Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Different Trains: Reich and Caravaggio’s Holocaust Memorial

Steve Reich spent much of his young life on trains. The legendary minimalist composer’s parents divorced just a year after he was born, so he bounced between his father in New York and his mother in Los Angeles. It occurred to him later in life that, as a Jewish man, the trains he took between his parents cities in America could have just as easily been taking the horrific journey to Nazi concentration camps if he’d been born in Europe. This realization sparked 1988 minimalist masterwork, Different Trains, written for string quartet. From Saturday, February 9 to Sunday, May 5 the Toledo Museum of Art’s Canaday Gallery will be home to Different Trains— accompanied and re-contextualized by Spanish artist Beatriz Caravaggio’s 2016 archival film installation set to Kronos Quartet’s recording of the piece.

Her work takes Reich’s forceful, wrenching tribute to the victims of the Holocaust and matches its pulsing rhythms and spoken word melodies with kinetic images of train travel and somber portraits of those forced into concentration camps. The two masterworks combine to form an entrancing, moving memorial to those lost or forever changed in one of the worst tragedies imaginable.

Composer Steve Reich.
Composer Steve Reich.

Reich developed the string melodies in Different Trains by transcribing interviews with his governess, a former train porter, and holocaust survivors. Against the backdrop of motoric rhythms and train recordings Reich unfurls a harrowing juxtaposition between the pastoral romance of American train travel and the fear and anxiety of many innocent Jews’ journey to concentration camps. TMA Leadership Fellow Dr. Lauren Applebaum stressed that this comparison is crucial to the effect of the work; in order to fully appreciate the power of the piece, one must experience the 29-minute work in its entirety.

From the page to the screen

First and foremost in Caravaggio’s mind as she was creating Different Trains was the challenge of making a work that was “more evocative than a work of notation.” The music, especially a piece as clear in its message and musical language as Reich’s, speaks for itself. Caravaggio knew that she had to justify her work’s existence alongside such an iconic piece of contemporary music. To do this she visually re-interpreted the work, drawing the dichotomy of train travel— a journey through huge swaths of nature bookended by human civilization— in a more explicit way. She begins with natural, sweeping locales underscoring the romance of American train travel leading to the denser, darker cityscapes and images of innocent Jews being forced onto Nazi trains. Her footage intensifies every aspect of Reich’s work, increasing the expansiveness of the first, pastoral movement while reinforcing the anxiety and tragedy of the second.

Spanish filmmaker Beatriz Caravaggio. Photo Credit: Ben Vine
Spanish filmmaker Beatriz Caravaggio. Photo Credit: Ben Vine

Dr. Applebaum emphasized that Different Trains’ acquisition by the TMA represents a strong addition to the museum’s effort to “expand new media offerings,” “collect singular masterworks,” and their “interest in multi-sensory experiences.”

Respecting the emotional impact of Caravaggio and Reich’s Different Trains, the Toledo Museum of Art will have an area of reflection in the museum’s Canaday Gallery, where patrons can process the thoughts and feelings the work conjures.

Saturday, February 9 through Sunday, May 5, presentations begin on the hour and half hour throughout the day
Free Admission
Toledo Museum of Art, Canaday Gallery.
2445 Monroe St. | 419-255-8000.

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