Often praised as an exceptional artistic response to the Holocaust, Steve Reich's Different Trains adopts a documentary approach to Holocaust representation in which Reich assembled short excerpts from three survivor testimonies and published transcriptions of their accounts in his libretto for the work. This article explores the consequences that arise when fragments from very emotional testimonies are recast as purportedly unmediated documentary. The authority attributed to this sort of historical narrative has come under scrutiny in the field of Holocaust studies, in which it is called “secondary witness”—an intellectual interpretation of survivor testimonies advanced without the author revealing his or her own subjective standpoint or scholarly agenda. I argue that Reich's use of the voices of the survivors, Paul, Rachel, and Rachella, constitutes a form of secondary witness. Analysis of the original sources reveals that as Reich worked with extracts from the testimonies, in some cases his composition took on the aesthetics of the original testimonies, yet in other cases, he altered meaning and tone and even misheard certain phrases, producing transcription errors that reframed key moments by substituting his account of the Holocaust for that of the primary witness. Such revelations prompt reevaluation of the moral and political success that has been claimed for Different Trains, since the compositional process could never have been as objective and self-effacing as Reich and his critics suggest.
The Testimonial Aesthetics of Different Trains
Amy Lynn Wlodarski is Assistant Professor of Music at Dickinson College and received her PhD from the Eastman School of Music in 2006. Her research has been published in the Journal of Musicology, the Kurt Weill Foundation Newsletter, and Eisler-Studien IV. She is currently completing a book manuscript on early Holocaust memorials in music, focusing on the compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, Hanns Eisler, and Paul Dessau.
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Amy Lynn Wlodarski; The Testimonial Aesthetics of Different Trains. Journal of the American Musicological Society 1 April 2010; 63 (1): 99–141. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/jams.2010.63.1.99
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