The Sound of Steam by Jo Burzynska

When Locomotion No1 made the world’s first commercial steam journey in 1825 it created the first movement in the history of the railways, and of a whole body of musical work inspired by the iron horse’s subsequent noisy passage through the world’s once peaceful open country. While the train came to symbolise order, progress and freedom, its potential for unpredictability and disaster on the other – from runaway trains to derailments and crashes – evoked a mixture of fear and fascination reflected in and provoked by some of the sublime musical journeys which have incorporated its aural imagery.

Carrying a cargo of amazingly varied tonally rich sounds and complex rhythms – pounding pistons, hissing steam, syncopated clattering wheels on tracks and screeching whistles – the train transformed the world’s sonic landscapes. These huge hissing beasts momentarily drowned out birdsong, ruptured conversation and added an expressive note to the growing cacophony of the industrial revolution.

Railways became the lifeblood of this revolution, which swept through Europe and America in the 19th century. With the train came rapid technological advancement, the unification of countries, continents and cultures and the breaking down of barriers of distance and time, while conventional notions of music at that time, coupled with new technologies, was experiencing a revolution of its own.

Early train tracks

It wasn’t long after the first tracks were laid before the impact of the steam train began to be felt on the music of the day, at every level. While a Romantic heavyweight such as Berlioz, wrote his Le Chant de Chemins de Fer in 1846, an epic charting the construction of the Paris to Lille railway line across mountain and rivers, light music maestros such as Vienna’s Strauss family were incorporating the railway into their waltzes and polkas. Steam trains also drove the creation of railroad ballads and found their way into popular music through the likes of music hall.

Recreating the metallic sounds generated by the thundering railways often forced composers to venture outside the limitations of conventional musical instruments and notation.  For example, the bandmaster Jos Gung’l , included a stave of music for “Locomotive Steam Engine”, in his 1844 Railroad Steam Engine Galop. This contained the repetition of a single note, allegedly accompanied by the instruction: “The noise which the smoke makes in the chimney of the locomotive steam engine, may be very naturally imitated by clapping the door of the tunnel of a stove.” Stove doors, sandpaper, railway bells and whistles all found their way into many otherwise orthodox compositions in the 1800s.

The sound of steam trains left a definite mark on the music of the emerging Romantic genre that century, which was moving away from the regular meters of classical music, whether this was directly alluded to or not in its pieces. Dvorak is one composer of this era drawn to worship trains at their cathedral-like stations. Fascinated by the rhythms and varying tempos of trains, Dvorak apparently spent hours listening to trains when teaching in New York, sometimes accompanied by his students that he brought with him to learn from their rhythms.

As a new century dawned, the influence of the train showed no sign of stopping. In an era that saw the greatest transformation in music, the ways in which it was produced, as well as the train itself, the train’s presence is found in some of the most groundbreaking music. The irregular clatter of iron wheels on jointed tracks can be heard in the syncopation of jazz as well as the complex rhythmical structures of the experimental music of the early 20th century.

The first train track of the 1900s heralded the rhythmic complexity that was to characterise the century. Percy Grainger’s Train Music written in 1901 when he was just 18, was inspired by a noisy journey on an Italian train and aimed to portray every aspect of the trip. Although unfinished, its mixed timing and irregular rhythms pre-dates by eight years Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, which is more often credited as commencing the rhythmic revolution of the century.

Although Grainger remained at the sidelines of much of the experimentation of the 20th century, his personal rhythmical journey appropriately culminated at the end of his career on a mechanical note. He created a music machine that freed music from the rhythmic inadequacies of human performers to enable him to realise his concept “Free Music”.

Trains in trouble

Trains altered the concept of time. Before their arrival the time kept by one place or person was often very different the next, which had to be harmonised for a universal timetable to function. “Train time” was the result. This was just one of the immense changes brought by the train, which was celebrated as a vehicle of progress and order on one hand, but whose influence was viewed with mistrust and sometimes anxiety, on the other.

With a watch synchronised to train time, the passenger boarded a mechanical beast mastered by an often unseen or shadowy driver. Hopefully this would be the right train, but in some case, ceding control to a hissing smoking monster meant that this was not the case, as in the1920s piece, The Celestial Railroad, by musical visionary Charles Ives.

Based on the allegorical story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Celestial Railroad charts the journey of a modern man who decides to save time travelling to the Celestial City by taking the train rather than going on foot along with the traditional pilgrims. Alarm bells sound in Hawthorne’s story when the passenger notes that train looked “much more like a sort of mechanical demon that would hurry us to the infernal regions than a laudable contrivance for smoothing our way to the Celestial City”.

