steve reich's different trains

narrative music


In 1988, Steve Reich (° New York, 1936) composed the three-part 'Different trains' for the Kronos Quartet. The title is easily explained: between 1939 and 1942, as a little boy, the future composer had to travel back and forth between New York and Los Angeles - between divorced parents. Many years later, he realised that he would have travelled on other trains to other destinations, had he lived in Europe in the same period.

It pays to have a closer look at this work, not only because it has merit in its genre - and because it won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition in 1990 - but foremost because it precisely raises the question what genre it fits into.

Let us therefore have a closer look at the materials of which it is composed.


Let us begin with the recordings of diverse kinds of train whistles that resound throughout the three parts, and of sirens that are to be heard in the second part. In both cases, from the real train and from the real air raid, we only get to hear the sound. This are, hence, both examples of auditory mimesis - the auditory counterpart of a photo, where you only get to see the visual appearance of the train or the bombardment.

In that respect, 'Different Trains' can be compared with other examples of auditory mimesis like Bill Fontana's soundscape 'Entfernte Züge’ (1983) where sounds captured in the Köln Hauptbahnhof were rendered on the ruins of the former ‘Anhalter Bahnhof’ in Berlin. But far more instructive is the comparison with Pierre Schaeffer's 'Etude aux Chemin de Fer' (1948) - a soundscape where also the spatial dimension is imitated, so that the imitated sounds no longer have to be rendered by loudspeakers distributed in real space. This study learns us that Steve Reich has been very selective: there is more to the auditory appearance of a trainthan the sound of the train whistle: just think of the 'chuff chuff' sound, or of the bump of the wheels over a track joint. Equally selective is the choice of a siren for an air raid. Steve Reich seems to have a predilection for the 'musical' appearances: train whistles and sirens consist of tones. We are dealing here with musical auditory mimesis; the duplicating of auditory appearances that are 'musical'. With 'Entfernte Züge' and 'Etude aux Chemin de Fer', ordinary mimesis of non-musical sounds and musical auditory mimesis are combined.


But 'Different Trains' is more complex than 'Entfernte Züge’ and 'Etude de Chemin de Fer'. Next to recordings of train whistles and sirens, Steve Reich has also resound some forty fragments of sentences spoken, among others, by his governess and survivors of the holocaust, as follows:

I. America - Before the War: From Chicago to New York. One of the fastest trains. The crack train from New York. From New York to Los Angeles. Different trains every time. From Chicago to New York. In 1939.(Virginia). 1939 (Lawrence Davis). 1940. 1941. 1941 I guess it must have been.

II Europe- During the war: 1940. On my birthday. The Germans walked-walked into Holland. Germans invaded Hungary. I was in second grade. I had a teacher. A very tall man, his head was completely plastered smooth. He said, "Black Crows- Black Crows invaded our country many years ago. And he pointed right at me. No more school. You must go away. And she said, "Quick, go!" And he said, "Don't breathe" Into the cattle wagons. And for four days and four nights. And then they went through these strange sounding names. Polish-Polish names Lots of cattle wagons there. They were loaded with people. They shaved us. They tattooed a number on our arm. Flames going up in the sky. It was smokey.

III. After the war: Then the war was over. Are you sure. The war is over. Going to America. To Los Angeles. To New York. From New York to Los Angeles. One of the fastest trains. But today they're all gone. There was one girl who had a beautiful voice. And they loved to listen to the singing. The Germans. And when she stopped singing they said, "More more!" and they applauded. Send "Different Trains:

We are dealing here with a kind of narrative consisting of fragments narrated by several narrators. Otherwise than the train whistles and the sirens, the words of the narrators are not listened to for their own sake: they have to conjure up images in the mind. These representations are supplemented with the direct perception of the sounds of the train and the aerial bombardments. On the level of the image, an audible image (unmediated mimesis) is hence combined with a foremost visual representation of trains and air raids (mediated mimesis). Within the dimension of the audible, there is also a combination of the (imitation of the) sound of narrative words with the (imitation of the) sound of train whistle and siren.


Let us, finally, examine the music.

The narrators do not tell their story in full sentences, but in rather incoherent fragments of sentences. Such fragmentation already suffices to have the attention shift from the meaning of the words to the sound of their sonorous body - the 'music' in the spoken word - and that shift is only enhanced through their repetition (think of the technique used by Diana Deutsch to isolate to the speech melody). The shift of the attention is further enhanced in that the melody and the rhythm of the spoken fragments are played on instruments, so that the meaning is neutralised altogether. The musicalised word fragments become integral parts of the musical layer of the work: the strings repeat the rhythmic-melodic patterns of the text fragments in many variations as to pitch, rhythm and tempo. Reich already used the technique in earlier works, and it is borrowed from Pierre Schaeffer in his 'Symphonie pour un homme seul' (1950), for examplein the scherzo.. The live execution of that 'wordless speech' is combined with three layers of recorded versions. The result is a series of overlapping 'auditory shots' of train wheels driven by connecting rods, organised in longer sequences separated with sudden breaks.

