Different Trains (Elektra Nonesuch label), Composer Steve Reich (Courtesy WSO)
If I had been born in Brussels, or Stuttgart I would have been going up a chimney and you and I wouldn't be having this conversation.
—Steve Reich, composer
Steve Reich is considered to be one of the greatest living composers today. And he's in Winnipeg as the distinguished guest composer for the 22nd annual Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra New Music Festival.
Different Trains is a piece he wrote in 1988 that has been performed around the world ever since the Kronos Quartet premiered it in the late '80s. According to Kronos Quartet violinist David Harrington, "Everything about Different Trains caused us to rethink our work."
That's because while working on the piece, Reich had decided to make use of a digital sampling keyboard. Though the instrument was common in pop and electronica composition, he was one of the first classical composers to use samples in creating the melody.
He also called upon his own childhood memories as inspiration for Different Trains. Back in 1937, Steve Reich's parents had divorced, so from a young age, he spent six months in New York with his dad, followed by six months in Los Angeles with his mother.
He would take that trip twice a year, with his governess Virginia. So he decided to use fragments of speech from his governess talking about her life, as a starting point.
Then he began to think about what was going on in the world when he was riding those trains with her in the late 1930s. "Mr. Hitler was trying to take over the world and grabbing every Jew he could get his hands on and sending them first outside of Munich, then later way off to Poland," he explained. "And up a chimney they went. If I had been born in Brussels, or Stuttgart I would have been going up a chimney and you and I wouldn't be having this conversation."
That was when a lightbulb went on in his head. "The idea came from making recordings of Virginia talking about her life. And I thought - wait a minute there might be archives of Holocaust survivors talking about their lives." After tracking down the archival recordings, Reich took a documentary approach in presenting how those people spoke as a speech melody.
Different Trains was born. "It was a very inspired piece because there was a new technique to match the voices to the instruments. Every time a woman speaks, the viola will double her speech melody. And every time a man speaks, the cello will double his speech melody."
The end result is a multi-layered piece that runs close to 30 minutes long and won Reich a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in 1990.
Also on the bill is his well known Clapping Music. Written in 1972, Reich wanted to write a piece of music that required nothing but the human body. It features two performers hand clapping.
Reich's Double Sextet won him the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2009. At the festival it will be performed on stage with new choreography featuring members of Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
You can hear Different Trains January 31, along with more chamber music by Steve Reich, as part of the WSO New Music Festival. Showtime is 7:30 at the Centennial Concert Hall.