As the passenger’s suspicions increase, the engine’s sound, which Ives recreates in the piece, is an indication of the menace to come. Its driver “exercised his ingenuity in screwing the most abominable sounds out of the whistle of the steam-engine; but in this closing effort he outdid himself and created an infernal uproar, which, besides disturbing the peaceful inhabitants of Beulah, must have sent its discord even through the celestial gates”. Rather than going to heaven, the last stop looks as if it will be depositing the passenger in its diabolic opposite.

That Ives chose to conjure up the clashing rhythms of the moving train in his work is no surprise in one fascinated by polyrhythms (where different rhythms are used at the same time) and polymeters (where rhythms and rapidly changing meters are layered). With frequent stops and starts, the piece combines diverse meters played by percussion which bend the rules of classical counterpoint, while train whistles replicated by woodwind instruments. Although written for a traditional orchestra, Ives’s railroad was another train-inspired work propelling music forward to new levels of rhythmic complexity.

If getting on the wrong train and being carried off to some infernal destination was one of the dangers with train travel, hazards could also occur any way along the line. Runaway trains and rail disasters disrupted the order and timetabled predictability of the railways, causing chaos on a grand scale and deepening the anxiety about this new mode of transport. This too was reflected in train music. As early as 1864, Gioacchino Rossini, who was allegedly deeply mistrustful of trains, made perhaps the first musical recreation of a rail disaster. His Un Petit Train de Plaisir, doesn’t get very far before it derails.

While the cacophony of crushed metal as trains collide or derail is the most obvious source of sonic inspiration for rail disaster music, the absence of the sound of the engine creates the eerie backdrop to Ash International’s 1994 release, Runaway Train. In this recording made in 1948 of a radio conversation between the line controller and driver of an out-of-control train, dislocated exchanges become more frantic as the engine accelerates towards disaster, before a silent derailment ceases communication between the two.

Trains on film

The dramatic potential of trains was something that early filmmakers were quick to exploit. As well as the passage of trains showcasing the camera’s ability to capture movement, the lethal strength of the train was again exploited when it was cast alongside the villain of the silent movie bent on tying a helpless heroine to the rail tracks.

While early film soundtracks, with their creation of more abstract soundscapes and use of environmental sound effects, were to inspire later recording artists, the first silent films had to rely on accompanying atmospheric music. One of these early composed “soundtracks” resulted in one of the best known pieces of train music, and one which was perceived as pretty radical in its day, Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231.

In 1922, Honegger, a self confessed train enthusiast who considered trains as “living beings” which he loved “as others love women or horses”, composed the music for Abel Gance’s film, La Roue. This material was then transformed into Pacific 231. While later Honegger claimed that the connection with trains happened after the piece was composed, which fitted more neatly with his philosophy that music was not an art of description, earlier comments suggest that steam trains were his initial inspiration. The piece builds in speed and volume as Honegger attempted to give the “impression of a mathematical acceleration of rhythm, while the movement itself slowed”.

“What I was after was not the imitation of locomotive noises but the translation of a visual impression and a physical delight through a musical construction,” said Honegger of the ideas behind Pacific 231. “It is based on an objective contemplation: the tranquil breathing of the machine in repose, the effort of getting up steam, then the gradual picking up of speed, culminating in the lyrical, engrossing vision of a train weighing 300 tons hurtling through the night at 75 miles an hour. I chose as my subject the locomotive of the ‘Pacific’ type, with the symbol 231, used for heavy, high-speed trains.”

At that time Honegger was a member of Les Six, a group of composers in Paris, led by Erik Satie with Jean Cocteau as their spokesperson. The mood in Paris between 1914 and 1924 was one of change and experimentation, where a new musical avant-garde were increasingly rebelling against the more ethereal musical genres of Romanticism and Impressionism. In 1918 Cocteau published his manifesto The Cock and the Harlequin, which called for the creation of a French music that was inspired by the sounds of everyday life, such as the streets and machinery. This was taken on board by the likes of Honegger and other members of Le Six such as Darius Milhaud, who went on to write music inspired by agricultural machinery. The mechanised age had truly arrived, connected by the trains, which drove through its heart.

