September 2018 –  “But Today, They’re All Gone”: Some observations on Steve Reich’s Different Trains

Steve Reich’s Different Trains was premiered 30 years ago. Versions are readily available online, but in summary, this is a 27-minute long musical piece, in three movements, written for performance by a string quartet over a recorded background. The latter features another string quartet, voices and sound effects – the latter largely train whistles and warning sirens. The strings are played in rhythmic patterns, perhaps reflecting Reich’s background – he has described himself as a “drummer”, and many of his compositions feature percussion, sometimes exclusively. What was unusual and innovatory in Different Trains was the way in which the melody and rhythm of speech has dominated the composition, and its use of oral history elements. Reich has asserted that it was driven by a “feeling for documentary material as raw material for music”.

The genesis of Reich’s piece lay in his memories of long train journeys in his childhood (he was born in 1936), between New York and Los Angeles. His parents, one a singer, the other a lawyer, had parted, and he spent half the year with one in Los Angeles and the other in New York. In those times air travel was in his infancy, and he travelled by Pullman train, taking four days, accompanied by his governess, Virginia Mitchell. Virginia’s voice is one of those used in Different Trains. He later looked back on these travels, between 1939 and 1942, and realised that had he been in the European war, as a Jewish person he would have also taken long train journeys, from West to East but with no return – “and out of the picture entirely”. He decided to record the memories of Virginia Mitchell, located and recorded a African-American Pullman porter, Lawrence Davis, and then used oral recordings from three Holocaust survivors, all from Europe but living in the States. It was not just what was said, but the way in which it was spoken, the music in the voice, that he scored and used. Thus, when Mr Davis reflected “but today, they’re all gone”, it is the notes in his voice, and their phrasing, that the string instruments follow. This could be a mere device, but the power of Reich’s work lies in his ability to relate the sounds and the music into an ambiguous, but moving, narrative.

In this piece I will focus upon the final movement, and principally its last five minutes. This appears to offer some redemption and hope, but one upon which doubt can be cast. The first movement evoked the “crack train from New York” (Mr Davis) and “one of the fastest trains” (Ms Mitchell); this reflects the meaning of crack train – the fastest on a line. These voices return in the third movement, with the voice of a Holocaust survivor adding to Mr Davis’ intonation “from New York to Los Angeles”. For the survivors, these too were “different trains”. Repeated phrases match the fast tempo, until suddenly all slows down, as Mr Davis’ voice breaks in:  “But today, But today, But today, today…But today, they’re all gone….they’re all gone…But today, today…but today, they’re all gone, all gone.” Sombre music, repeating the same phrase, follows, until one final “but today, they’re all gone”. The note suddenly changes, with strings surrounding a story from one of the survivors, in two excerpts. She tells of how “there was one girl who had a beautiful voice” and “they loved to listen to the singing…..and when she stopped singing they said more, more, they applauded….more, more” and a final minute, in more upbeat vein, sees the strings fade slowly out, with “more, more” gently intoned at intervals. 

This movement is titled “after the war”, combining the experiences of survivors with those of Americans for whom the subject of their journeys – the luxury Pullman trains – had vanished as surely as the cattle truck trains to Poland, with the final demise of the Pullman company in 1968. The ambiguity of Mr Davis’ “they’re all gone” is marked: it is the trains that have gone, withdrawn as transcontinental air travel became reliable. But it is clearly those who did not survive the trains to Poland, on whom attention is focused. There is grief of sorts for porters like Mr Davis, whose livelihood, and position, and perhaps identity, have gone with his workplace, so that all that is left is memories. For Reich, too, there is the loss of childhood experience, of journeys that he described as “romantic”, a form of travel that he continues to like, and with a governess who was, he recalled later, like a second mother to him. And added to this, as ambiguous as trainspotting and the love of steam in some quarters in Britain, is the loss of the trains, of an era when these were luxurious, like ocean liners and much air travel at the time. The music evokes lost worlds, from that of the US sleeper train to the, thankfully, lost cattle trains that represented the destruction of communities that, in many cases, remain irreversibly destroyed.

Such visions contain dangers, in that the focus can be taken away from the horrific use to which railways were put in Europe. The 1930s through to the 1950s in the US present an era in which much segregation between white and black prevailed, while lynchings continued. The Pullman trains were staffed by freed slaves after the Civil War, and while these formed a form of labour aristocracy among African-Americans, it was a precarious one based on harsh working conditions and the need for servile behaviour to generate the gratuities that supplemented meagre pay. Pullman himself had endorsed the use of troops to shoot strikers in the Pullman strike of 1894. Lawrence Davis was called “Happy Davis”, and was involved in union and civil rights activities, while feeling pride in his job and the services provided to passengers. The interview with Steve Reich was not the only one: interviewed for Miles of Smiles, a 1991 book about Black Pullman porters, Mr Davis commented that “The Pullman company never forget to let you know that you was black! The porter was relegated to sleep in the smoker. We had to sleep in the men’s toilet.” Porters were also only permitted to eat meals in the toilet. The privileged luxury sleeping train thus rested on oppressive relations of servility, something that Reich, whose lawyer father could afford servants, left unmentioned. Only further investigations could reveal this story behind the musical presentation.

This does not detract from the listening experience, so much as to add an additional, perhaps unintended layer. Further research has indicated difficulties in the use of oral testimony. Like many oral historians, Steve Reich set out to create documents as well as to interpret existing ones. Like some, he, and listeners, encountered a significant problem. This is that it is not just the words that are spoken that carry significance, but also the manner in which they are expressed. Some historians have been keen to find speakers whose testimony carries interest and a form of music, the latter being something that they share with Steve Reich. The impression that he has presented is that he just freely interviewed Virginia Gibson and Lawrence Davis, and then selected especially musical phrases; indeed, he has insisted that these are their words, their story. As with the Holocaust survivors, he selected words to tell a story and to provide musical interpretation; one alternative would have been to write their speech and then obtain and coach actors to speak the words in a particular way. That clearly did not happen, but his archives have revealed that he coaxed his interviewees to express a phrase in a particular way. In the case of Virginia Mitchell, this proved difficult, due to her nervousness and the feeling that the questions came from someone she had known well, and presumably cared about greatly.

One feature of this lies with the story told in the closing part of the piece, by a Dutch holocaust survivor. This seems like an affirmation of redemption, of music providing an astonishing beauty in that ugliest of environments. Perhaps even the worst Nazis could appreciate this. But later research has suggested that Reich misheard the interviewee. The phrase “they loved to listen to the singing”, in careful reading to a second language speaking, is more like “they laughed to listen to the singing”. The Germans “laughed” is very different to the image of brutal men affected by the transcendent (and perhaps eternal) beauty of music, while a gentle “more more” in her expression may be closer to an order rather than a plea for more beauty. If you love music, it puts you under obligations to the performer, gives them power; but if you laugh, it is because you have power, the ability to cut off the singing, or to insist on more, the applause ironic, like a brutal prison guard who admires a painting lovingly presented by a prisoner and then reaches to tear it to pieces. This suggests less of a redemptive tone to the final movement and more one of a mild ambivalent melancholy. 

This seeming melancholy, whether or not fully intended, derives from a more universal application of insights from those of the Holocaust and very differing train journeys. The whole piece seems to be more a meditation on the passing. “But today, they’re all gone” does not only apply to the holocaust victims, the train service and a way of life that, with all its difficulties, provided meaning and purpose to Pullman porters and other railway workers. It is true that “they’re all gone”: all who perished in the Holocaust, Virginia Mitchell, Lawrence Davis, Steve Reich’s parents; while soon the remaining Holocaust survivors and Reich himself (now nearly 82) will be gone, with memories and meaning diminished, fading and modified. The real focus – one that Reich perhaps found unintentionally – of Different Trains may be on the overpowering losses developing through time, that sweeps everything away, leaving only music as a monument to loss and remembrance.