Conversation with Steve Reich

Interview by Rebecca Y. Kim

From New York to Vermont: Conversation with Steve Reich

How did Different Trains originate?

It started out with Beryl Korot, the video artist (and my wife) saying to me, – after I had been commissioned by Betty Freeman to do a piece for Kronos Quartet, “Well, you’re so interested in the sampler, why don’t you use one? You’ll love it and they’ll love it.” I was given a number of sampling keyboards from the Casio Company—this was back in the 80s—and I was very excited about the possibility of using samples in my music. You see, after I finished with the tape pieces, I basically had no interest in technology: I was not interested in synthesis; I was not interested in something sounding like a violin. The only time I ever used synthesizers was for convenience—in The Desert Music, the brass notes are so long and the performers need to breathe – so I have the synthesizers doubling them so you don’t hear the holes; in Sextet, it’s because I would have had to tour with four woodwinds to get the same effect. But, back then, samplers presented the possibility of bringing non-musical material into musical contexts by playing or programming it. Different Trains was the first and inspired result.

I knew I would do a piece for sampled voices and Kronos Quartet, but I didn’t know whose voice it was going to be. At first, I thought it was going to be the voice of Béla Bartók, and I went and got a recording that he made at WNYC years ago during the time he was at Columbia University. He was also at Boosey & Hawkes, but there turned out to be a problem with rights, at which point I just said to myself, “Do I want Béla Bartók looking up over my shoulder while I try to write a piece for string quartet? It’s hard enough as it is.” Then I thought about using the voice of Ludwig Wittgenstein because I had studied his philosophy and imagined that he must have had a very interesting voice. But after corresponding with people in the United States and England, nobody knew of Wittgenstein recording anything. He would have had to do it with a wire recorder and it turned out that he hadn’t.

Then I began thinking there must be something closer to home. Somehow, these train trips that I had taken as a child between New York and Los Angeles just popped into my head. I began asking myself, “When did I do this?” and, “What was going on at that time?” Well, that was 1939, 1940, 1941, and what was going on at the time was little Jewish boys like me were put on trains from Rotterdam or Brussels or Budapest to Poland and they never came back.

That was the genesis of the idea, and once I had that I moved pretty quickly. I spoke to the woman who had taken care of me as a child, who at the time was living in Queens. I located a black Pullman porter in Washington, D.C. who had been on the very same lines that I had ridden on as a child. Then I went up to Yale, where they have an archive of Holocaust survivors on tape. I spent a couple of days up there just riveted. I copied what I felt were not only riveting stories but stories told in a musical tone of voice. Then I came back and went through all this material, stopping every time I got to something that seemed emblematic—“Nineteen forty-one”—emblematic in what it said, and emblematic in the speech melody of how it was said. I put these on a floppy disk and wrote them down as best I could in musical notation. After all this, I formulated some basic rules of thumb: every time a woman speaks the viola doubles her, every time a man speaks the cello doubles him; the train whistles are always doubled by the fiddles. The whole thing just took off after that.

This is one of the first works in which you invite the listener into your personal story. As a listener, I find it intensely moving to think that of the many things evoked in this work, one of them is you remembering yourself as a three- or four-year-old. Do you have reservations about putting something so personal in your music?

You have to put something personal in every piece you ever do. You mean in terms of the verbal material? Well, it isn’t really there. All that’s really there is what I tell you in the program notes, if you have the program notes. One of the nicest reactions to Different Trains was by Pat Metheny, during the time that I was working with him on Electric Counterpoint. He didn’t have any program notes, so he didn’t know what the piece was about. After he heard Different Trains he said to me [speaking quietly], “Man, that was an unbelievable piece.” I said, “Could you hear the words?” He said, “I heard enough to get the sense of it.” He didn’t understand everything that was said, and he had no idea of my background, but he got it. I gave him a big hug and said that was the best thing I had heard because it meant that the piece works without program notes.

Nobody receives awards for technical expertise in music. We know that Bach was perhaps the best technician that ever lived, but he himself said das Affekt, and if Bach said das Affekt, I can only say it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing or that je ne sais quoi. That’s what matters, and Different Trains, thank G-d, has that. There are some interesting things going on technically but that’s not why we’re talking.

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~ by deodesign on March 23, 2008.

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