Even without the accompanying narrative text and the auditory illustration by steam whistles, this musical layer inexorably conjures up the visual representation of connecting rods moving hence and forth. We are dealing, hence, with mediated mimesis - albeit this time not words that conjure up the representations, but rather rhythmic-melodic patterns. Therein, the rhythmic-melodic patterns differ radically from the steam whistle, which is the auditory imitation of a moving train. The rhythmical-melodic patterns are no auditory imitations, for the simple reason that connecting rods do not produce sounds. The up and down of the sounds is merely an auditory analogy to a visual event, and the analogy is used as an analog sign - as a sonification, the auditory counterpart of visualisations like a temperature curve. Also Sonny Terry uses similar analog imageconjuring signs combined with breathing that is meant to imitate the sound of the steam. To realise that there is nothing moving up and down in the sounds produced by a real train, it suffices to listen to the beginning of 'Etude aux Chemin de Fer'.

We are not dealing here with ordinary auditory mimesis, nor with absolute music, but rather with imageconjuring music. The wordless sounds have precisely the same effect as the words that are spoken on the original rhythmic-melodic patterns: they conjure up visual representations and are, hence, just like the words, imageconjuring signs. The - rather rudimentary - story that is told by the music can be phrased in words as follows: 'The connecting rods are moving back and forth, up and down, back and forth, up and down....' We could supplement these repeated phrases - varied as to pitch, tempo and diction - with the same verbal fragments, as well as with the same sounds of train whistles and sires. On the level of representations, the result of this translation from sounds into words would not be very different, just like that of the translation of the words into another language. This only highlights the purely instrumental status of imageconjuring words or sounds - of the verbal and musical layer in 'Different trains'...

That does not prevent Steve Reich from having invented an original formula. It is in line with what poets use to do when they mobilise the rhythm of the words as an additional means of vivifying the conjured images. With Steve Reich, the words are so combined that we hear them primarily as music - effect which is only enhanced in that the strings take over their 'melody'. The attention is thus shifting to music to such an extent, that we tend to overlook that the central effect of 'Different Trains' is realised through the images that are conjured up by words in the first place.

Nothing prevents us from reading 'Different Trains' not as imageconjuring, but rather as absolute music, as we often do with program music - just think of Liszt's Fontane diVilla d'Este, that is also - if not: just then - enjoyable when heard as absolute music (see: polyinterpretability). But the music is too meagre for such double reading: only in the beginning of the third part is it somewhat more interesting. That is why, after the initial measures, we feel it as a release when we hear the first text fragment and the first train whistle: we were beginning to feel bored - if not hypnotised. That makes it all the more apparent in how far this 'music' is in fact 'literature' - or to phrase it more precisely: how much the sonorous body has outgrown the narrative, how much we are rather dealing with literature that is well stuffed with music than with music that is seasoned with literature.


'Different trains' is an example of mixed mimesis, hence: a combination of auditory mimesis of musical phenomena, imageconjuring music, and verbal narrative.

The central core of the work consists of the primarily visual auditory representations conjured up (↑) by the combination of imageconjuring signs and imageconjuring music (→). Next to this core of visual and auditory representations, there is an audible layer. There, we hear imageconjuring words and imageconjuring music on the one hand, and the sound of sirens and train whistles on the other hand. The verbal and musical imageconjuring signs are not listened to as such: it is only the means of conjuring up the concomitant images. That is why, in the scheme below, we left the corollary cells blank.

visual representation of trains
but also of transports of Jews
on trains in bombed regions
trains whistles and sirens
fragments of dialogue

Only the parts of the work that are coloured belong to domain of the image: the (visual and auditory) representations (yellow) and the (auditory) perceptible sounds (pink). We are dealing here with a composite image where visual and auditory elements are combined. This combination has to be distinguished from the audiovisual image where both the visual and the auditory images are perceptible: here, it is only the sound that is perceptible, whereas the visual representations are only imagined.

A comparison with traditional program music - think of Honegger's Pacifc 231 - can highlight the peculiarity of this musico-literary composition. Comparable is the use of auditory mimesis (the train whistle) and of imageconjuring signs for the movement of the connecting rods. The recording of Honegger above is preceded with an recording of a steam engine: another occasion to realise that there is nothing moving up and down here. But here the similarity ends. A first important difference is that, in 'Different trains', the text is an audible element that is an integral part of the music, whereas, in most program music it is only an external text printed on the score. The share of literature is far more substantial with Steve Reich. More important is that, with Honegger, the rather secondary imageconjuring musical signs are embedded in an encompassing stream of absolute music. That is not the case with Steve Reich, where, as we have seen, the insertion of text and sounds comes to save the music, rather than that, conversely, the music helps to overcome the meagerness of imitated train whistles and imageconjuring musical patterns.

