Different Trains


I’ve owned a CD of Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988) for just over a year now, and I find it an incredibly moving piece of music – something I return to again and again.

Reich’s use of the sampled voice as a musical instrument is – or, then, was – revolutionary – capturing the lilting tones of elderly Americans (some of them Holocaust survivors), and finding an orchestral score to reflect and refract the natural harmonics of speech. It’s mesmerising. The wavering strings and railyard samples create, at the start of the piece, a great sense of movement, dynamism, as we travel across the great New World of America. A place of hope, optimism. And then those same strings, repeated musical phrases, grow dark, move from one almost-crescendo to another, as we understand the impending horror of the Holocaust, remembered, and those ‘different trains’ with their terrified cargo.

“From Chicago to New York…”

“The fastest trains…”

“In 1939…”

“On my birthday…”

“No more school…”

“The Germans walking…”

This is a piece of music everyone should listen to at least once.


  1. permanenttourist says:

    Two edits…

    I was probably overstating how ‘revolutionary’ Different Trains is. It was only 1988 anyway. Even I was around then. In fact I also own a CD of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, which also uses vocal sampling, and that was first performed in 1969. Reich’s much better though.

    Relistening to Different Trains also brought to mind one of my favourite groups – the Canadian anarchist post-rock ensemble Godspeed You! Black Emperor (and their off-shoot project A Silver Mt. Zion). They employ both vocal sampling, and railyard soundscapes, so could rightly be called the inheritors of Different Trains. Well worth a listen.

  2. Simon says:

    I’ve had it for years and love it. For a filmic take on a similar film, see Lars von Trier’s ‘Europa’. Despite his usual layers of prickly irony, I think he summons up that train bound European nightmare stunningly well. Ciao, S

  3. Simon says:

    I meant ‘on a similar vein’…

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