The coming of the railway heralded the arrival of the modern world and, as the source of so much narrative potential, it’s no wonder that stations – and the journeys that connect them – have also catalysed the creation of memorable art. This was put into sharp focus in September 2016 when the London Contemporary Orchestra took on the task of performing Steve Reich’s magnum opus DIFFERENT TRAINS at Edge Hill station, one of the oldest passenger railway stations in the world. Stuart Miles O’Hara was present for this momentous performance – and you can read his review of the event here. Prior to the event, Damon Fairclough managed to catch up with legendary composer Steve Reich before the event to find out how it all came together.
Now that Steve Reich’s Different Trains has steamed through Edge Hill station, it’s easy to see the occasion for what it was. It was audacious, celebratory and a triumph. But when I meet Reich in a Liverpool hotel bar the day before the event, I feel less certain about the way things will turn out.
Not that I doubt the quality of the music for a second; after all, Different Trains is probably Reich’s masterpiece. But will a working railway station really be the best place to witness a work by one of our greatest living composers? I ask Reich how he thinks his music will cope outside the concert hall.
“It depends on the acoustic,” he replies, clearly sanguine about what the night will bring. “Music has to have legs; it has to survive no matter where it is. Sometimes the acoustics will fight against it and eliminate the qualities that are there, but if the music can’t stand up to that, there’s something wrong with the music.”
No danger there, as Different Trains is acknowledged as a contemporary classic, a piece that combines ghostly snippets of oral history with a string quartet that mimics the musicality of the speech. But what gave Reich the idea for this compositional innovation, this excavation of melody from the words that people say?
“What led me to working that way was the pieces I did back in the 60s – It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out – which use bits of speech that are highly melodic. This is characteristic of all of us at certain emotional moments when we speak – it just comes out that way. We don’t intend it to, but it does.”
These two works are built solely from tape loops that slip in and out of phase, creating resonant textures and rhythmic blips from portions of everyday speech. But Reich traces the influence back even further.
“The composer Leoš Janáček used to walk around Prague with a music notebook writing down what people said – the melodies, not the words they spoke. Then he’d take these fragments and put them in his operas. He was listening to the speech as a source of melody. And, long before me, long before Janáček, all composers or makers of music were taking the speech that was around them, whatever the language, and it was having a very heavy influence on the music they wrote.”
It’s just a few days before Reich’s 80th birthday, and the Liverpool performance of Different Trains is part of a global celebration. I ask what he’s particularly looking forward to about the event, and he explains how pleased he is that the London Contemporary Orchestra, who are performing the piece, are putting in considerable extra work.
“Usually, if you want to play Different Trains, you go to the publisher and they send you the musical notes on paper along with an audio recording. Different Trains is written for three string quartets – one plays live and the other parts are pre-recorded. But it takes more commitment to say, ‘No, send us the click tracks – we’re going to make our own recording’. That shows real commitment on the part of the LCO. They really want to dig in and do something. I respect that.”
And then, of course, there’s the opportunity to play the tourist. In common with many city visitors, Reich has certain other music on his mind.
“Everybody comes to Liverpool and wants to know about The Beatles,” he says, “and I’m no exception. It’s a place that became very famous and every American is aware of it.”
And though I’m about to tell him there are other great bands from the city too – the likes of Ex-Easter Island Head for instance, a group whose percussive guitar drills carry his influence in every interlocking pulse – my strictly-marshalled 10-minute interview is up and, before I know it, we’re shaking hands and saying our farewells.
The rest, as they say, is history; Different Trains at Edge Hill was one of the most memorable nights of music I’ve ever experienced. Whether the world’s oldest working railway station will ever see its like again, only time will tell, but for those of us who were there, it was a train journey we’re unlikely to forget.