Halifax, Canada, 1974}, p.28).
In 1970 he was advocating the passive influence of electronics in future composition. With "Different Trains" electronics are integral to the structure of the music. Computer sampling facilitates the capturing of language for direct manipulation and development by the composer. (Reich used a Casio FZ-1 digital sampling keyboard to manipulate the recordings).



Music Sampling in Different Trains

This work uses three facets of sampling:-

The fragment may be cut into two parts and repeated against each other, along with a "copy" of the diction in the music (observe tables 2a. to 2g.). This is usually the norm for most of the fragments, except where the sample is too short to be sub-divided, such as in "1941" (first movement). There are a number of fragments which are used again within the same movement, or in other movements.

Secondly, some of these samples actually reoccur at different pitches, even though the tempo remains the same. (For example, "from New York to Los Angeles" remains at 72 beats/minute, in the first movement it is heard in F minor, whilst in the third it is played in C minor (observe tables l.a. and c)). At one time, altering the pitch of a sample also altered the duration. For instance, a sample at middle C and one second long sounded at two octaves lower might contain a duration of three or four seconds. The latest developments in music technology at the time (from research at IRCAM) enable sounds to be transformed in pitch without altering other characteristics of the sample. I would speculate that Reich has used this as an aid to continuity, especially in the first movement where most of the samples fall around the key of F minor.

And finally, Reich occasionally employs the technique of reversing a sample, i.e. playing the fragment from the end to the beginning of the sound. An example of this is the reverse of a steam engine whistle, at the close of the second movement.



different trains p.1 - p.2 - p.3 - p.4


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