The beauty of speed

Earlier, in 1909, mechanised transport played an important part in Fillipo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto. In it he conjured up images of being “alone with the black spirits which rage in the belly of rogue locomotives” and singing with “the gluttonous railway stations devouring smoking serpents” and “great-breasted locomotives, puffing on the rails like enormous steel horses with long tubes for a bridle”. Marinetti claimed that along with the new means of communication and information, transport would have a decisive influence on the psyche of twentieth century man, who would have to quicken his pace to adapt to these accelerating technologies.

A new art was required, that unlike literature, which “exalted thoughtful immobility, ecstasy, and sleep”, celebrated “the beauty of speed”. Although by this time the car had pulled up as the newest form of transport and aeroplanes were taking off, the train – which was now reaching speeds of over 100mph – was still the most important mode of modern transport and the most connected to the people of this industrial age.

Francesco Balilla Pratella’s Futurist Music Manifesto in 1912 elaborated on the part played by the likes of the train in the group’s musical philosophies. Futurist Music sought “to present the musical soul of the masses, of the great factories, of the railways, of the transatlantic liners, of the battleships, of the automobiles and aeroplanes. To add to the great central themes of the musical poem the domain of the machines and the victorious kingdom of Electricity”.

The domain of the machines was further explored by Luigi Russolo, who championed “the infinite variety of noise sounds”. Rather than rely on traditional instruments, his Futurist music evoked the din of the street, factory, road and indeed railways through the intonarumori. These noise machines mimicked the explosive roars, whistles, hisses, screeches and metal and wooden percussion of modern life, and enabled their manipulation and transformation into noise music.

His first performance was not well received. In fact Marinetti later remarked that it was like “showing the first steam train to a herd of cows”. Russolo had hoped that the hearing of the audience, like his own, had “already been educated by modern life, so teeming with variegated noises”. But while the sounds might have been closely linked with the daily life of the masses, like the steam train, this new music and technology was initially viewed by many with suspicion and misunderstanding.

Another musical inventor who gleaned inspiration from the railways was Harry Partch. As a hobo, Partch regularly hitched rides on trains in an era immortalised by his work, US Highball – A Musical Account of Slim’s Transcontinental Hobo Trip. In the sonorities of Partch’s self made instruments evoked the rattling of the box wagons in which he had made his many of his journeys.

The imagery of the American railroad also became entwined in the imagery of blues. Taking a train became symbolic of a way out, or indeed of being left behind. However, the slow pace of blues was miles away from the fast pace of the locomotives it frequently evoked. In America it was jazz, at around the same time as the Futurist’s experiments, which became the genre to really feed upon the rhythmic energy of trains.

Duke Ellington, much of whose music was composed on train journeys, is probably the jazz musician of this time whose work demonstrated the most explicit affinity with trains. His 1933 piece, Daybreak Express, is just one of his many train themed works, which has the express of the title pick up speed throughout the piece before stopping at its end with a harsh wheeze. Ellington later adopted another train piece, Take the A Train, as his band’s theme.

Recording steam

In 1938 the Mallard became the fastest train in the world, hitting 126mph. As the trains became faster, so progress in music technology sped ahead with the creation of machines, which for the first time were able to record sound. These worlds again collided to form a major milestone in the history of modern music, in Pierre Schaeffer’s Etudes de Bruits.

In this five-piece work from 1948, sounds from the real word were effectively reproduced and manipulated for the first time, effectively realising Russolo’s earlier philosophy. This became the first piece of musique concrete and commenced with Etude aux Chemins de Fer, which employed real train sounds.

Schaeffer made recordings of six trains at Paris’s Gare des Batignolles, which he manipulated and made into a sound collage. The rhythms of the trains and their whistles were looped, slowed down and speeded up to create a forceful and fragmented recontextualisation of the then familiar sounds of steam.

Trains have continued to be a source for material in musique concrete.  Bernard Parmegiani, a member of Schaeffer’s Groupe Recherches Musicales, revisited trains in his 1970 work, L’Oiel Ecoute, while the now Australian-based British composer, Tristram Cary, used recordings of different whistling trains to create a “kind of surreal communication” between engines in his 1978 Steam Music.

After a promising first half of the century, where new musical ideas and their technological expression progressed alongside the steam train in harmony, it appeared that their tracks were soon set to diverge. By the 1950s, while simulations of steam train sound in music could be replaced by recorded versions made on more portable equipment of the real thing, ironically the steam train’s final journey was now just a few timetables away.

However, the days of steam were not yet over. This increased ability to make mobile recordings onto tape and the rise of the domestic record player, combined with the interest of a sizeable number of train enthusiasts, ensured that this era’s sonic history was to be preserved. The train record was born.

