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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 Millennium's End
Richard Taruskin

The sample-based composition best known to audiences at century's end—the first “classic” of the new technology—was Different Trains (1988), a late or “post-minimalist” composition by Steve Reich. It was commissioned by and dedicated to Kronos Quartet, a San Francisco-based ensemble with a self-avowed postmodern repertoire (mixing avant-garde compositions and twentieth-century “classics” with transcriptions of early music, “world music,” jazz, and rock) and over 400 hundred premieres to its credit. In keeping with the group's adventurous spirit, Reich, who had already been planning to use a sampling keyboard for his next composition, wrote a piece that pitted the live quartet against two prerecorded quartet tracks and a track of sampled voices that compared the composer's experience as a child in the early 1940s, shuttling back and forth across the continent between the New York and Los Angeles residences of his divorced parents, and the simultaneous experiences of Jewish children in Europe, who were being transported by train from the ghettos of Eastern Europe to the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz.

The live and recorded quartets play in a typically “minimalist” style, only this time their chugging subtactile pulses symbolize the actual chug and clack of moving trains, evoked also by periodic train whistles that in the piece's midsection are transformed into air-raid sirens as Reich's own childhood memories give way to the imagined nightmare of the Holocaust. The sampled voices in the first section are those of the composer's childhood governess, interviewed in later life, and a train historian. In the middle section, the voices are those of Holocaust survivors, collected from oral history archives. In the final section, samples from the two sources are mixed.

The samples, resolved into musical phrases approximating their pitch and contour, dictate the music's tempos and tonal modulations. (It was because the live quartet needed to be coordinated with the shifting tempos of the samples that the recorded quartet tracks, which set the tempos and provide the live quartet with cues, were necessary.) The understated climax comes in the third section, when the train historian's voice is heard matter-of-factly remarking, “Today, they're all gone.” Remembering his voice from the first section, one knows that he was talking about the American transcontinental trains of the 1930s and 1940s. But remembering the second section, one cannot help relating his comment to the Jewish children, too. Both a synthesis of the subject matter and an effective musical close, the moment is haunting. (The coda adds another ironic and quintessentially postmodernist stab: one of the survivors recalls the Germans’ sincere love of music, preventing today's music-loving listeners from deriving any complacent sense of moral superiority from their esthetic sensibilities.)

Different Trains is almost unique among artistic memorials to the Holocaust in its successful avoidance of pomposity and false comfort. There are no villains and no heroes, just the perception that while this happened here, that happened there (or, as Reich told an interviewer, “There but for the grace of God …”), and a stony invitation to reflect. Since then, Reich has used the voice-sampling technique in a series of multimedia compositions (or “documentary video operas”) that he has produced in collaboration with his wife, the video artist Beryl Korot. Like Different Trains, they all use collage techniques to address contemporary social and moral concerns.

One, The Cave (1993), is a meditation on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians viewed against its historical background as symbolized by the cave of Machpelah, believed to be the burial site of the patriarch Abraham. Another, Three Tales (2000), juxtaposes accounts of the destruction of the German airship Hindenburg in 1937; the atomic and hydrogen bomb tests at Bikini Atoll between 1946 and 1958; and Dolly the sheep, the first successful cloning of a mammal, in 1997. A warning against blind faith in technological progress, the work adopts a typically ironic postmodern stance insofar as it is itself an example of art that relies on—or, even, arises out of—the application of advanced technology.

Reich's applications of the new technology remain conservative, however, as one might perhaps expect from a composer of his generation. For more thoroughgoing applications one must turn to composers born in the 1950s or later, for whom it was a “given” rather than a challenge to be mastered. At the radical extreme is John Oswald (b. 1953), a Canadian composer who fashions compositions entirely out of samples of existing music, and who flaunts his postmodern challenge to the whole idea of “original composition” by defining his method of musicmaking as “plunderphonics.” A CD by that name, issued in 1989, was a collage of humorously altered and intermixed rerecorded sound bites from every source in sight, juxtaposing the standard classical repertoire (Beethoven, Stravinsky), rhythm-and-blues (James Brown), standard pop (Beatles, Michael Jackson), hardcore rock (Metallica), and country-and-western (Dolly Parton). Knowing that his “electroquoting” violated copyrights, he distributed the disc free of charge, with the additional (unenforceable) proviso that copies could not be resold. Nevertheless, “prudes in the Recording Industry”66 (as Oswald has referred to the lawyers who threatened him) filed suit and succeeded in having the disc suppressed the next year, their pretext being a cover illustration that illustrated the album concept (which included the “aural-sex transformation” of Dolly Parton's voice into a male register) with a copyrighted photo of Michael Jackson's head atop a nude female torso.

Of course the stir thus created was good for business; soon afterward Oswald received not only permission but an actual commission from Elektra/Nonesuch to create a plunderphonics compact disc from its own extensive catalog that the firm could market as a sort of advertisement. (It was called Elektrax.) Other sampler composers, like Carl Stone (b. 1953), perform their work “live,” sitting onstage with a laptop computer and tapping its keys to summon forth prerecorded performances, looped and “morphed” into configurations the original artists would not have recognized.


(66) “Composer to Composer with John Oswald,” http://redcat.org/season/music/johnoswald2.html.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010013.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Millennium's End. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010013.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010013.xml