Deserter’s Songs I Hear That Train A-Comin’

"There's a long history of trains in popular music. They've represented freedom, inspired dances, carried loved ones away and heralded utopian futures." Dave Bell offers a selection of the different ways in which the sounds of trains have been used in music and considers what this might be able to tell us about the way we engage with sound and each other.

Arts & Culture, Deserter's Songs, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, July 2, 2011 9:00 - 0 Comments

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By David Bell

There’s a long history of trains in popular music. They’ve represented freedom, inspired dances, carried loved ones away and heralded utopian futures. But the sounds of trains themselves are strangely musical, and have been used to great effect in a variety of musical settings.

Below I offer an (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) selection of the different ways in which the sounds of trains have been used in music from the last 65 years, and consider what this might be able to tell us about the way we engage with sound and each other.

1. Pierre Schaeffer- ‘Etude Aux Chemins du Fer’ (1948) & The KLF- Chill Out (1990)

In 1914, the futurist painter Luigi Russolo wrote ‘The Art of Noise’, a manifesto urging composers to embrace the sonic detritus of industrial society- telling them they must ‘break at all costs from the restrictive circle’ of traditional instrumentation and instead ‘conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds’.

This, of course, slotted in nicely with futurism’s headlong rush into the embrace of fascism, but also suggested exciting new possibilities for music, which suddenly found itself with an enormously extended palette.

Some 34 years later, Pierre Schaeffer seemed to rise to the challenge, composing ‘Etude Aux Chemins du Fer’ (often hailed as the first piece of musique concrète) from various rail-related sounds. Collaged-together whistles, wheels and puffs create a disorientating but sonically thrilling portrait of rail activity which- to me- encapsulate the thrilling, visceral modernity of rail travel.

But it’s a thrill far removed from the comforting sheen of its public image: Schaeffer’s piece conjures up the sweat and toil of the labour involved in operating steam engines: you can almost smell the fire, the grease and the fireman’s sweat. This is modernism at its most bodily and, perhaps, masculine.

Yet these are not the sensations Schaeffer intended to provoke. Unlike Russolo he was not interested in the representational meaning of the sounds he dealt with, but with their immediate sonic qualities, and our perceptions of those sounds.

Inspired by the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty he argued that ‘deliberately forgetting every reference to instrumental causes or prexisting musical significations, we…seek to devote ourselves entirely and exclusively to listening, to discover the instinctive paths that lead from the purely “sonorous” to the purely “musical”..to deny the instrument and cultural conditioning’.

Thus, for Schaeffer, ‘Etudes Aux Chemins du Fer’ is not interesting because it is composed of rail sounds, but because of the qualities of those sounds on tape and the way the listener forms a relationship with those sounds (although this raises the question why he named the piece after its sound source).

Yet, despite Schaeffer’s own claims about his music, it’s hard not to now hear ‘Etudes aux Chemins du Fer’ as a piece of modernism: the avant-garde leading music to new sonic territories opened up by industrial society. What’s interesting here is just how long it took music to do so.

Whilst modernist composers had begun to dismantle the pretense of music as offering the bourgeoisie respite from the tribulations of industrialism (particularly in the USSR), it’s remarkable that it took until 1948 for music to really rise to the gauntlet thrown down by Russolo (steam travel would be all but extinct in Western Europe within thirty years)- although the technological and financial difficulties of conducting field recordings were at least partly to blame for this.

Where Pierre Schaeffer’s ‘Etude Aux Chemins du Fer’ fails to truly leave behind the original sonic object, The KLF’s 1990 album Chill Out perhaps proves a little more successful (although this wasn’t The KLF’s intent- Chill Out is ostensibly a concept album about a rail journey across the US’ Gulf Coast).

One of only two or three self-defined ‘chill out’ albums worth bothering with, it consists largely of ambient synth chords and various samples, with the warning bells of level crossings and the gentle roll of a slow moving train returning motifs (steel guitar, distant Elvis songs, baa-ing sheep, Tuvan throat singing and radio announcers also feature).

