ALBUM TITLE: Reich: Different Trains
WORKS: Triple Quartet; Different Trains; Duet
PERFORMER: The Smith Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: SIGCD 064
Back in the 1960s Steve Reich hit on a marvellously simple idea. He noticed that if a fragment of recorded interview was looped and repeated, a melodic pattern would mysteriously emerge from it. In Different Trains, written in 1988, he elaborated on this idea, taking phrases from interviews with travellers and train staff and weaving them into a continuous musical texture of live and pre-recorded string quartets. The effectiveness of the piece hinges on the audibility of the process. We hear a musical motif suggested in the voice, and enjoy the way it’s made hard and definite – crystallised, you might say – in the thick weave of the layered quartet parts.
Where so much of the music is predetermined by pre-recorded tapes and speech samples, the space for different interpretation is severely limited. Nonetheless there are significant differences in the three recordings currently available. The one on Disques Montaignes has the arrangement Reich made of Different Trains for string orchestra, alongside the orchestral version of another piece for multi-tracked string quartet, Triple Quartet. It’s played by the Orchestre National de Lyon with finesse and dancing energy, but seem somehow impersonal and distant compared to the original quartet version. This is now available in two recordings: the new one by the Smith Quartet on the admirable Signum label is beautifully clear, and played with a rather touching delicacy which brings out the subtle poetry of the ending (Reich isn’t often credited with a power to move, but he certainly shows it here). But in the end I found I narrowly preferred the recording on Elektra/Nonesuch made by the work’s original dedicatees, the Kronos Quartet. It has a more incisive dancing energy, a warmer and fuller sound, and is every bit as alert to the music’s understated pathos. Ivan Hewitt