Anyone who has spent any time trawling through second hand record stores and charity shops for musical gems will have no doubt come across at least one train record. In their heyday in the 1960s, these enabled train lovers across the world to relive old or embark upon totally new journeys.

“A railway train makes a great deal of noise, especially when travelling at high speeds. It is necessary to play this record at a high volume level in order to create the correct impression,” reads the sleeve note of one, Peter Handford’s recording, The Triumph of an A4 Pacific, on Argo Transacord. Taking time to listen to this at the right volume, it becomes clear that the best of these records are not only relevant to the trainspotter, but offer powerful visceral experiences and a fascinating journey in sound.

It is Handford, a film sound recordist who went on to win an Oscar for his sound work on Out of Africa, who made arguably some of the best recordings of the last steam trains. The clarity, depth and composition of these records set them apart from many of the other records of the genre.

Handford’s recordings, which combine his sound recording expertise with a passion for trains, are almost soundscapes in themselves, constructed out of a huge diversity of sound and rhythm originating from trains across the world. These are often layered with other environmental recordings such birdsong and snatches of conversation from railwaymen, and transcend the realm of simple sound effects.

“In the early 1950s I was anxious to get something done because I realised the steam trains with their unique sound were going to disappear. The varying rhythm of the steam locomotive is incredible, particularly if it’s a 3 cylinder type, which has the most variety,” remembers Handford. “But it was clear that diesels or electric were going to be the trains of the future.” Consequently Hanford set about creating a personal archive of trains, at first direct to disc and then onto ferrograph tape recorder. But it wasn’t until a friend sent him a copy of one of the earliest records, an American 10” called Rail Dynamics, that Hanford realised that a wider audience might be interested in hearing his recordings.

By 1955, Handford had formed Transacord, the record label he devoted to putting out the train recordings he was making when not working on films, and released the Passenger Trains and Freight Trains 10”s, which were to be the first of many. At first demand was small but steady, as the wider public ridiculed “this mad idea of doing records with steam trains”, according to Handford. However, in the late 1950s one journalist’s sonic epiphany on a footplate ride with Handford resulted in a highly favourable piece in The Observer on “The man the engines talk to”. The huge interest this generated forced Transacord into a partnership with Argo, Decca’s label dedicated to oddities.

The age of the train record had arrived, with Argo Transacord’s World of Steam actually outselling Argo’s World of Tchaikovsky. The run only came to an end when Decca was bought by Deutsche Gramafone, which called an end to his train recording’s service. Although Handford thinks most of the people who originally bought his records were steam enthusiasts, he’s not surprised that some now seek them out for their musical qualities.

In the States, Brad Miller had a similar idea to record the last steam trains, and formed Mobile Fidelity Records in 1958 to put these out on vinyl. With the end of mono, the dynamic range offered by train recordings meant they were increasingly featured on records demonstrating the wonders of stereo to an enthralled and wide ranging audience. As locomotives powered through lounges across nations, Miller’s recordings took the sound of trains to another unlikely setting, the easy listening album.

The idea of fusing such disparate genres allegedly came after a radio DJ mixed Miller’s train record, Steam Railroading Under Thundering Skies with an easy listening record. An overwhelmingly positive response by the show’s listeners inspired Miller to release his first enviro-musical album of many, One Stormy Night, credited to the Mystic Moods Orchestra. On it atmosphere is added to light orchestral tracks by the overlaying of environmental recordings, while one track, Local Freight, in its entirety is given over to a train recording.

At the same time, easy-listening supremo Martin Denny was peppering his tracks with the sounds of the jungle. But while Denny’s music conjured up unfamiliar and exotic places, Miller’s trains and storms were firmly lodged in the everyday, and perhaps led to his work’s relative obscurity. For those seeking escapism through easy listening, a hint of the unknown could well have appeared more attractive than the more mundane sounds of trains which were now so part of daily life.

Trans music express

With the last commercial rail journeys of many of the world’s steam trains in the late 1960s, the sonic landscape was just about to change irrevocably. These were replaced by the more muted diesel and electric engines, which now ran on smooth welded lines rather than jolting on jointed tracks.

While end of steam may have lessened the romance and sonic attraction to the railways, the new trains still found their way into music. While John Cage experimented with train sounds in the 1960s as part of his explorations of obscuring the distinctions between life and art, his major train work came in the electric age. In 1978 he made three train journeys in Italy, which together formed his travel performance, Il Treno – three happenings for prepared trains. In this Cage embraced all the sounds of the train in motion and of the stations at which it stopped.