Also a comparison with Schönberg's 'A survivor from Warsaw' is instructive. As opposed to Pacific 231, an elaborate story is told here, although by a single narrator. On the words 'They began again' (about 5' 15"), the music provides a kind of musical analogy to what is conjured up by the narrator. It thus comes to function as a kind of additional imageconjuring sign. A similar formula is used in the first quatrain of Monteverdi's 'Hor che'l ciel', although this time the imageconjuring music is not added to, but rather condensed with the equally extensive imageconjuring text. An important difference is that, in both cases, the music can be enjoyed for its own sake: it is not a meagre appendix to the literature.


After our assessment of the status of this work of art, we can take a broader historical perspective.

Steve Reich is well aware of the fact that he has developed a new genre. But it speaks volumes that he has invented a name for it that is not quite appropriate: 'a music documentary' (interview on Channel 4)). It seems not to dawn on him that he did not create an audible world at all, but a represented world that is foremost visual at that. We find a similar 'false consciousness' with Bill Fontana, who has his ordinary auditory imitations pass for 'musical sculptures' - or with Pierre Schaeffer, who is talking of 'Musique concrète'. Such terminological confusion is the reflection of a much broader phenomenon: the failure of the philosophy of art and music. Only a 'mimetic turn' - an understanding in term of a revised mimetic paradigm - can create the necessary clarity and thus pave the way for a genuine revival of absolute music.

It was certainly such a revival that Steve Reich and his companions were thinking of: their 'minimal music' originated as a reaction against serial music that was supposed to have tabooed melody, harmony and meter. In an interview with Jonathan Cott, Steve Reich declares 'the prevailing works of that time, written by Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio and Cage, were non pulsatile – there was no regular beat' ''There was a simultaneous move to have no sense of key, cadence, or resting point in the music.' Reich and the other minimalists thus made us believe that, with a restoration of melody, harmony and meter 'music' would be put on the right track again. But, rather than a new unfolding of meter, melody and harmony, we witnessed a flight forward toward procedures like phase shifting, that were rather a continuation of the formal considerations of serial music, than a reaction against it. In an attempt at lending such purely formal approach an air of profundity, Steve Reich came to season his minimalistic rhythms and melody with imageconjuring text and with sounds from the real world. It escaped his attention, however, that he thereby hollowed out music from within: the music is replaced with ordinary sounds on the one hand, and on the other hand reduced to a mere sign that, like the letters of a story, can be left behind as soon as the images are conjured up. Despite all rhetoric to the contrary, the restoration of melody, harmony and meter - the 'basics' that would have been squandered by serial music - absolute music is here not revitalised at all: rather have we landed in a non-musical world of visual representations and of sounds that have been reduced to mere signs.

Let us remark that the turn towards the literary only highlights that music (not otherwise than visual images or objects) leaves much to be desired when used as an imageconjuring sign. Precisely because movement is not particularly instructive about the thing or being that moves, its conjuring has always been supplemented - if not saved - by the share of absolute music. That applies also to the purely semiotic use of musical motifs - think of Wagner's Leitmotive, which will never be so accurate as verbal language.

The turn towards literature has also its contentual aspect. Whereas the previous works of Reich excelled through their formal and contentual unworldiness and lightheartedness, we are suddenly confronted with the theme of the holocaust. This contentual turn highlights the contrast between the trite music - even the sirens and the train whistle sound very salonfähig in comparison with their counterparts in George Antheil's 'Ballet Méchanique' (1924) or Edgar Varèse's Ionisation(1929) - and the ominous message it is supposed to convey as imageconjuring music in combination with imageconjurig words. The incongruence was already evident in 'Tehillim'. Far more eloquent is the music of Luigi Nono's'Quando stanno morendo', even when we make abstraction of the literary dimension with which it is admirably congruent. That only highlights, in its turn, how much the restoration of 'absolute music' has nothing to do with a restoration of meter, melody and harmony, but everything with the breaking of a more fundamental mimetic taboo. On the musical level, the taboo is maintained, and it is only apparently lifted in transforming the music into imageconjuring signs for trains, whose contentual freight is only revealed through the imageconjuring words: the content that is banned from the level of genuine music is only allowed to appear on the level of the representations. Such elusive move is what Reich's move towards imageconjuring music has in common with the move from the visual image to 'conceptual art' (see 'And the flesh has become word').

In the world of the audible, the waiting is for the intended revival of mimetic (especially absolute) music, a revival that is to be understood not so much in terms of a restoration of meter and tonality, as rather in terms of content. It should be reminded that precisely by leaving the trodden paths of meter and tonality, serial music has paved the way for the disclosure of contentual domains of which the minimalist can only dream (just think of the early Ligeti and the late Nono) - although there is no use whatsoever in putting a ban on melody, meter and tonality as such.

Apart from the question whether our era is propitious to such a revival of mimetic music in general and of absolute music in particular, a prior condition is in any case the recognition that there are many kinds of music: only than can we properly gauge the gap between 'Different Trains' and, say, Ligeti's Requiem or Luigi Nono's Prometeo.

Although 'Different Trains' is quite an achievement as an example of imageconjuring music, it is rather one the many symptoms of the decay of absolute music than a step towards its renaissance.

© Stefan Beyst, June 2012, translated June 2012.

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