History Making Music Making History
Da Camera of Houston presents two composers’ history-inspired works
U2. The Beatles. Woody Guthrie. The list of artists whose music has been influenced by history could easily fill this entire page. In every type of music, in every era and in every corner of the globe, artists use pivotal moments in history as inspiration for their music — sometimes making history themselves in the process. Steve Reich and Frederic Rzewski, two American composers, are no exception.
On Feb. 27 at The Menil Collection, Da Camera of Houston, an organization that produces themed classical and jazz events, will present Made in America: Different Trains. The event will spotlight two monumental works of the 20th century that were inspired by significant moments in history — Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” for string quartet and recorded tape and Frederic Rzewski’s “The People Will Never Be Defeated!” for solo piano. The Houston-based Enso String Quartet will be presenting “Different Trains,” which won a Grammy Award in 1989 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Pianist Marilyn Nonken, a gifted musician whose performances have been called “marvels of keyboard mastery and musical command,” will make her Da Camera debut with “The People Will Never Be Defeated!”
Steve Reich, described as one of the few composers to have altered the direction of musical history, drew on his childhood memories for “Different Trains.” Between 1939 and 1942, he traveled with his governess back and forth between his separated parents — his father in New York and his mother in Los Angeles. As a child, the frequent cross-country train trips were an adventure, but later Reich realized that if he had been in Germany during those wartime years, his Jewish background would have caused him to ride very different trains. To prepare the tape that is played in “Different Trains,” Reich not only recorded 1930s and 1940s American and European train sounds, but also recorded his governess talk about their train trips together, as well as a retired Pullman porter who used to ride lines between New York and Los Angeles, and three Holocaust survivors the same age as Reich speak about their experiences. The collected sounds and speech are the basis for “Different Trains'” three movements: America — Before the War, Europe — During the War, and America — After the War. “Thus,” Reich says, “the work presents both a documentary and a musical reality.”
Frederic Rzewski’s “The People Will Never Be Defeated!” is a set of 36 variations for solo piano of the Chilean song “¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” by Sergio Ortega and “Quilapayún.” “Quilapayún” is best known for being the song that became an anthem for the Chilean working class and their resistance to the 1973 coup that installed General Augusto Pinochet. Rzewski composed the variations in September and October 1975 as a tribute to the Chilean people. Intertwined in the 36 variations are two additional politically charged songs: the Italian revolutionary song “Bandiera Rossa” and Hanns Eisler’s 1932 “Solidaritätslied.”
“The ways in which music and history meet are many,” says Da Camera’s Artistic Director Sarah Rothenberg. “Sometimes composers are inspired by a particular event; other times, a time and place are perfectly captured in a musical style. World history and experiences far from our own find their way into musical compositions. Music has the power to communicate the past of others into our present. And music has a history of its own, made each day by living composers and performers.”