We’ve gotten quite thematic at the symphony. You listen to Beethoven’s 5th, and there is really no story line to follow or a visual that would illustrate what Ludwig was thinking about while composing. Music does not always have a theme. But last month at Classic Encounter the whole concert dealt with four composers takes on Shakespeare, and this month it was a work about a specific model of train.

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OK. Now I have your attention. Classic Encounter, if you don’t know, is a monthly pre-concert lecture series at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Martha Gilmer of the CSO, and me of XRT. Now, let’s get back on track. Arthur Honegger was a Swiss composer who spent most of his life in France, born in 1892 and died in 1955. He may have heard doo wop in his later years. Or not. But he was a busy composer. Five symphonies, oratorios, operas, ballets and chamber music. And a remarkable piece about a train. He once said he loved trains like some people love women or horses. You could go a lot of places with that quote, but, again, we will stay on track. But what queen died when she was having relations with a horse? Anyway, this piece was composed in 1923, and originally it was not meant to be about trains. Honegger said it was a musical exercise in building momentum while the tempo slows. Try it. It’s not easy. But he did name it Pacific 231, Mouvement Symphonique #1. And the Pacific 231 is an actual train. So there you go. In fact, in 1949 a film was made of the Pacific 231 with Honegger’s work as a soundtrack.

As we will see here, the train is a very popular figure in our culture. Exhibit A.

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I love, love, love Thomas. Like the Wonder Pets and Telletubbies, Thomas gives me the sense of well being. Ringo Starr was the first narrator of this series. This does not count as my Beatle reference for this program.

But the train is a romantic figure. It takes us to a new life or on a big adventure. It takes us away from a broken heart or to a lover. Trains took African Americans from Jim Crow south to the hope of a better life in Memphis and Chicago. As a child I’d lie in bed at night and listen for the haunting train whistle. The same sound that would break the heart of a prison inmate who heard it as a sound of freedom.

Back in the day when I was on the all night shift and we were playing vinyl, it was a passion for DJ’s to come up with long and eclectic train sets. Folk and blues artists have written many songs about trains.

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Aww. We miss Steve in this town. And he looks like a little boy here. Sweet. This has to be one of the best songs ever about trains. One of the most covered train songs is Freight Train. Here’s the woman that wrote that classic, Elizabeth Cotton.

And closer to home the great Howlin’ Wolf of Chess Records fame recorded this classic that would be covered by The Yardbirds, Grateful Dead, John Lee Hooker, Soundgarden, Widespread Panic, Big Head Todd & and Monsters, and a gazillion others. Let me just add that it was a thrill for me to play Howlin’ Wolf at the Symphony Center. Yes!

The Who covered that song as well. Plus in Quadrophenia Pete Townsend contributed a great song to the train set collection.

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That British train scene look familiar? Here comes the Beatles reference.

And Lennon-McCartney actually wrote a train song.

But here is one of the best train songs ever…and judging from the response of the Classic Encounter patrons, I’m not the only one that feels that way.

One of the most incredible musical works that involves trains is Steve Reich’s Different Trains. I heard the Kronos Quartet perform this live with tape loops years ago at Park West. Amazing piece. It’s a three part work. First movement is train travel in a time of peace, trains taking passengers from New York to Chicago. The second part, the different trains, takes people to the Nazi death camps during World War II. And part three, the one performed in this video is a return to the trains of post war peace.

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Like in Honegger’s piece, you actually feel the sensation of movement. Different Trains was composed in 1988. Reich is one of the leading minimalist composers. I’ve seen him in performance and actually got to interview him years ago. One of my heroes. Radiohead shares my passion for Reich’s work. Big fans. And Reich now loves Radiohead’s music. In fact, he has agreed to rework two Radiohead songs: Everything In Its Right Place and Jigsaw Falling Into Place. He’s not going to score them for a string arrangement. He is going to use them to construct a new work. Can’t wait!!!!! Radiohead actually used the train metaphor in a chilling video for Fast Track.

It’s quite a journey from Thomas the Tank Engine to this Radiohead piece. The train, machines, and other tools of the industrial age improved our quality of life, but at a cost. Do we lose our soul in the machine? This question has inspired artists of every format and genre, including Pink Floyd.

That evening’s concert was the world debut of Mason Bates’ work that involves the sound of energy. Alternative Energy. Mason went to Fermilab looking for the sounds of energy. Well energy does not make a sound, but he found a lot of sounds he used in this piece. While the CSO played his composition he played his laptop computer like an organ, adding these sounds to the mix. Amazing work and quite well received.

I don’t have a clip of the final work, since it was the premiere last week, but his performance with the You Tube Symphony Orchestra gives you an idea of what I’m talking about.

So we went from 20th century trains into the future. Hats off to Bates, and to Muti and the rest of the folks at the CSO for supporting new music. This weekend you can see a new commissioned piece by Anna Clyne. I love this city where you can see Buddy Guy at Legends, and then go less than a mile to see a world class orchestra perform works by Cesar Franck and a world premiere of new music. My kind of town Chicago is.

A Classic Encounter With Shakespeare

A Classic Encounter: Roll Over Beethoven

A Classic Encounter With Handel

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  1. Yikes, Terri!!! No Ellington’s “Take The ‘A’ Train”?!? (Hmmmm. You dig Ellington, right? He was fascinated with symphonic music, too…) Anyway, great fitting many train references into one blog. LOVE that LOL Travel Wisconsin Snowball Symphony!! Not sure why it got crammed in with trains, but don’t care. Love the way your mind works!! And yep, this is our kind of town, Chicago is!!

    Mason Bates’ work is fascinating, with computers gaining increasing momentum as primary vehicles of future symphonic composition & presentation. Don’t think traditional instruments & human voices will ever disappear from music, but like Walter/Wendy Carlos (“Switched-On Bach”) did with the Moog synth in the late 60’s (along with The Beatles, of course!!), computer generated music widens horizons on what is possible. While energy may not make a sound per se, I believe the universe does emit a subtle but omnipresent radio background symphony to which human music responds. Personally, I think it’s probable that one day humans will interpret the universe musically via computers that will deliver one heck of an “out of this world” Global Premier. Computers may someday let us hear the music of the stars & allow us to broadcast our response to the cosmos. Wonder if trains will still be around then?

    — Katie A. Jones, Aurora, IL (BackbeatChicago@gmail.com)

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