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On the Reich tracks

FROM THE ARCHIVE Steve Reich’s quartet Different Trains has the power to reduce an audience to tears, but how does it feel to perform and record the work?

It’s thirty years since I played Steve Reich’s shattering, seminal Different Trains as a student, and I’m excited to have the chance to repeat the experience later this month in Edinburgh. In search of useful information, I went back to an article I wrote for The Strad for his 70th birthday in 2006, in which I interviewed the composer himself as well as some of the chamber musicians who have played the work. On Reich’s 87th birthday, here is the article as it was originally published

Counting; bars and bars of the same figure followed by a sudden tempo change; more counting: these are my primary memories of my first rehearsal of Steve Reich’s quartet Different Trains as a student. But by the third rehearsal, something mysterious had happened. The counting had stopped. The numbers of bars and the tempo shifts started to seem inevitable and we all instinctively knew where we were and where we were going, driving by the piece’s heart-racing rhythms and hypnotised by the antique voices and sound effects of the backing track. By the end of the concert, we were emotionally drained but totally exhilarated.

The Minimalist composer celebrates his 70th birthday this month, but Different Trains has barely reached the age of 20, and it is already regarded as a seminal work. Its impact is as great now as it was the first time it was performed by the Kronos Quartet in London in 1988 (and recorded by the group the following year); and two recordings, by the Duke and Smith quartets, have been released in the last year. Despite its technical and physical challenges, it binds both audiences and performers – student and professional alike – in its spell.

The work’s emotive power is manifold. Firstly, there is the range of sound qualities afforded by its layering of four quartets on top of each other – from reflective and delicate to a driving wall of sound. Add to this agitating, almost irritating, sound effects of trains and their various whistles. Combine these with recordings of elderly people recalling the past, shadowed by the musical notations of their inflections (an innovative technique at the time it was composed). And then there is the magnitude of its subject matter – the Holocaust – tackled with a lack of sentimentality that makes it all the more overwhelming. No wonder the piece still has the power to reduce an audience to tears.

What was it like to be involved in the birth of such a work? Joan Jeanrenaud, former cellist of the Kronos Quartet, for which the work was written, remembers the recording sessions, with Reich present, soon after the quartet players saw the piece for the first time: ‘It was an intense time in the studio. We had to figure out a lot – how to articulate things to make them sound the right way, or how to imitate the voice on the pre-recorded material. Steve was interested in a clear, precise sound, which we talked about a lot.’

First violinist David Harrington recalls the impact of the first performance: ‘To hear it come to life was an amazing experience. By the time we premiered the piece in London, we’d played all of the four different parts, but we hadn’t been able to feel its impact the way we could in front of an audience, and that was an overpowering experience. I’ll never forget the sound of the train horn that first time I heard it in concert. I’d never heard anything like that in a concert hall before; or the sounds of the voices of the survivors. Emotionally it was a huge experience.’

The initial performances were not without technical hitch, however. Harrington remembers one disaster averted: ‘Once, in 1989, we were playing it in Nebraska, and there was something going on with the electricity that made the pitch of the tape go down very slowly over the course of the piece. Over the 28 minutes we also adjusted our pitch down, and it worked out, but that was the last concert we played to which we didn’t bring our own sound engineer.’

Since then, technological advances have made performing the work easier, as Harrington points out: ‘The issues around playing it live have changed. Initially, when we played it in the late 80s and early 90s, we used wedge monitors, and sometimes we had to have them so loud in order to hear that it affected the sound in the hall. Now we use in-ear monitors, so the audience is able to hear it in a cleaner, more pristine form.’

These technological developments also make the piece more accessible to performers. Reich explains this phenomenon: ‘The younger the groups are, the easier it is for them. That’s true for all music. When Bartók wrote his quartets, there were two or three string quartets who would dare to play them. Now, there are only a few string quartets that could dare not to play Bartók. Why? Because the solutions to the technical problems of one generation are learnt by the succeeding generation at a very young age – from their teachers, recordings and performances.’

Such advances mean that it is now the physical aspect of playing the work that is the hardest. Jeanrenaud describes the challenge: ‘It’s a very tiring piece, especially when you’re recording it. You have to do a lot of repetitive things with your hands. If you’re going to play a pattern 20 times, you have to learn how to pace yourself and know where you can release your hand. If you were to keep pressing the whole time, you would get really tired. So be aware that if your hand starts to revolt or hurt you must stop, because otherwise you will get tendonitis.’ Harrington seems to have come pretty close himself: ‘I recall clearly the pain in my left hand at the recording – the fourth finger particularly. Over a period of ten hours a day, playing one particular figure (C to F on the E string) became really painful. I had to try the second and third finger sometimes, to relieve it. For many years after that, when we played it live, I’d get an incredible pain in my hand – probably just a reminder of the recording session.’

Apart from not doing damage to yourself while playing the piece, there are other technical issues to tackle – intonation and rhythm, in particular. Nicholas Pendlebury, violist of the Smith Quartet, discovered this when the quartet recorded the work: ‘It’s very tricky to get intonation right. You get one quartet down and think it’s absolutely right, but then you add in another and because of the way the harmony works you find that little notes don’t quite fit, so you have to go back over all of it. It’s the same with rhythms – there’s a lot of hocketing between the quartets, and you can be absolutely together with a click track, but when you take the click track out it doesn’t sound quite right.

