Different Trains (Steve Reich)

This is a post about Steve Reich, trains and the music of slaughter. The post carries on from my recent post about American trains (Sheeler) and about my previous post about music and trains (Pacific 231). We begin with Steve Reich.

The engineering of steam railways gave the experience of train travel a distinctive and musical rhythm. This was based on the sound of the engine, the clickity-clack of the wheels on the rails and the visual punctuation of the telegraph wires along the track.

Nowadays, nearly all this has disappeared. The trains power along in an undifferentiated roar; the tracks are welded and the train slides along them; the telegraph has gone. Anyway, back in the 20c, it was natural for composers to respond to the industrial beat of machinery and rhythm of speed.

The sounds of trains were especially attractive to the East Coast minimalist composer, Steve Reich. In 1988, Reich created a three section piece called Different Trains. You can find out about the piece here, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Different_Trains

Reich used sampled loops of spoken voices and superimposed those onto his distinctive, and percussive, repetitions. Some of the voices recorded by Reich are station announcers. Other voices speak about their recollections of the journeys and announce different trains and their destinations. The music also includes whistle sounds and mechanical noises.

The three sections of the piece contrast the luxury rail service, between NYC and Chicago, of pre-war America with the European rail services that provided the machinery of despotic deportation towards the Nazi death camps.

A number of writers and film makers have explored the connection between railways and brutality. Nowhere was this more evident that in Europe during the 1940s when millions were transported towards their death. The Nazi administration of the Holocaust was a simple recasting of the railway and stock systems designed, at the end of the 19C, to supply the Chicago slaughterhouses.

Lars von Trier made a film, Europa (1991) that deals with this theme of industrialised slaughter. You can find out about the film, here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lars_von_Trier

The working conditions of the Chicago slaughterhouses were notoriously harsh. At the end of the 19C, American intellectuals and the political elite began to express an anxiety that these conditions would provide ideal conditions for the emergence of a radicalised American working class. Upton Sinclair described the exploitation, degradation and misery associated with these material conditions in The Jungle (1906). You can find out more about this book, here, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Upton_Sinclair#The_Jungle

One of the great mysteries of American politics is the stubborn refusal of the American working class to become radicalised and to demand a different politics from Washington. The story of the American Labour movement was told in Warren Beatty’s film, Reds (1981).

If you’re interested in the historical development of this integrated industrial system of transportation, administration and slaughter, you should read Daniel Pick’s book, War Machine (1993).

The development of the refrigerated freight car in the 19C was at least as important as that of the luxury Pullman car. You can find out a bit more about this technical exploit, here, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refrigerator_car

If you think that we have advanced beyond all this. Think again. It’s just that this system has moved beyond the usual experience of supermarket shopping and so on. In fact, the concentrations of resources required by the scale of supermarkets has made the system even more brutal. You can read about how the contemporary iteration of this system has been developed in Canada inIan MacLachlan’s Kill and Chill (2001).

You can listen to the music and watch a film, here http://vimeo.com/4226079

Supplemental, Tuesday 9th August 2011

The Guardian has included an editorial in today’s paper about Reich’s Train’s. It’s ahead of tomorrow’s Prom at the Albert Hall.

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