Posted in Project 2: String Quartets

Research Point 5.4: Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988)

The aim of this research point is to listen to Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988) with a score, then discuss important features with the piece, such as the use of the string quartet or the recordings in the work, as well as include some background information of the composer. I will first start this post by providing a brief biographical outline of Steve Reich, before focusing on the main aspects of the composition. Although I have went much over the 400 word-count in the brief, I believe some points I make, particularly about the ‘reality check’ and ‘shock of the banal’ near the end, very relevant to my studies.

Short biography of the composer

Born in 1936 in New York, Steve Reich (Fig. 1) is known for his artistic contributions as one of the main exponents of Minimalism – a contemporary classical art music style devoted to the ideals of simplicity, such as repetitions and combinations of simple motifs/harmonies, which developed in response to the complexity of the intellectually sophisticated style of avant-garde music (Britannica, 2020).

Fig. 1. Steve Reich (n.d.)

According to his website (Reich, n.d.), he first studied philosophy at Cornell University, then composition at Julliard School of Music, finally receiving his MA in Music from Mills College, having studied with Bergsma, Persichetti, Berio and Milhaud. Interestingly, Reich’s path has embraced not only aspects of Western Classical music, but also the structures, harmonies, and rhythms of non-Western traditions, American vernacular music and jazz. Along these lines, he studied drumming at the Institute for African Studies, as well as Balinese gamelan music and traditional forms of cantillation of Hebrew scriptures (Britannica, 2019). Starting his own ensemble, which grew from three to eighteen members, Reich started composing minimalist compositions that contain experimentation with tape loops, like Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966). This allowed him to observe interlocking rhythmic patterns he could later reproduce compositionally, which culminated in his semi-autobiographical piece Different Trains (1988). This work marked a new compositional method of ‘speech melody’, in which speech recordings generate the musical material for musical instruments that he developed further in projects like The Cave (1993), City Life (1995) and WTC 9/11 (2011).

Different Trains as a music documentary:

(Auto)biographical testimonies in speech melody

Different Trains is a three-movement composition for string quartet and tape, first performed by the Kronos Quartet, which I’ve mentioned previously in my string quartet research here. When I first encountered the composition for this research, I found Reich’s personal motivation in the origins of the piece very gripping. Due to his parent’s divorce, Reich frequently travelled back and forth by train between New York and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942:

“While these trips were exciting and romantic at the time, I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride on very different trains.”

(Reich cited in Music and the Holocaust, n.d.)

Referring to the World War II, Reich was aware that if he’d had a less fortunate birthright, he could have been travelling on Holocaust trains to concentration camps instead. This inspired the composer to create a piece that “would accurately reflect the whole situation”, juxtaposing his personal circumstances of being a Jewish child in the 1940s America with those of child-survivors of the Holocaust.

Although in a very indirect sense, I should mention here that the subject-matter has been very familiar to me. In 2011/12 I have attended a seminar ‘Stories of Injustice, Sinti and Roma in the 20th and 21th Century’ in Dachau, Germany’s first concentration camp, hearing blood-chilling testimonies after interviewing a few Roma survivors or their families for a short documentary film on the subject. On top of this, my research for the film revealed that my home town, Bor in Serbia (Fig. 2) had three concentration camps nearby, with the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti (Fig. 3) being imprisoned in one of them, forced to an inhuman march to a different camp where he was shot. This has really left a grisly mark on me and I have created a few artworks, including a physical theatre piece to address the topic reimagined as the darkness captured in Pandora’s box. Thereby, I was profoundly moved and inspired by Reich’s piece.

Fig. 2. Bor, a town in Eastern Serbia (n.d.)

Fig. 3. Miklós Radnóti (1930)

Drawing on his experimentations with tape, Reich recorded authentic train and siren sounds, as well as several testimonies, including his childhood governess, Virginia, who accompanied him on his train travels, a retired Pullman porter, Mr Davis, and three Holocaust survivors, Paul, Rachel, and Rachella, who are about Reich’s age and “now living in America”. I found this idea of using documentary-based material very interesting, with Reich assuming a unique position as a creator – not solely as a composer, but also a witness. This (auto)biographical approach to music and composing is something I have never considered before, something I’d like to explore further in my work.

At any rate, the way Reich utilizes this documentary material is exceptionally novel and original. Rather than solely combining the pre-recorded material with the live, string quartet performance side by side, the composer inextricably intertwines them together through a method he named ‘speech melody’ – using speech as the main compositional source to derive melodies from. Along these lines, the string quartet in Different Trains mimics the natural ‘musicality’ of the vocal inflections on tape, reproducing them into melodic and rhythmic contours.