John Metcalfe, violist of the Duke Quartet, had a similar experience: ‘We had to be meticulous about each of the separate quartet parts. They had to be as in tune and together as we could possibly make them. If you start layering tracks on top of something that is out of tune or where the ensemble isn’t great, you’re going to be in trouble. It magnifies exponentially.’

Despite the repetitive nature of the music and the fact that the performer is locked in to the backing track, it would be a mistake to approach the work in a non-musical way. Jeanrenaud explains: ‘I’ve always found it a challenge to play along with something that’s pre-recorded, but to make it sound like it’s breathing, like a Brahms piece. The viola and cello imitate the voices a lot and that’s where you can find a more expressive quality; and even in the motor rhythm there are things you can do to make it feel as if it is moving forward.’

Pendlebury agrees: ‘It’s not like playing a piece of Mozart, where you can change tempos and nuances – because you are governed by what’s already put down. But the most important thing is that you react to what the voices are doing, particularly in the solo lines, which mime the voices. There are many ways in which you can interpret these and use the bow for emphasis. It’s about listening and trying to copy the way they say things, to get across the emotion. That’s the challenge.’

For Metcalfe the process involves a different quality of attention from other types of music. He says, ‘It’s like meditating, in a way. When you’re playing the large chunks of semiquavers you have to get into the groove of doing it; you need to find another kind of way of concentrating, so that you feel that you are on the inside of the music and not having to think the way that you would in, for example, the Ravel Quartet.’

What is the emotional impact of this process? The Smith Quartet has performed it in various non-standard locations, including suspended above Cologne railway station, in the Düsseldorf sidings from which Jews were transported to the concentration camps, and at Auschwitz itself, which Pendlebury describes as ‘harrowing’. He says, ‘You get very emotionally involved, because of the subject matter; and because you’re living with these voices and every time you hit the play button they are retelling their accounts.

Metcalfe describes the feeling: ‘If you’re aware of what it’s about while you’re playing, it can be overpowering. You know what the samples are – they’re printed in front of you – but if you’re actually imagining what the person saying those words experienced, it’s incredibly strong.’

Reich himself witnessed this power during a rehearsal in Seattle once: ‘I was with a group that was rehearsing with just a boom box and a cassette tape, and no microphones – they were just playing acoustically. They played it quite beautifully, even though it was quiet. When it was all over there was silence and everybody was in tears. It was one of those incredible moments.’

The audience reaction to Different Trains can be just as obvious. Pendlebury remembers playing it at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival and looking out to the audience to see people in tears. He adds, ‘We don’t usually get tumultuous applause afterwards, because you can’t.’

The work doesn’t always go down well, though. Jeanrenaud recalls one unsuccessful outing: ‘We were on as part of a chamber music series and we quickly realised that this was not a good way for us to be presented, because you get audience members who are expecting Beethoven and Mozart, and they get Different Trains. At the interval someone in the audience came to the presenter and said, “Don’t you ever do something like this to me again.” Its reception has a lot to do with the audience and what they are expecting to hear.’

Reich himself is in no doubt as to the significance of the work, though. He admits, ‘It’s undoubtedly one of the greatest pieces I’ve ever made. We don’t always get what we think we deserve, but I’ve been very fortunate, in general and with this piece in particular.’

Finally, if you are thinking about taking the plunge and playing the work, Metcalfe offers some advice: ‘Different Trains will take any amount of energy or emotion that you can put into it and will always yield results. It’s not something of which you can say, “We’ll knock that off in an afternoon.” In pure playing terms that might be the case, but the subject matter makes it a much more profound experience than that. Be prepared to be surprised and rewarded.’

Steve Reich on Different Trains

Reich took as his starting point the train rides he made between his separated parents in New York and Los Angeles as a young boy. He then realised the parallel between his own journeys and those of Jewish boys in Nazi Europe at the same time, as he explains: ‘If I had been born in Brussels or Rotterdam or Budapest instead of New York, I wouldn’t be here today. The lightbulb went on and the piece suddenly gelled.’

He went about collecting sound clips; interviewing his governess, Virginia, who had accompanied him on his journeys, and a retired porter, Lawrence Davis, who worked on the New York-Los Angeles Pullman line; researching recordings of interviews with Holocaust survivors of his own age (Rachella, Paul and Rachel); and gathering train sounds of the time. ‘I went through all this material, and when I heard something that caught my ears I would record it into the sampling keyboard, trying to write down the exact pitches of the speakers’ vowels.’

Next began the process of composition: ‘I would take the melodic shape of the speaker’s voice and double it with a real instrument. Every time a man spoke the cello would double him, and every time a woman spoke the viola would double her; so the speaker determines the melody and I’m the faithful scribe.’

Surprisingly, Reich hadn’t been keen to write for string quartet: ‘I am not interested in string quartets at all. I’ve never written a string quartet and I will never write a string quartet. Where are the extra viola and cello? The minimum requirement is two violins, twoviolas and two cellos.’ Therefore, to create the sound he wanted for Different Trains, he wrote four full quartet parts, three of which are pre-recorded, above which the amplified live quartet performs.

This article was first published in The Strad in October 2006


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