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6 December 2018

The night that changed my life: Jonathan Coe on the premiere of Steve Reich’s Different Trains

The impact of the piece, on me and on everyone else in the hall that night, was overwhelming.

By Jonathan Coe

In the late 1980s, through what I can only assume was an administrative error, I was taken on by The Wire magazine as a music critic. The pay was minimal but the perks, in my view, were priceless. I got to meet and interview some of my musical heroes (Annette Peacock, Paul Bley, Brian Eno), I got sent free copies of ECM Records CDs I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford, and I got concert tickets. Lots of concert tickets. And none of them was more precious than my press pass to the South Bank’s week-long celebration of Steve Reich and his music in the autumn of 1988.

The culmination of that week was the world premiere of Reich’s Different Trains on the evening of 2 November. Nobody at the Queen Elizabeth Hall that night knew quite what to expect. We were told in the programme notes that the new thing about this work was that “carefully chosen speech recordings generate the musical materials”, and that the piece was a “documentary” work drawing on the tape-recorded memories of Holocaust survivors.

It was to be performed by the Kronos Quartet, playing live alongside three pre-recorded quartets: a 16-piece string ensemble, in effect. And when it began, we were instantly plunged into a complex, energetic sound-world: dense counterpoint, a kaleidoscope of harmonies both ominous and plangent, the sampled whistling of steam trains creating lovely new chords and intervals, while the voices on the tape spilled out unexpected fragments of melody that were then echoed and developed by the ceaseless, propulsive, machine-like quartet on stage.

The impact of the piece, on me and on everyone else in the hall that night, was overwhelming. It was not just the breathtaking virtuosity of the writing and performing, or the emotional content of the spoken recordings. The audience knew that they had heard something completely new, a revolution in the relationship between music and spoken language. It takes a lot to get me off my backside while applauding, but I believe I was the first person to rise to my feet and begin the standing ovation.

Listening to the piece again while writing this, it sounds as fresh, as innovative, as profoundly honest as ever. I realise now that it’s not just about the Holocaust – it is a lament for innocence, a howl of anguish at the passing of time – and realising that the evening when I first experienced it is now 30 long years ago simply adds another layer to its savage poignancy.

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The night that changed my life: read more from our series in which writers share the cultural encounters that shaped them

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special