The north-Norwegian town of Bodø has a special relationship with trains. Bodø is the last station on the Norwegian rail system, and the construction of the railway that goes between the towns of Trondheim and Bodø is one of the most gruesome stories in modern Norwegian history. Gruesome because large parts of it were built during the Second World War by prisoners of war, mainly Soviets and Yugoslavs who had been captured by the Germans. Thousands of lives were lost by the end of the war, but the result was hundreds of kilometres of railway that in 1952 would finally reach Bodø. So with this in mind, a roundhouse outside the Bodø railway station was really a very fitting place for a performance of Steve Reich’s Different Trains.

© Nordland Music Festival
© Nordland Music Festival

Different Trains, for string quartet and tape, was written in 1988. He wrote the piece as a reflection on the war; he, an American Jew who through his childhood in the 40s had taken the train between his parents in New York and Los Angeles – but had he been living in Europe, he would most likely have taken a different train. The piece has three movements, America: Before the War, Europe: During the War and After the War, and each movement features voices taken from interviews conducted by Reich himself, talking about trains and life during and after the war. Reich also uses train sounds and sirens, from American trains in the outer movements and from European trains in the middle movements. The music moves forward with the string quartet (and the recorded strings) playing a ever forward-moving, train-like motif as well as mimicking train sounds and the snippets of speech.

But what made Wednesday’s performance at the Nordland Music Festival even more interesting was an introductory lecture on the railway in northern Norway, its significance for the region, and the horrible things that contributed to its construction. There was also a film shown during the performance, containing footage from northern Norway – both train footage from the last 100 years and also wartime footage from this region. The inclusion of the film, however, did not reduce the music to a mere soundtrack, but the two worked together intriguing way, the two never perfectly illustrating each other, but still combining to tell a very powerful story.

The Cikada Quartet played well, always moving the piece inexorably forward, and they managed to sound distinct from the pre-recorded strings. The acoustic may not have been the best, but it was really only noticeable when only the tape was playing, and to be honest, there were more important things to focus on than the somewhat dodgy acoustics in a roundhouse. Different Trains is a piece that is difficult to separate into little parts, largely because it relies so heavily on previously recorded material, but the quartet played excellently, with good sound and a wonderful sense of forward movement.

Wednesday’s performance of Steve Reich’s Different Trains told a powerful story. While it was not Reich’s story about the difference between wartime America and Europe, it told the story of a region and a people that, after having being ravaged by war, rose again to build a new society. It might not have been the story that Reich wanted the piece to tell, but it made an incredible impact.

*****