Zola Jesus, Vessel and more discuss the American minimalist composer before a new performance of his seminal Different Trains takes place in Liverpool tonight
In 1988, American minimalist composer Steve Reich wrote the Grammy-winning Different Trains for string quartet and tape. As a child during World War II, Reich would make journeys from New York to Los Angeles to visit his parents, who’d separated previously. As an adult, he thought back to those train journeys, and how, being Jewish, they might have taken him to a concentration camp had he been born in Europe.
As part of the composer’s 80th birthday celebrations (he was born on October 3, 1936), Different Trains is being performed for the first time with a visual accompaniment by artist and filmmaker Bill Morrison. The film, which features archival footage of train journeys filmed during World War II, was specially commissioned for an open-air performance of Different Trains that’s taking place at Liverpool’s Edge Hill train station tonight (September 29) by arts organisation Metal as part of the Liverpool Biennial.
Edge Hill is the world’s oldest active passenger stations, and was the departure point for the first ever intercity passenger train travel – from Liverpool to Manchester – in September 1830. Trains will still run through the station while the performance takes place, and Reich himself will be in attendance.
Alongside the performance, a new documentary captures the new recording of Different Trains at Liverpool’s Parr Street Studios, which is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary with 25 short films. The film expands on the process that went into the recording, as well as the musician’s expectations of the performance.
Ahead of the concert tonight – which, for anyone not in Liverpool, can be watched live via Boiler Room – a handful of musicians including Zola Jesus and Vessel expanded on the enduring influence of Steve Reich and Different Trains on their music.
“Steve Reich took me to school on the beauty of minimalism. In first listening to the works of Reich, I was amazed at how a simple repeated phrase over the course of ten minutes could unfold and metamorphosize into fractals of sound. After ten minutes I couldn’t believe that it was still the same notes. It makes you realize how integral the internal work and experience of the listener is to the music. Hearing the same note repeated 100 times will eventually sound like a different note. There’s a power to that and certainly worth exploring. The work of Reich within the realm of minimalism has been deeply inspiring to me not only as a musician, but as a music listener as well.”
“Reich’s legacy is unique. Few artists can claim to have re-calibrated how we listen. His music has a seductive, poppy quality to it which allowed him to gently lead many people towards a more involved approach to listening, which I have always felt to be an act of great generosity and benefit to society. His sound and what it represents has become the foundation for a critical dissenting voice, increasingly relevant as the world continues to accelerate. That it remains to be vital and continue to evolve is a testament to the importance of his work. The ears Reich gave me were grown so quietly that most of the time I forget they weren't always like that- but without them my relationship with sound and music would be an impoverished one.”
“If you ask people who Steve Reich is, they might not know him by name. He’s not a big media success story; instead, it seems like his music seeps into the cracks and foundations of many musicians’ work. There’s boldness to his ongoing repetitive loops of percussion, in the drawn out ambient purges and vocal loops, and it has such a big effect for the listener – especially in the context of today’s music consumption online, which is so accustomed to immediacy and to competing for our transient attention spans. In the world of instant gratification, for me, Steve Reich presents a fantastic alternative: emotional, playful, and free from constraints. It has a meditative, thought-provoking presence that allows the imagination to wonder, to invent its own visuals, feelings and allow for introspective exploration.
“I remember going to a performance of Electric Counterpoint in Liverpool in 2008. It was a lunchtime recital in college and all the tutors were roped in to perform to fill the numbers up. It was amazing to see the amount of performers on stage all playing electric guitars and bass. Before then, I had only really seen one guitar, one bass, and a drumkit to keep it together. After watching Electric Counterpoint being performed I had a whole new opinion and understanding on what actually creates sound, melody, movement, harmony, and rhythm. The music is so visual – the way it develops and moves, the harmonic movement, the complex counter rhythms, it’s all laid out infront of you. I was also mesmerised by Drumming and how abstract the patterns morphed between not just different patterns, but different timings.
“We’ve incorporated principles of minimalist music in a very basic way in songs like ‘Deadlock’, using repetitive patterns to intensify the feeling of impending doom.”
ROBERT AIKI AUBREY LOWE
“Reich, for me, was my introduction to minimalism. I first discovered Music for 18 Musicians in a second hand shop when I was 16. But it was Different Trains that really set the wheels in motion. The repetition on the human voice lead me to something different indeed. The rhythm of the word as a sort of soft percussion catapulted me into a new way of thinking about the voice as instrument. And the context of the piece gave a real personality to the work that I had not yet considered. Paradigm shift.”
ROBERT RATHS (FOUNDER OF ERASED TAPES)
“Different Trains has always been very close to my heart. Growing up in Germany in the 80s, you get confronted with the holocaust from a very young age. What makes this work so gripping and accessible is the way Reich managed to not only compliment but intensify the power of the instrumental composition with the validity of spoken word and field recordings. He enables the listener to visualise and therefore identity with the many different fortunes of World War II. It's utterly captivating and in my opinion one of Reich’s most important works to be discovered by many generations.”