By Molly Packer
Baylor’s department of Music and Center for Jewish Studies teamed up to bring the composer the New York Times has called “our greatest living composer” to Baylor.
Steve Reich, a modern American composer, talked to students and faculty Tuesday about his composition “Different Trains,” a piece that examines the differences between his own childhood as a Jew growing up in America and the childhood of the Holocaust children.
Todd Meehan, music professor at Baylor, always wanted to bring Reich to Waco, but he wasn’t sure if it would be possible.
“The idea to bring Steve Reich to Baylor has been in my head for many years. I wouldn’t call it on a whim, but it kind of struck me in the fall to call his manager and ask if he was free,” Meehan said.
Meehan said combining the musical aspect with the historical aspect of the Holocaust was what made the event so special.
“We could’ve done this event in a variety of different ways,” he said. “But I think what makes this event so special is the involvement of Jewish studies.”
Reich, who turns 75 in October, was born in New York City.
“My parents were divorced when I was one,” Reich said. “They had divided custody and I made a cross-country train trip with my governess, Virginia. Trains have a very distinctive sound.”
In Reich’s piece, he makes a story with three movements. The first focuses on the United States before World War II, the second focuses on Europe during the war and the third focuses on the United States after the war. The first and third movements echo the major fourth and fifth intervals of the American steam engine while the second takes on the screeching whistles of European trains transporting Holocaust victims in cattle cars.
Along with the differing intervals, Reich used human voices to tell the story he wanted to convey.
The piece is 27 minutes long and was written in 1988. Nearly 23 years later, the piece still maintains its haunting effect.
“I still like it,” Reich said. “It still gets to me.”
One of the most powerful aspects of the piece, Reich said, is the use of the voices. Using a sampling keyboard, Reich superimposed the voices with string quartets. The cellos double as the men’s voices, the violas as the women’s voices and the fiddles as the whistles of the train.
In order to keep the power of the voices intact, Reich opted not to change the tempo, tone or key of the speakers’ voices.
The fact that human voices do not translate directly to musical tempos and notes made Reich’s job difficult but all the more rewarding in the end.
“The way we speak isn’t just one tone,” Reich said. “It’s a slide into the tone. A lot of time was spent figuring out the bowing. The notes I put down on the page are good but they’re not exactly right. I told my musicians to go with the speakers’ voices.”
Every time a new speaker appears in the song, the tempo changes.
In light of telling the story of the Holocaust in his piece, Reich states that the weight of the piece can be found in the speakers’ voices.
“If there’s any value in this piece, it’s truth and the truth is found through the people who lived through something,” he said. “No more. No less. The secret to the piece is staying faithful to the documentary,” Reich said, referring to the stories of the survivors.
Dr. Marc Ellis, director of the Baylor Center for Jewish Studies and professor of history, brought his Hitler and the Holocaust class to the talk. Meehan brought his musicians.
“I’m a percussionist and a composer,” Katy sophomore Matt Shaver said. “Steve Reich is both of those and it’s a very good opportunity to be learning from someone I would like to be like someday.”
Reich will speak at an event titled “Reich at 75: The Music of Steve Reich” at 9:45 a.m. today in the Jones Concert Hall in the Glennis McCrary Music Building, followed by a question and answer session at 1 p.m. in 118 Sternberg Hall in the music building. To cap off Reich’s Baylor appearance, he will perform with the Baylor Percussion Group at 7:30 p.m. today in Jones Concert Hall. All the events are free.