Sunday, March 13, 2016

Trains and Planes

I have always thought of Steve Reich as a composer of "absolute" music, that is, primarily instrumental music with no "message", political or other. That is certainly true of a lot of pieces, but there were two sides to Steve Reich even from the very early tape pieces in the mid-1960s. His two tape collages, "It's Gonna Rain" and "Come Out" both have a political subtext. Reich comments on the first piece that:
It’s Gonna Rain … is a very heavy piece written in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the voice is a spectacularly moving, intense voice about the end of the world. 
"Come Out" on the other hand, is a commentary on police brutality in the aftermath of the Harlem Riot of 1964. In both cases, he avoids any suggestion of melodrama or hectoring by simply using a fragment of recorded speech as material to be put into a characteristically Reichian musical process.

For over a decade he pursued purely musical processes in pieces like "Drumming", "Octet" and "Music for 18 Musicians". Then in 1981 he wrote "Tehillim", a setting in four movements of texts from the Hebrew Psalms. In 1988 he explored another aspect of his Jewish heritage with the piece "Different Trains" for tape and string quartet. On the tape are recorded speech fragments from Reich's governess Virginia and a retired Pullman porter, Lawrence, both of whom talk about traveling on trains before the Second World War when Reich, as a young boy, travelled back and forth between his two separated parents, living in Los Angeles and New York. The second movement uses speech fragments from survivors of the Holocaust who had their own train journeys with rather a different destination--the extermination camps. Also on the tape are train sounds from the 30s and 40s and pre-recorded string quartet music. In the liner notes to the CD, Steve Reich gives an example of how he uses speech fragments to generate the melodic material:

Click to enlarge

He used a similar procedure in the composition "WTC 9/11" a memorial of the terrorist attacks in September 2001 that brought down the two towers of the World Trade Center. In his abbreviation, "WTC" stands for both World Trade Center and for the "world to come" from a recorded speech fragment. The piece uses extensive recordings from NORAD and the Fire Department of New York recorded during the event and, in the second movement, from recollections of survivors recorded in 2010. The third movement uses recordings of the voices of people who sat by the bodies reciting passages from the Psalms and other biblical texts, the Jewish tradition called Shmira. The result is a kind of dark oratorio using as text nothing but words spoken by witnesses to the event.

In the case of both of these pieces, melodrama and emotional excess are avoided by using the basic materials to generate musical processes. I don't mean to imply that this is not extremely effective musically--it is, and nowhere more so than in the beautiful and lyric third movement of "WTC 9/11".

Here is the first part of "Different Trains" and right near the beginning you can hear the melodic example I posted above:

Here is a live performance of "WTC 9/11" with the Kronos Quartet. The last movement begins around the ten minute mark:


Christine Lacroix said...

Totally unrelated to your post,Bryan, but I wondered if you would find this article interesting:

Bryan Townsend said...

That is interesting--but wow, they have a long way to go. I have a feeling that they are going at it from the wrong end. Rather than trying to craft music that will be more appealing to those with cochlear implants, perhaps the implant technology can be improved so that music sounds more like music?

Christine Lacroix said...

I don't always like Steve Reich but I found the WTC piece quite moving.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm glad; so did I.