In this direction, the tempo and key changes of the music are adjusted to accommodate the speech of each new phrase, so that the identity of the voices is preserved for the listener. Moreover, the instrumental imitations act both as indication of new phrases, but also give a recurrent impression of the voice in question when a phrase has been divided as loops of one or two words, out of which new rhythms can be created. Enabling the listener to slowly piece things together, this results in a unique relationship between the gradual unfolding of music’s narrative and that of each speaker. As such, the documentary material is nested within the rhythmic and harmonic scheme of the work in a distinctly fundamental way. Against this core, the string quartet also programmatically mimicks the soundscape clatters of trains in the extensive use of paradiddle rhythms, while the train-whistles signal tonal shifts.

Moving onto the structure, having selected various sound clips through digital sampling, Reich arranged them into a type of three-movement narrative: ‘America, before the war’, ‘Europe, during the war’ and ‘After the war’. In each part, the melodies are introduced by a single instrument – viola for women and cello for men, with recordings of the spoken phrases from which they derive. In the lively first movement, Reich’s governess and Pullman porter, reminisce about train travel in the U.S. with American train sounds heard in the background, while in the grim second movement, three Holocaust survivors speak about their experiences accompanied by European train sounds and sirens.

I thought this juxtaposition of the two different types of trains – American train whistles in perfect fourths/fifths and European train whistles in short triadic screeches and shrieks, to effectively embody the frightening contrast between Reich’s rather untroubled reality and the tragic one of the Holocaust survivors, situated in the experience of their respective countries during World War II. Nonetheless, there is continuity present in-between the two movements. For instance, this is achieved verbally in the year ‘1941, I guess it must have been’ and ‘1940’, as well as through the tempo with Virginia’s phrase anticipating the mellower speed of the following movement. In the melodic sense, this can observed in the opening instrumental accompaniment figures of the first movement being present in the second, though much slower. Finally, the two worlds meet in the third movement, featuring both the Holocaust survivors talking about the years following the war, along with recordings of Davis and Virginia, which also signal the return to the American train sounds from the first movement.

While I found the whole piece extremely powerful, particularly the eeriness of the second movement that made me recall many stories of the concentration camp interviewees I have mentioned earlier in the post, despite the renewed vigor of the music in the final movement, the ending itself was the most compelling to me in its nearly all-dreadful implications. In this sense, the piece closes with the voice of the Holocaust survivor, Rachella, who describes how ‘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’.

If I listened to this live, I wonder how and if I would even actually dare to applaud – I would certainly hesitate, being put in the same shoes as these oppressors who enjoyed the girl’s singing, pondering how I can even view music the same way as these tormentors have in the situation. It produced the effect of a ‘reality check’ (Vaage, 2013) for me – a concept in cognitive film theory whereby a film has the potential to shock the spectator out of the filmic diegesis to reflect on the real-world moral questions. In this vein, I recalled something the historian at the Dachau concentration camp said – how the scariest thing about SS personnel is that they weren’t just inhuman executioners, but they were human beings ready to carry out the evils of the Reich. Thereby, I believe the final sentence pronounced by Rachella also contains the ‘shock of the banal’ (Levine, 2013), the shock of the banality of the social violence. Both things are something I never thought music alone could directly do, but something only the realist novels and films could. Same goes for tackling (auto)biography in general, so this piece really opened up a new horizon for me.

In conclusion, I found Steve Reich’s composition revolutionary in multiple ways, especially since it tackles a subject-matter that really affected me in the past. The closest to his ‘speech melody’ I knew of is Schoenberg’s ‘Sprechstimme’ in-between spoken words and melody, such as in Pierre Lunaire (1911) I listened to in composing 1 unit. However, Reich’s device really takes the idea of blending diction and music into one extraordinary force to an undreamt direction. Especially with the (auto)biographical connotations that contain intricate references to reality, which even produced the effect of ‘reality checks’ and ‘shock of the banal’ that I didn’t even think was possible in the musical medium by itself, I believe this composition will forever stick with me both in the compositional and personal sense. Furthermore, it inspired me to one day look into the sampling technology, which I hope to use in any future pieces. I also hope to listen to other Reich’s pieces, as this one left a staggering imprint on me.

List of illustrations:

Figure 1. Steve Reich (n.d.) At: (Accessed 2nd September 2020)

Figure 2. Bor, a town in Eastern Serbia (n.d.) [Creative commons] At:

Figure 3. Miklós Radnóti (1930) [Creative Commons] At:


Brittanica (2019) ‘Steve Reich.’ In: Music, Classical, Britannica. [Online] At: (Accessed on 3rd September 2020)

Britannica (2020) ‘Minimalism.’ In: Art Movement, Britannica. [Online] At: (Accessed on 4th September 2020)

Music and the Holocaust (n.d.) ‘Different Trains’ [Online blog] At: (Accessed 2nd September 2020)

Levine, C. (2013) ‘Extraordinary Ordinariness: Realism Now and Then.’ In: Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, 63. At:

Vaage, M. B. (2013) ‘Fictional reliefs and reality checks.’ In: Screen, 54 (2) At: (Accessed on 5th September 2020)

Reich, S. (n.d.) ‘Biography.’ At: (Accessed 2nd September 2020)

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