In the 1970s more locomotive excitement was generated by the development of high-speed trains. Fast and efficient, their regular rhythms were far from the sporadic hisses and clatters of the steam trains. At this time, embracing the mechanised order of modern transport, retro-Futurists, Kraftwerk, left the Autobahn for a seminal trip on the Trans Europe Express, which was to take electronic music to new destinations.

“No other band could evoke the world of trains better than us, I think. The metallic music, metal on metal,” Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter told Paul Alessandrini in Rock and Folk Magazine on the release of the album in 1976. While the title track recreates the safe electric rhythms of these new hyper efficient machines, Metal on Metal is tinged with slightly more menace with harder metallic rhythms and synths sweeping from major to minor chords as the trains passes at speed.

Kraftwerk and their metallic train-like rhythms spread through the music of the eighties: from the grinding beats of industrial music, to the cleaner pulsations of electro and techno. Even in more syncopated dance genres such as drum n bass, elements of the more scattered rhythms steam-powered engines can be detected along with the low frequencies generated by modern high-speed transport

Train technology is still advancing, with Japan’s Shinkansen Bullet train able to travel at 186mph and the newly developed levitating train, Maglev gliding as fast as 300mph along its magnetic rails. New connections continue to be made, such as the linking up of Continental Europe with the UK by Eurostar.

Eurostar provided the inspiration for Scud and Nomex’s breakcore release of the same name. They were impressed by the bass frequencies of Eurostar as it passed through the run down suburban stations of southern England on its way to London. Considering that its sounds surpassed much of the digital sounds currently being generated on the scene, Scud and Nomex used platform recordings of Eurostar to form the bass in their track.

The end of the tracks?

Despite the railway’s achievements in the last century, increasingly quiet trains are being drowned out by other modes of mass transport: the hiss of cars on tarmac or the dull overhead roar of aeroplanes. New vistas can now only be truly opened up through space travel, remaining a dream for all but an elite few, and whose reverberations can only be imagined.

The decline of the railways in a country like Britain, where its image has become debased by its system’s dilapidation, has served to further distance its sounds from modern music. While Kraftwerk’s TEE is likely to have transported them to Düsseldorf city smoothly and punctually to meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie, the reality of delays and breakdowns on the British system has derailed any epic associations with these rail journeys.

But as the modern railway loses its allure, musicians have continued to be inspired by the sounds of steam well after the engines have either rusted or been relegated to truncated tourist lines. Some remember these and use them to conjure up powerful nostalgic images. To others in a generation of musicians born after the steam railways closed, these distant sounds still have power and immediacy, and perhaps now the element of the unknown, which sparked initial interest in the steam train.

Memories of childhood steam journeys during the war years formed the inspiration for Steve Reich’s Different Trains. In this work for string quartet and tapes, Reich contrasts the excitement of his youthful journeys with the trains used by the Nazis to transport holocaust victims to the death camps. The sound of the steam trains, with their whistles, pistons and screech of brakes, form an integral part of this documentation of personal and collective memory of very different train journeys.

Powerful nostalgia, be it positive or negative, remains for the days of steam. Very often modern pieces relating to trains appear to be more inspired by the trains of the past than the present, or future. A piece like MGV (Musique à Grand Vitesse) written by Michael Nyman to mark the inauguration of the ultra-modern North European TGV line from Paris to Lille in 1993, has more in common with the irregular sounds of steam. The tempo changes and the unpredictable slowing down of the piece bears little relation to the high speed locomotion of the Paris-Lille journey.

New perspectives on steam trains can breathe new life into their sounds and imagery. Lionel Marchetti’s Train de Nuit, that travels back and forth between past and present, epic and mundane, is one example. Violent hisses and the sound of rumbling carriages are juxtaposed with traditional songs, rock, pop and sinister-sounding orchestral soundtracks, along with disembodied voices of its passengers.

The power embodied by modern works using the sounds of steam makes it clear this fascination with sounds of an obsolete mode of transport is not simply a Luddite response to modern life by a worryingly backward-looking society. A very different, but in some ways similar example can be found in the revived interest in the unpolished analogue sounds current twenty years ago, but which are being provided with a new context in today’s music.

Steam has retained the power to thrill. It’s noisy and soft, unpredictable and regular, dissonant and harmonious, with dimensions that have still to be explored. It’s clear that there are still journeys to be taken. But while modern trains might temporarily have been put in their sonic sidings, this is far from being the end of the tracks for train music.

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