Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Steve Reich / Kronos Quartet / Pat Metheny - 1989 - Different Trains / Electric Counterpoint

Steve Reich - Kronos Quartet / Pat Metheny 
Different Trains / Electric Counterpoint

Different Trains
01. Kronos Quartet America – Before The War 8:59
02. Kronos Quartet Europe – During The War 7:31
03. Kronos Quartet After The War 10:20
Electric Counterpoint
04. Pat Metheny Fast 6:51
05. Pat Metheny Slow 3:21
06. Pat Metheny Fast 4:29

Viola [Kronos Quartet] – Hank Dutt (tracks: 1 to 3)
Violin [Kronos Quartet] – David Harrington (tracks: 1 to 3)
Violin [Kronos Quartet] – John Sherba (tracks: 1 to 3)
Cello [Kronos Quartet] – Joan Jeanrenaud (tracks: 1 to 3)
Guitar – Pat Metheny (tracks: 4 to 6)

"Different trains" recorded August 31 - September 9, 1988 at Russian Hill Recording, San Francisco.
"Electric counterpoint" recorded September 26 - October 1, 1987 at Power Station, New York City.

Different Trains (1988) will probably go down in history as Reich's masterpiece. And deservedly so. Reich's phase-shifting minimalism is made dazzlingly entertaining in Different Trains, which is scored for string quartet and digitally sampled voices that repeat bits of speech concerning trains and Reich's experience with them growing up. The sinister part here is than some trains carried Jews to death camps. That's here as well. The Kronos Quartet has also never sounded better. Electric Counterpoint (1987) has one guitar--Pat Metheny in this case-- playing to 10 pre-recorded motifs, also on guitar. You absolutely need this. --Paul Cook

"DIFFERENT TRAINS" (1988) is one of the better known works by Steve Reich (1936 - ), an American composer who helped develop minimalism in music, during the mid to late 1960s - along with La Monte Young (1935 -); Terry Riley (1935 - ); Philip Glass (1937 - ); later John Adams (1947 - ) - better known for his choral work titled "On the Transmigration of Souls" (2002), commemorating the victims of the September 11 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers, and also for the opera "Nixon in China".

[Incidentally, has anyone noticed that many minimalist composers have very short names?]

Some of Reich's other compositions - besides "Electric Counterpoint" (1987), also in the CD - are: It's Gonna Rain (1965); Come Out (1966 ); Music for 18 Musicians (1974-1976); Triple Quartet (1998); Double Sextet (2007); Mallet Quartet (2009); and WTC 9/11 (2010).

DIFFERENT TRAINS (1988, approximately 26 minutes long). Recorded in the CD is the original interpretation of the work by the Kronos Quartet, an American group based in San Francisco. The same interpretation: (1) won a Grammy Award in 1989 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition; and (2) was selected as the finest among a number of recordings of the same work in the June 2014 issue of the BBC Music Magazine, "Building a Library" chapter.
Different Trains is a three-movement composition for string quartet and tape, which Reich conceived, based on his experiences as a young child (between 1939 and 1942), when he frequently rode trains from New York City to Los Angeles and back, in order to spend time with both his parents who were separated. Once an adult, he realized that - as a Jew - had he been living in Europe during those same years, his train journeys would not have been as enjoyable and full of exciting discoveries, as had been those from New York City to Los Angeles and back.
He visualized three different trains, each traveling before, during and after the Great War, in North America and in Europe. He described those trains in a musical composition by interlocking together train noises, as produced by the string quartet, with human voices from prerecorded tapes. The three movements are titled:
- America - Before the War (lasting approximately 9 minutes). This is a happy movement with a regular fast rhythm and a music which successfully replicate the noise of the moving train, complete with whistle, and other special train sounds. The voices on the tape - by Reich's governess Virginia, and by the Pullman porter - repeat the words "from New York to Los Angeles" and "from Chicago to New York", with occasional other train related commentaries, such as "one of the fastest trains", and "different trains every time". The movement leaves the listener with a positive contented feeling.
- Europe - During the War (lasting approximately 7 minutes). The mood changes dramatically, once we leave happy carefree America for Europe in the middle of World War II. The cheerful train sounds are gone, as we witness the development of a journey whose final destination is hell. We still hear the sounds describing the moving train, as well as the voices on the tape (provided here by holocaust survivors), making comments regarding the war and some of their personal experiences. But it is no longer a positively charged music. It is the music describing a train taking its passengers to the concentration camps. The atmosphere is somber, and becomes increasingly so, as we approach the end of the journey. As the train pulls into the station, the voice on the tape says: "Flames going up in the sky - It is smoking.......". At the same time the music becomes strident in a manner that evokes the climactic emotions associated with such sight. The movement ends. The listener is left with a sense of anguish and despair comparable to the one that the train passengers must have experienced back in the early 1940`s.
- After the War (Europe and America, lasting approximately 10 minutes). The despair and other strong emotions experienced by the passengers on the train during the war are gone, but the music is no longer the happy carefree one of the first movement. It is very sad. So is the listener by the end of the work.

- ELECTRIC COUNTERPOINT (1987, approximately 15 minutes long). The second composition in the CD, Electric Counterpoint, is also a minimalist work in three movements. The movements are described as fast, slow fast and are played without interruptions. The work is interpreted by American jazz composer and guitarist Pat Metheny (1954 - ), who prerecorded on tape the sound of ten guitars and two bass parts, then played the 11th guitar live against the sounds on the same tape.
Eleven Guitars. How about that for counterpoint!!!!
Although technically innovative, the piece is not as captivating as the previous one, at least not on an emotional level. The rhythm/melody are somewhat comparable to the ones of Different Trains, but without the whistle and other train sounds. They remain relatively unchanged during the three movements.
The music of this second piece may not stir the same emotions that Different Trains does. But then again, a masterpiece such as Different Trains is not produced every day.

Minimalism as a chugging train, with Kronos Quartet playing in staccato rhythm alongside, and train whistles blowing as either sirens of nostalgia, or as sirens of horror.  Its melodies occur as spurts derived from spoken word, musically translated and matched by the strings.  The concept is Steve Reich remembering his privileged upbringing riding trains across the USA during World War II, knowing now that, since he's a Jew, if he were in Europe at the time a train ride would have been quite different.  The spoken narration is recorded oral history put into an artistic context that goes for the jugular.

The first movement is "America - Before the War", using simple benign phrases ("one of the fastest trains"; "1941 it must have been") uttered by Reich's governess and a retired Pullman porter.  Establishes a sepia past that, even in its safety, is aware of its placement in an anxious world.  The second movement is "Europe - During the War", with a sudden shift to darker tones and phrases of terror recalled by Holocaust survivors ("and he said, 'Don't Breathe!'"; "into those cattle wagons!"; "Flames going up to the sky - it was smoking").  The final movement is "After the War", an uneasy awakening from a nightmare ("and the war was over"; "are you sure?").  A feeling more of relief, reflection and mourning than of celebration.  Moving onward ... "going to America"; "one of the fastest trains"; "but today they're all gone".

It has a heavy mood that never fails to move me, strongly, emotionally.  How many avant-garde classical pieces can you say that about?  The melodicism derived from bits of spoken word is a powerful technique.  A truly groundbreaking piece.  Sadly, Reich knows this and keeps trying to repeat the concept - but don't be fooled by imitations. Different Trains is potent.

The second piece is Reich's classic patterned style as interpreted for overdubs of electric guitar performed by Pat Metheny.  It has a peaceful New Agey charm that allows plenty of room for you to contemplate the clever counterpoint.  Reminds you that *whew* good thing we live in more privileged times (for now).