A glass act

Accompanied by 90 elongated tear-shaped hollow objects, ‘Different Trains’ takes Steve Reich’s original composition in a different direction.

a glass act (photo credit: Jonas Lindström)
a glass act
(photo credit: Jonas Lindström)
You could, for convenient cliché’s sake, call the Different Trains show currently – pardon the pun – running at the Kishle venue of the Tower of David a sound-and-light event. But, while technically accurate, that would also be artistically belittling in the extreme.
The truth is that the Jewish Theater Stockholm’s team and a host of professionals from different areas of the arts, not to mention Tower of David Museum director Shosh Yaniv, the museum’s archeological curator Renee Sivan and the Jerusalem Season of Culture’s co-director Naomi Bloch Fortis and artistic director Itay Mautner, have done an amazing job just getting the show off the ground – literally. The result of all that endeavor is a uniquely evocative event, in an inspiring richly historical space, which feeds off all sorts of energies, epochs and creative nous.
The Jerusalem Season of Culture is calling the multimedia Different Trains show “a visual interpretation of Steve Reich’s [eponymous] composition.”
The end result exceeds the textual description. Reich is a 75-year-old Jewish American composer who gained fame as one of the leading members of the minimalist music brigade. He introduced several innovative elements to the contemporary classical music world, including the use of tape loops to create phasing patterns. In the 1980s Reich began to focus on works of historical importance that tended toward the dark side. Different Trains, for which Reich won a Grammy, alludes to the Holocaust and the use the Nazis made of that mode of transportation to ferry Jews to concentration camps and other forms of incarceration.
Reich’s parents separated when he was very young and he often traveled between their homes, in New York and Los Angeles, by train.
Years later, he mused that had he lived in Europe at the time he would probably have taken an entirely different kind of train. That realization eventually spawned the Grammy Award-winning piece.
When I visited the Tower of David venue for a private showing just a few days before it opened – performances for the general public started last Saturday and will run until July 21 – the construction workers and electricians were still hard at work. Different Trains director Pia Forsgren, who also serves as director of the Jewish Theater Stockholm, has a history of working in, and refashioning, performance spaces but she had taken on a mammoth challenge this time. “When we first came here there was absolutely nothing,” she says. “We couldn’t touch anything, we couldn’t walk anywhere, until they made this floor. It was a crazy challenge to start working here.”
Considering the next available walking surface is several meters down, at the level reached by the archeological excavations at the site, the newly built floor was essential for the purposes of the performance and for basic human safety.
Then again, starting from scratch also offers advantages. “As there was nothing here we could play around with the space and create whatever we wanted,” continues Forsgren. “It was also a great honor and privilege to be offered the opportunity to be the main event of the Jerusalem Season of Culture.”
Since she founded the Jewish Theater in 1997, Forsgren has put on quite a few productions with Jewish themes or with connections to this part of the world. In 2006 she joined forces with Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company and acclaimed Japanese artist Tabaimo’s Furo production, which was performed in a specially designed structure in the Tel Aviv Port in 2008.
In February 2006 the theater hosted an opera called Shadowtime, which relates the events surrounding the final hours of German-Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin, who managed to cross the border from France to Spain in 1940, only to kill himself rather than be returned to Nazi-held France by Franco’s forces.
The Jewish Theatre is an experimental stage for the exploration of drama, dance, film, music and performance with a contemporary Jewish perspective. The theater has specialized in integrating environments with its performances, making use of live performers as well as architecture and technology. Forsgren frequently incorporates music, sound and light, as well as texts, in her productions.
Swedish philanthropist Robert Weil, who is chairman of the Jewish Theater Stockholm, asked Forsgren to take on the position of director of the theater – it was established a couple of years earlier as a sort of low key center for Jewish entertainment, on a voluntary basis – and to turn it into a serious center for Jewish culture. “Sweden has become a multicultural society in recent years, with a lot of immigrants from places like Iran, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, and Robert was keen for the center to emphasize Jewish culture,” says Forsgren.
“He also believed it was important to let people know about Jewish culture, in a non-political way, so that it does not get swallowed up in the multicultural society in Sweden.”
IN ONE sense, at least, Forsgren and her crew did not start from scratch. Different Trains had already been performed in Stockholm over 60 times before it came here. However, the highly contrasting size and shape of the Jerusalem venue presented Forsgren, glass artist Ann Wåhlström and lighting designer Hans-Åke Sjöquist with a couple of dozen dome-scratchers.
Forsgren calls Different Trains “a visual concert” and says she was keen to work with Wåhlström to embellish the Reich soundtrack with a strong aesthetic in the theater space. “I wanted to work with Ann, and for her to create a room full of glass,” explains the director.
“I was a little bewildered when Pia asked me to think about filling a room with glass objects,” admits Wåhlström. “I don’t really come from installation work. It’s more about doing an exhibition, and not creating a room. Anyway, having people wade through glass, I think, is impossible and could be dangerous too.”
There is plenty of the stuff in, around and above the Kishle venue, in the form of no fewer than 90 elongated tear-shaped hollow glass objects. Some hang down from the vaulted Turkish ceiling, around the edges of the performance area, and others are arranged in groups on two circular platforms. Some of the glass objects have slim LED lights inside them, which change colors as the mood of the music proceeds, while others have lights suspended over them. There are even a dozen are so that are incorporated in the live musical performance.
The tear-like shape was not premeditated, even though Wåhlström has no problem with the eventual form. “This is, in fact, what glass wants to do. You have the glass and the heat, and the air inside it and, when you hang it down, this is basically what it does and I love that. It is finding the natural shape of the glass.”
After the design work was complete, Wåhlström found a factory in the Czech Republic that makes heavy-duty laboratory containers, and the glass props for the show were all manufactured there.
Wåhlström simply and succinctly calls the Kishle venue “the impossible space.” The logistical conundrum was further exacerbated by the fact that Different Trains was not initially designed to be moved around. “We never intended to go on tour with this,” says the glass designer. “Can you imagine what it’s like to carefully pack up 90 glass objects? We didn’t design in that way, to go on tour. But, after the first 30 performances in Sweden, and it turned out to be a success, we put on another 30 performances and then we started saying, ‘more people should see this.’ But we realized it would be so much work to take the show on the road.”
But hit the road they did. There has been talk of touring the United States but, fittingly, the first tangible invitation came from here. “Of course it is very right that the first show outside of Sweden is happening in Israel, with all the connotations of the Jewish context and the Holocaust. And we had to make it work in this space, this long space which is almost like a train car,” Forsgren observes, adding that the Jerusalem venue does offer some acoustic benefits. “In Sweden the music sounded different, because the walls are softer, but here the sound fills every corner. It is very different in a beautiful way.”
The musical infrastructure for the show is provided by Reich’s work, which is augmented by mostly train-related pictures and clips from before, during and after World War II, shown on a large screen at one end of the hall. The soundtrack is augmented by live music performed by The Fleshquartet from Sweden, with four instrumentalists playing two electronically processed and synthesized cellos, a very strange-looking electric violin and something that looks like a flat mesh drum set but is, in fact, a sampled violin attached to a highly intricate electrical sound manipulation gadget.
Different Trains is, as one might imagine, a pulsating piece that mirrors locomotive motion. The music is interspersed with recorded speech excerpts by Reich’s childhood governess, a retired train porter and three Holocaust survivors, as well as train sounds from the 1930s and 1940s.
Reich’s work provides the sonic backdrop for the first part of the production, and the quartet becomes more proactive in the second half, playing a self-composed piece with plenty of room for improvisation. At one point all four musicians leave their dais in the center of the hall and take up positions in different parts of the space to produce music using the glass props. One wields long percussion mallets on some of the large glass objects hanging from the ceiling, while another produces opaque drum sounds on them with his hands. A third member of the quartet emits sonorous effects by running his fingers around a couple of waterfilled wine glasses. Meanwhile, the train and train-related images on the screen are replaced by Fifties- and Sixties-style circles, rectangles and triangles in striking colors, signifying the greater optimism of the post-World War II period in the US.
“Part of the Reich composition is heavy and a bit hard to take,” says Forsgren, “and I wanted to show the sort of brighter Technicolor world in America after the war, and the better situation then. Steve [Reich] talks about having an upbeat ending, and that’s what you get.”
FORSGREN ADMITS to taking some license with the original score, although she obtained the composer’s blessing.
“Reich’s music is very structured and precise, and you don’t play around with his music. But the only thing I changed is that we used electrical instruments. Steve wrote the music for the acoustic instruments with mics.”
The Fleshquartet certainly obliges. Initially, its independent contribution to the show follows the pulsating lead of the Reich work, but the players later branch out into other very different musical territories, with cascading passages that owe as much to heavy metal as anything else, some funky stuff, a bit of rock music, a dab of reggae and some more abstract parts.
The Kishle venue is small, with a capacity of around 100. The audience sits on chairs in a rectangular shape, and is close up to the musicians and the glass objects. There is a strong sense of intimacy that you don’t normally get in conventional auditoriums, enhanced by the fact that the main lights are dimmed to leave just the blue illumination on the musicians’ dais and the alternating colors over and inside the glass objects. The ambiance is captivating.
“In Sweden we found that the people in the audience were very touched by the performance – including, of course, non-Jewish people,” says Forsgren. “We also allowed them to walk around the space, in between the glass, at the end, and to look at the glass for 10, maybe 15 minutes.”
That was borne out last Thursday with many members of the audience happy to stay in their seats to ruminate over what they had just seen and heard, while others got up to take a closer peek at the props and some chatted with the musicians. There was a feeling of having had a shared experience.
There was also an oxymoronic element to attending a cutting- edge artistic performance at a site suffused with so much history.

For more information about Different Trains: www.jerusalemseason.com