Steve Reich’s 1988 composition “Different Trains” is immediately recognizable, even to those with just a passing interest in modern music. The piece has technical virtuosity, a melody intricately constructed using archival speech recordings, and indisputable aesthetic soundness. Beyond these virtues, one senses that deeply personal undertones inform the work. These include Reich’s peripatetic childhood, shuttling by train between his divorced parents, as well as the contemplation of people forced to take a different type of train journey altogether.
For this reason, interpreting “Different Trains” demands sensitivity, not just to the composer’s intent but also to the audience’s expectations. But respect need not calcify into veneration; appreciating the work’s antecedents ought not forestall the creative reconfiguration of what remains a signature piece of Reich’s long and distinguished career.
Swedish alt-classical string quartet Fleshquartet negotiate this challenge adroitly in their staging of “Different Trains,” running at the Tower of David in Jerusalem as part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture through July 21. Commissioned by the Jewish Theatre Stockholm and directed by Pia Forsgren, the work is given an intriguing visual context, an intimate staging “in the round,” dominated by delicate glass sculptures created by artist Ann Wåhlström. Subtle lighting brings the fragility of the sculptures to attention; taken as a whole, the overhanging display resembles a vale of tears, a reminder of the melancholy that the piece so effectively conveys.
The production is effective, engaging and intensifying, yet it also creates a dilemma. It has been pointed out more than once that audiences are often uncertain how to respond to “Different Trains.” “‘More, more’ and they applauded” says the last recorded voice of the piece, referring to the Germans who filled the trains, placing one in an uncomfortable place. How does one applaud the performance while reflecting on a sentence that references a particularly blunt sadism?
Fleshquartet’s solution is simple and effective: to move on to something completely different. “Tears Apart,” an original composition, works remarkably well as an accompaniment to “Different Trains,” although it is many things that the former is not.
Where the first is restrained, the second is exuberant; where “Different Trains” is measured, “Tears Apart” is impulsive, at times even playful. Wåhlström’s teardrop sculptures now become percussive instruments; the quartet is no longer made up of players but of performers, abandoning their central perch and commanding the whole space. “Tears Apart” alternates between lament and aggression, and doesn’t leave enough time to reflect on what it all means, if anything at all. Rather, it simply encourages the listener to be in the moment, and this it does exceedingly well.
Listen to the Fleshquartet play ‘Tears Apart’ in Jerusalem: