Train sounds and modern music have long gone hand in hand. In the mid-twentieth century, recordings of train sounds played a significant role in the development and marketing of high fidelity recordings and, a little later, of stereo. Cook Laboratories rose to prominence in the early high-fidelity movement after scoring a hit with recordings of locomotives at the 1949 Audio Fair – apparently “fevered audiomaniacs” were “blanching with ecstasy at the tremendous whooshes and roars.” (The quotation comes from Greg Milner’s fascinating book Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, in which the story of these developments is colorfully told.) A special exhibit at the 1953 fair wowed and/or alarmed visitors with a three-channel recording that created the illusion of a locomotive bearing down on listeners.
Trains did not, however, serve only as a conveniently familiar and exciting subject for demonstrating the fidelity of field recordings. As the technologies of sound reproduction and manipulation developed, trains also became a compositional element in early electronic and experimental music. Pierre Schaefer, an important early pioneer of modern musical experimentation, premiered his Cinq études de bruits (Five Studies of Noises) on 5 October 1948, helping inaugurate musique concrète. The first study of the five, ‘Étude aux chemins de fer’, is based on recordings of trains, and can be listened to or downloaded for free at archive.org or streamed here:
The piece creates interesting rhythmic effects by cutting up and looping recordings of trains in motion (long before this could be handled digitally). Decades later, and in a more popular vein, German electronic pop pioneers Kraftwerk would base their 1977 Trans-Europa Express album around very similar train rhythms.
In another genre but with similar vision, Steve Reich’s Different Trains, which orchestrates train rhythms and train whistles along with voice samples to dramatic effect, won a Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.
Why trains? Well, apart from being a historically important and the most inherently rhythmic form of mass transportation (neither cars nor planes have a beat), I suspect that trains are for many people among the most nostalgia-generating modes of travel. I know this is true for me. Major journeys are often deeply formative experiences, as both experience and art repeatedly teach. But driving, for me at least, is a chore. I have hardly ever used a ship as a way of getting to somewhere. Flying scarcely feels like travel – I spend a few hours squashed uncomfortably in a metal tube reading or watching movies and then I emerge at another point on the map with little visceral sense of having actually traversed any terrain.
Trains, on the other hand, combine a leisurely experience of journeying with distinctive sounds, smells and sensations of motion. They allow the landscape to glide by and free up the traveler’s attention to notice it. The swaying rhythm and characteristic clatter send a comforting message of being in purposeful motion and yet not having to worry about how to get to the destination. Now that I live in a part of the world where the rail system is virtually non-existent and massively inconvenient, my nostalgia for seeing European cities awakening from slumber in the dawning hours as I rattled through on the overnight express is heightened. When train sounds are woven into a piece of music, for me it definitely adds to the attraction.
With that background in mind, here is a short list of less famous and more recent pieces of instrumental music that incorporate train sounds. They are all drawn from the ambient end of the musical spectrum. None of them are simply recordings of trains – all are using train sounds as a compositional element, and all are pieces that I think work musically. Some of them are personal favorites. Taken together they offer a relaxing, dreamy half hour of listening tinctured by that reassuring clickety-clack. Depending where you buy, the whole list can be obtained for between one and two dollars in total (follow the album links below to download each track).
1. ‘Trains’ by Parks, from the album Umber. Taken from a very fine ambient release on the Infraction label, this track is a perfect combination of gently rolling train rhythms and languid, drawn out tones. It perfectly evokes the swaying somnolence of an evening train journey. (Purchase from emusic.com, iTunes, or bandcamp)
2. ‘Jeune homme triste dans un train’ by Oathless, from the album Seen Through Reflection. Introduced and capped by an energetic flurry of train sounds, this track gives way to sonorous echoing notes against a droning background for a slightly somber feel. This one is for night-time travel. (Free at archive.org)
3. ‘Returns to the Orange Grove’ by Brokeback, from the album Field Recordings from the Cook County Water Table. The sun rises to a train whistle, and the day is welcomed with melodic, meditative bass guitar framed by a field recording of a locomotive. Very evocative and deeply patient, letting each note shine. (Purchase from most online music stores)
4. ‘Train Travel’ by Doyeq, from the album Eyelashes of Lanterns, an excellent netlabel release. This one is less direct. A nice ambient/downtempo piece with a relaxed beat, accented with piano and strings. Hints of train-like rhythm are subtly woven in. A steady melodic accompaniment to the day’s journey. (Free at archive.org)
5. ‘Occident Express’ by Hibernation, from the album Sequence2, a massive various artists compilation from Future Sequence (this is track 17). This is a drone piece bookended by field recordings that bring us into the station. It ends the journey on a serene, blissed out note. (Download at bandcamp – oddly enough the single track is currently $1, but the whole album is free).
If you have found other good ambient music with trains, let me know via the comment box below.
David Smith currently lives in the Midwestern United States, where he teaches, writes, and enjoys a very wide range of music, with regard to which he claims no expertise whatsoever beyond that of a dedicated and appreciative listener.
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