Monday, October 30, 2006

Come on out

3QD points us to The Nation's appreciation of composer Steve Reich on his 70th birthday, which includes the following description of the early (1966) tape piece Come Out:
The voice of Daniel Hamm, a 19-year-old member of the Harlem Six--five of whom, including Hamm, were later acquitted--is first heard clearly saying, "I wanted to come out and show them." The phrase "Come out and show them" is then transformed through phasing to become an evolving series of rhythms, timbres and pitches. These early works remain fascinating, but their politics is troubling. They seem to spring directly from the civil rights struggle, and yet the phasing process calls attention away from the meaning of words to their sounds.
This provoked your hot-tempered blogger to fire off the following peevish missive in the general direction of the Nation website:
Re: David Schiff's description of Steve Reich's "Come Out" ("A Rebel in Defense of Tradition"):

For gosh sakes, it's "Come out TO show them," as anyone who's actually heard this piece can tell you. As Schiff mentions, what happens when the loops overlap is that you no longer hear repeating loops of text but instead the repeating sounds of one or two phonemes. So you hear "mm-mm-mm-mm-mm" at the same time as "o-o-o-o-o," as well as the more percussive "tsh-tsh-tsh-tsh-tsh" (from "To SHow them"). Hard to forget.

Not only that, it's not even "I wanted to come out (and/to) show them," as if Hamm were explaining why he was there in the first place. Here's Wikipedia on the matter:

"The voice Reich eventually used for the work was that of Daniel Hamm, then nineteen, one of the boys involved who was not guilty of the murder, saying: "I had to open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them." Hamm had punctured a bruise on his own body to convince police that he had been beaten; they had not previously wanted to treat Hamm's injuries, as he had not appeared sufficiently wounded."

So yes, "the phasing process calls attention away from the meaning of words to their sounds" - that's why the piece works at all, a point analogous to one Schiff explains very well w/r/t "Clapping Music": these pieces concern the relation between rhythm and sound ("the ordinary became magic"). But the idea that this makes the "politics" of these pieces "troubling" is just silly. It's actually the ham-handed didacticism of some of Reich's later works which is politically troubling, as if he were losing faith in his art - as if magic were somehow insufficient - and felt he needed to preach instead. Still, he is (was) a titan, and "Music for 18 Musicians", at least, will live forever.
Of course The Nation is a political magazine, not a music magazine, so it's not surprising that their writer frets about music that seems content to produce magic rather than advance the revolution. And I'm certainly not waving the flag for "aestheticism" or "formalism," whatever the commissars of political correctness may say. I just don't see how self-consciously "political" art, which is invariably crap, can even do what it's supposed to do, let alone what it should be doing.

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