Gig Review: Different Trains 1947

Different Trains 1947: Barbican
Sunday 1st October 2017

I was looking forward to this concert as it was advertised as being based on the principles of Steve Reich's 1988 classic piece, ' Different Trains'.

I wasn't sure exactly what to expect, but something generally using vocal recordings interwoven with textural orchestrations, maybe electronic, maybe acoustic.

First up though was a piece by Darkstar accompanied by a film about a group of youth in the Liverpool district of Hart Hill. I say the piece was 'by' Darkstar, but throughout the duration of the film, it became clear that the music had come from a series of workshops with the kids who featured in the film. And had then been put together - very ably - by Darkstar, turning what could be a somewhat painful and amateurish noodling by non-experienced musicians into a somewhat uplifting triumph.

Musically, the several sections varied between drum loops, textures, synthy loops and vocal performances by the ‘youth’ - who seemed to range  between the ages of eleven and sixteen (eighteen?).

The theme they were exploring was 'home', and as 1st or 2nd generation immigrants - maybe even refugees? What came across was how these young people have different identities as friends with each other, as residents of Liverpool, and as people whose families are (possibly) only recently that of the UK. 

I found my own prejudices challenged as once one had got familiar with the characters in the film as they recorded the music (on a rather nice selection of modern electronic music equipment), danced, and joked with each other, we also saw them in their street environment. And there you realised they were also the kids who pull wheelies on their mountain bikes, wear hoodies and (gasp!) hang around in groups. And I thought, yeah, they're just kids, doing kid things, and next time I'm tempted to pre-judge them as up to no good, or simply annoying, I'll remember this film.

Different Trains

This began with a film featuring the composers enjoying their jolly to India. I’m not sure this did much to endear the artists to the audience if I’m perfectly honest, and when it finished, there was a kind of silence before a bit of clapping, suggestive of a kind of, ‘er, are we supposed to applaud that?’ 


Anyway, onto the piece. Each composer contributed a movement. 1) Actress, 2) Sandunes 3) Jack Bennet.


Of the three, Sandunes piece was the standout. It was the most easily relatable to the compositional concept of Steve Reich’s original. There were minimalistic riffs on synths and percussive type sounds, and vocal loops relating to trains. What lifted it even further was the extraordinary drumming by Jivraj Singh. He punctuated the melodic elements with panache, and kept up a constant groove which sometimes wasn’t even audible, but visual (he moved like a writhing snake!), and sometimes burst into dramatic staccato and sometimes hushed into a quiet intensity. It was basically great. 


Part three was the next most successful, though not wildly interesting. It started with time-stretched vocals and moved into a section when Jivraj (hi again!) drummed along to the sound of a steam train. I could see the intent - it’s quite fun to hear drumming done in time with a steam train. But it was sort of not that successful, because a the train started slow as if pulling out of a station, and then as it speeded up, Jivraj kept pace, but he ultimately couldn’t go as fast as a real steam train would, because it would have been about 300bpm. So the recording just slowed down again. So no sense of momentum was really built up. I think I would have let the train go full speed and halved or even quartered the drumming tempo. Overall though, it was kind of interesting.


Part one. Well, not sure what happened here, there were technical issues at the start, which meant I was never quite sure if the piece was sounding as it should have done. It did sound a bit unfinished. General electronic LFO noises were accompanied by the singing of Priya Purushothaman. A very good Indian singer. But I wasn’t really sure what the point was. Seemed to be, ‘here’s some generic electronic type noise, here’s a traditional Indian singer, let’s just put one on top of the other’. I couldn’t really determine much interaction or conversation going between the two elements. In the end I just shut my eyes and let the piece waft over me, which was pleasant enough. 


The other oddity was that the second two pieces had an accompanying film, but the first piece didn’t. That was weird - did they run out of time to make a third piece? To be honest, the films were just the usual looped bits of archival film in triptych (yes mirror images on the outer two panels), which gets pretty boring pretty quickly. Especially as they were really short and too grainy to make out the interesting detail that one would have liked.


As to the larger point of it all - trying to commemorate the partition of India in 1947, I don’t think that theme came across particularly well in any of the pieces. I certainly didn’t ‘learn’ anything about that event (of which I am mostly ignorant, I’m afraid to say). Perhaps the second part with it’s violent drumming and insistent loops were closest to approximating something like a response to those events. 


So, overall|: an interesting, partially successful evening (from a musical perspective). Main outcome: I definitely want to find out more about Sandunes’ music.