Even without chemical aides, it’s a remarkably affective work- lulling the listener into a liminal zone where sounds float freely around the brain, fascinating for the profundity of their timbres and gentle vibrations rather than in relation to their origins. Such pleasures tend, perhaps, towards a solipsism which renders their profundities vacuous, but if experienced communally after a night of clubbing these experiences can heighten the bonds felt between friends: the subjective experience of listening opens up and- correctly or not- you just know that everyone else is having the same experience as you.

Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker- The Ballad of John Axon (1958)

Where Schaeffer used rail sounds as part of the musical avant-garde, the folk singers Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, together with BBC producer Charlie Parker (not to be confused with the saxophonist of the same name) sought to create a more democratic form of experimentalism with The Ballad of John Axon (sadly I can’t find any excerpts online).

Weaving interviews, song and field recordings into an audio documentary to be broadcast on BBC Radio (the first of eight such ‘radio ballads’), it tells the story of John Axon– a British engine driver who had died at the controls of his locomotive in 1957- refusing to jump when he had the opportunity, thus saving the lives of passengers farther down the line.

Yet- though the story of Axon is powerful- it also creates a compelling portrait of the bonds between industrial workers- the regard the rail workers had for Axon and the solidarity they felt for each other is clear, and extremely humbling.

There’s also a clear bond between man and machine- embodied in the music by the melding of Parker’s field recordings into MacColl and Seeger’s vibrant songs. The engines come alive and it’s apparent that the men who work on them have genuine relationships with them. The satisfaction of seeing one’s sweat and labour transformed into movement is keenly portrayed, with the barking of the engine and the clack of wheel on rail creating an intoxicating collage of sound.

Given that the ultimate subject matter of The Ballad of John Axon is the death of a worker, it’s clear that post-Marxist and anarchist critiques of technology as dominating those who operate it are also relevant here, yet the overwhelming feeling one gets from listening to this stunning work is of sadness: both at the loss of communities of solidarity of the industrial worker, and at the spaces given over to a daring, experimental portrayal of this on national radio.

July Skies- Branch Line Summers Fade (2008) & Thee Silver Mt.Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-la-la Band With Choir- Goodbye, Desolate Railyard (2003)

Noted nineteenth century anti-rail grump John Ruskin once noted- with alarming foresight- that future versions of himself might well look back to rail travel with nostalgia and seek to preserve lines from change or destruction.

And so it’s proved, with rail enthusiasts fighting desperate battles to prevent railway closures and voluntarily running preserved railways so that steam trains can keep running long after they’ve been withdrawn from commercial service. So whilst Schaeffer’s train sampling heralded modernity just 60 years ago, the sonics of rail travel are now just as likely to conjure up nostalgia for a lost world. July Skies’ Branch Line Summers Fade encapsulates this perfectly, with its sample of a steam train gently chugging conjuring up bucolic images of slower days long lost.

Silver Mt.Zion’s Goodbye Desolate Railyard talks of the destruction of rail in a more explicitly political way, plaintively expressing regret at the loss of a Montreal marshalling yard near the band’s home to make way for yuppie condominiums: collective labour destroyed in the name of progress. The three-minutes or so of gently rumbling freight train eight minutes into the track come across like the death throws not only of rail travel, but of community, integrity and labour- all destroyed in the relentless pursuit of profit.

These various uses of rail sounds (The KLF excepted) speak to me of a world of solidarity which is rapidly being eroded. There was a lot wrong with that world too- it was overtly masculine, bad for the environment and, no matter how much solidarity there was, saw appalling exploitation of workers-, yet in many ways it seems like an attractive world- free from the bullshit ‘we’re all middle class now’ rhetoric which has accompanied the decline of British industrialism.

Neoliberals despise rail travel because it’s a form of public transport and something which simply does not work when left to the whims of the private market (although Colin Ward has written compellingly on how anarchist decentralisation can produce a viable rail network); those on the right hate it because it’s a great equaliser: first class notwithstanding, it throws people from all walks of life together in a communal space.

So let’s hope that the glorious sounds of rail travel continue to resound in the real world, and not just on recordings for many years to come.

Oh, and my favourite piece of music with railway related sounds? 43106 and 41241 tackling a gradient on the Severn Valley Railway…

David Bell is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. His work seeks to rethink utopianism through the work of Gilles Deleuze and anarchist thought. He is currently writing a book on the politics of improvising music for Zer0 Books. Deserter’s Song, his column on music, is published every Saturday.

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