After a series of uber-indie gigs and performances by aging icons, a real change of pace ensued for my latest concert as I went to see Steve Reich’s Different Trains being performed at Edge Hill Station.
I’ve only just discovered his name is pronounced with a “sh” rather than a hard “c” at the end. More interestingly, he has been described by The Guardian as one of “a handful of living composers who can legitimately claim to have altered the direction of musical history”.
The other piece being played was Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, with the two works being the only ones of his I know – though I know them well, having acquired the pair of them on a CD way back in 1989, when they were actually brand new pieces.
While a student, I started dipping my toes in the classical waters under the influence of a couple of friends, also sampling some of the biggest names in minimalism – Reich, Michael Nyman and Philip Glass. I even saw The Michael Nyman Band at the Royal Festival Hall in October 1991.
I headed out to Edge Hill just in time for the scheduled start time, catching the same train from Lime Street as BBC Radio Merseyside’s Roger Hill, before joining a long but fast-moving queue to get into the venue.
The concert was taking place on the cobbled Victorian carriage ramp alongside what is the oldest active passenger railway station in the world, with trains going past on both sides as the evening progressed, adding to the sense of occasion.
There were plenty of food and drink options at the entrance to the site, but the beer was a little pricey so I opted to just head straight down towards the front of the 1,200-strong crowd.
Jude Kelly from hosting arts organisation Metal Liverpool introduced the evening, before Steve Reich (who turned eighty within a week of this night) and Bill Morrison were brought onto the stage to say a (very) few words.
The music began with Electric Counterpoint, with the woman next to me telling her friends that this was her “favourite piece of music – ever”. This was played by Mats Bergström on guitar, together with a backing tape. This is one of the ways in which performers can tackle the piece in concert – either as a guitar ensemble, or a live guitar backed by a recording of two bass guitars and seven other guitars.
It’s a really lovely piece of work, and as with Different Trains, probably best heard live, especially in such a special, apposite location. The first, fast movement is my favourite, reminding me a little of Felt and especially long-lost post-punk outsiders The Durutti Column.
The third, also fast, movement, was sampled by The Orb as part of their seminal Little Fluffy Clouds (originally released in 1990, finally hitting the top 10 three years later), while the whole piece has recently been performed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, although I doubt he could match the quality of what was on offer this night.
There were some spots of rain during the intermission, but fortunately the organisers were spared having to dish out the promised ponchos to everyone as it went as soon as it arrived. There was some utterly-unknown-to-me jazz meets classical played while we waited – not for all that long, thankfully.
Different Trains was performed by a string quartet from the London Contemporary Orchestra, who were clearly thoroughly enjoying playing this piece, really bringing it to life.
The music is a mix of furious to calmer strings and snippets of spoken word, with the speech often providing the source for the melodies. It was written as Reich recalled making long train journeys between New York and Los Angeles during the Second World War, from one estranged parent to the other. It also brings in the experiences of his fellow Jews at the same time, as they were boarding very different types of trains.
Although I enjoyed listening to both of the pieces when revisiting the disc in advance of the concert, it was certainly a totally different experience hearing them live. A special mention for Bill Morrison, whose video accompaniments added an extra dimension to the music, especially Different Trains – the first time Reich has allowed a film to accompany the piece.
This really was quite a special night, thanks to a combination of venue and setting, music, musicians, presence of the composer and the eager receptiveness of the crowd.
I bumped into Getintothis’ head honcho Peter on the train back into town, and we ranged across a variety of subjects as we headed back to Central station, including the Arts Club, my recent Eleanor Friedberger gig review (here), football and my choice of t-shirt (revealed below, Peter!)
It was practically impossible to select a suitable t-shirt for this evening, partly due to a lack of available options, but also because I knew I would be covered up by a warm coat! Anyway, I went for my red Neu! tee, who were the closest I could find in my wardrobe. The only other musical tee I could see was one for recently closed down London nightclub Fabric.
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Here is the music from the night on Spotify: