"A shortish CD (47 minutes), though Steve Reich fans shouldn’t take umbrage at what the disc offers: clear, propulsive performances of two 15-year-old classics of minimalism with feeling, the music and taped speech melange Different Trains, haunted by concentration camps, and the more abstract Triple Quartet. The interwoven lines sound clearer still in the Kronos Quartet’s versions. The comparative novelty, Duet, is bland." ***
The Times - 16 September 2005
"Tracks devoted to the railways – The Smith Quartet’s new recording will be launched in a train carriage.
The train now leaving… A first class train lounge isn’t an obvious choice of venue for launching a CD. But it seemed just right for the Smith Quartet’s new CD of Steve Reich’s 1988 classic Different Trains, released next Monday on the Signum label.
Different Trains: first class evocation of a vanished era
It’s a piece that mingles the sound of string quartets (live and pre-recorded) with the sound of trains, though not the prosaic sounds we hear these days: they’re the richly evocative whistles and horns and harsh metallic scrapes of American and European trains from the 1930s and 1940s.
Reich’s piece is an evocation of a vanished era, but it’s much more than that. It’s also connected with his own disrupted childhood, and the sinister uses of trains during the war in eastern Europe.
But none of this was on his mind when he started. "What got me going was technology. I’d made tape pieces out of little bits of speech in the ’60s, treating them almost as if they were musical phrases which could be repeated.
Then in 1988 I first came across a digital sampler, which really excited me because it gave me a way of repeating phrases at intervals in a precisely timed way. I didn’t know what to do with this idea, until I got a request from the American patroness Betty Freeman, for a new string quartet to be performed by the Kronos Quartet. So I thought, why not create a piece where the quartet would pick up and develop the melodies hidden in verbal phrases".
It’s a wonderfully simple, even naïve idea, which Reich has since combined with images in his "video opera-documentaries" such as Three Tales. But progress to begin with was slow, because Reich didn’t at first know what speech material to use.
At first he thought of using archive recordings of Hungarian composer Bela Bartók, one of Reich’s heroes and composer of the greatest quartets of the 20th century, but he abandoned it ("I realised you don’t want him sitting on your shoulder when you’re writing a string quartet.")
Then one day the idea of trains and the reminiscences of people who travelled in them came "like a light-bulb" into his head. "I’d spent a lot of time travelling on trains across the US between my parents, who had divided custody of me after they divorced. I used to make these trips with my nursemaid Victoria, and as she was still alive I started by recording her. Then I discovered one or two very old retired stewards of the old Pullman trains, and they were happy to talk about the old days."
But what about the European connection? Was that a later thought? "No, it came straight away, because when I imagined myself travelling across the US I thought of those other little Jewish boys forced to travel by train at the same time, who never came back from their journey. I was told of a recorded archive of Holocaust survivors".
Reich’s piece features the voices of Holocaust survivors
The fleeting voices of those survivors can be heard in the second movement of Reich’s piece: "Lots of cattle wagons there - they shaved us - they tattooed a number on our arms". It’s a dark and compelling piece, but there’s a hint of radiance at the end, where one survivor remembers "they loved to listen to the singing, the Germans".
When she stopped singing they said, "More, more". But it’s only a hint, as you’d expect from this most honest and least sentimental of composers.
"Yes, the oppressors are touched by music, but only for a minute. Afterwards they go back to their killing. If there’s one thing we learned from the war, it’s that artistic sensitivity doesn’t make anybody into a finer human being"."
The Daily Telegraph - 15 September 2005
"Steve Reich’s Different Trains, completed in the late Eighties, has lost none of its power to shock and challenge. Its relevance is driven home in this compelling performance by the Smith Quartet, recorded at the time of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The work contrasts Reich’s childhood experiences of train journeys across the US with those of European Jews deported to the death camps. This five-star Signum issue, released on September 5, conveys the emotional power or Reich’s uncompromising writing."
Music Week - 14 August 2005
"Written for the Kronos Quartet in 1988, Different Trains is an iconic experiment in applying speech rhythms to music. In three succinct movements, it contrasts the cross-continent trains of Reich’s American childhood with the cattle trucks to Auschwitz, using fragmented recollections from three Holocaust survivors, Reich’s governess, a conductor, and recordings of the trains. Does it bear re-interpretation? Not exactly, though the Smith Quartet’s intense sound re-emphasises the rhapsodic ending of the work. Duet and Triple Quartet are also featured here and are played to perfection."
Indeoendent On Sunda y - 31 July 2005
Performance **** - Sound ****
"Back in the 1960’s Steve Reich hit on a marvellously simple idea. He noticed that if a fragment of recorded interview was looped and recorded interview was looped and repeated, a melodic pattern would mysteriously emerge from it. In Different Trains, written in 1988, he elaborated on this idea, taking phrases from interviews with travellers and train staff and weaving them into a continuous musical texture of live and pre-recorded string quartets. The effectiveness of the piece hinges on the audibility of the process. We hear a musical motif suggested in the voice, and enjoy the way its made hard and definite – crystallised, you might say – in the thick weave of the layers quartet parts.
Where so much of the music is predetermined by pre-recorded tapes and speech samples, the space for different interpretation is severely limited. Nonetheless there are significant differences in the three recording currently available. The one on Disques Montaignes has the arrangement Reich made of different trains for string orchestra, alongside the orchestral version of another price for multi-tracked string quartet, Triple Quartet. It’s played by the Orchestre National de Lyon with finesse and dancing energy, but seem somehow impersonal and distant compared to the original quartet version. This is now available in two recordings: the new one by the Smith Quartet on the admirable Signum label is beautifully clear, and played with a rather touching delicacy which brings out the subtle poetry of the ending (Reich isn’t often credited with a power to move, but he certainly shows it here). But in the end I found I narrowly preferred the recording on Elektra/Nonesuch made by the work’s original dedicates, the Kronos Quartet. It has a more incisive dancing energy, a warmer and fuller sound, and is every bit a s alert to the music’s understated pathos."
BBC Music Magazine - September 2005
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