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.