By **Angela Chen**
On the very last day of 2010, I stumbled on a three-movement, 26-minute album that
accomplished two things simultaneously: It immediately became one of my all-time “best of” recommendations, and, since then, I haven’t lost once in the “who can find the scariest music” game. This discovery is Steve Reich’s 1988 album Different Trains, which holds the distinctions both of having won a Grammy, and of supposedly making a YouTube commentator (not me) nearly vomit with fear. Don’t mock the poor commentator too much—Different Trains is frightening music, combining a Psycho-like violin motif and engine noises to evoke one of the greatest tragedies in history. And the music does, without mercy.
Reich is a contemporary classical composer, but this particular piece lacks the piano and
minimalism of contemporaries such as Max Richter and John Adams, instead being a cacophony of different types of sound. Different Trains is a concept album, both a homage to Reich’s childhood cross-country train journeys during World War II, and a memorial of Europe’s Holocaust trains that were running at the same time.
The first movement, “America—Before the War” introduces the buzzing strings motif interspersed with train whistles, and clips of men and women speaking looped over and over. “From New York to Los Angeles,” “different trains every time,” people say, as the background instrumentation speeds up and becomes more frantic.
The speech becomes more ominous in movement two, titled “Europe—During the War.” Men and women, including Holocaust survivors, reminisce about “1940,” “middle school,” and black clothes.” Here, the strings become lower, somber, and the train whistles give way to sirens that build to a horror movie soundtrack as the noises become more insistent.
And of course, the comedown and rejoicing happens in “After the War,” which starts with nary an artificial sound in sight. A man announces that “the war was over,” and a woman responds, disbelievingly, “are you sure?” This is the most conventional of the pieces because the background music, in comparison to the first two movements, isn’t repetition of the same notes, but sounds more like a Bach concerto, all high notes and low notes, a return to variety after the pounding of the first two movements.
I’m fascinated by the album because Reich manages to transform noises like sirens and recorded speech into musical elements that shape, change, and grow with the background instrumentation. Different Trains is jarring and harsh, but the noises are integral parts of the music, not afterthoughts that sound gimmicky. That’s where the impact of the album comes in. The choices are always careful. There’s no overdone guttural screaming or recording of Hitler or Darth Vader-esque death marches. Instead, it seems to be an organic soundscape, a honest slice of nineteen forties life, and lets the emotion of that time speak for itself.
Copyright 2011 Angela Chen
Angela Chen is an editorial assistant at Guernica.