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Tuesday, 7 December 2004

Steve Reich

Somebody wrote a short history of the piece Come Out by Reich and they link to an old post of mine here. I'm kind of chagrined, actually, as the post they link to is the thinking-out-loud variety (as so many are) and it's clear that I have no idea about anything I'm talking about. I got Come Out confused with Its Gonna Rain, for example. However, since that time, I did do some research.

One of my questions was wether or not "come out" had a possible double meaning at the time the piece was written. It did not. That phrase as a signifier for visible queer identity originated in the 1970's or 80's. Instead Reich's text a very effective loop where the words "come out to show them" and then just "come out" are plucked from their original context and by repetition gain their own meaning of protest. Reich transforms the words from a statement of victimhood to a statement of protest. (according to Four Musical Minimalists) The words originate from a group of young african american men who were beat by the police in Harlem. One of them is describing how he was injured and wanted medical attnetion but wasn't visibly bleeding, so had to open is wound to allow some of "the bruise blood to come out to show them." The blog cited above points out that the piece was written as a fundraiser for the victims of the police brutality.

Come Out is clearly beyond reproach. It is a lasting piece of political music (although it does require one to read the program notes to understand it) and it comes out of fund-raising collaboration, making it just the sort of piece of music that Jesse woud be interested in for his Kent State paper. What's kind of interesting is how the words "come out" gained additional meaning in the interviening years and how the piece might change or gain meanings because of that. However, the opening context of the piece, I think, prevents that.

I really like Steve Reich. His work influences mine. I think there are some issues surrounding his work that have to do with changing ideas about liberalism. His piece It's Gonna Rain is a tape loop piece. It's before Come Out, from when he was at Mills and I don't think it's as good as his later tape piece. He went to Golden Gate Park and recorded a famous preacher who liked to give sermons tere. The preacher was talking about Noah's Ark. Reich felt that the message of impending apocalypse resonated with the angsty zeitgeist he felt around him. Four Musical Minimalists also explains that he was really into the rich timbres of African American voices.

Reich was actively working in anti-racist projects, some with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, for example. I want to do more research on this and who their target audience was and whose minds they might have changed. Were the urban audiences of San francisco racist, or were they energizing their base? Also, very importantly, how many black people were involved in this effort?

there is an unfortunate tendency for peple to fall into the social roles that they are comfortable with. Feminist groups sometimes spend a lot of time listening to men in their midst. Sometimes men even become the spokespeople. Equality groups must also gaurd against the social tendency to give away their voice to white men. I don't know when this became an issue that people were aware of. Certainly by the 60's, there were black-led civil rights groups and black people began assuming leadership role in pre-existing organizations.

Right now, speaking for black people and saying that you're fascinated by the timbres of their voices would be extremely problematic. (I was surprised to see that the book had a very recent publication date.) But this all took place in the 60's and it's appropriate to judge his intentions only according to what was considered progressive at the time. He was on the right sinde of things. However, when one is trying to learn from this to figure out what to do now, one has to take into account current notions of progressivism. I would not make those statements. I would not have written the piece It's Gonna Rain. I'm a timid sort and I'm afraid to speak for other people. (In modern political discourse it's perfect acceptable to declare yourself a spokesperson for whatever group you claim to represent. I think that's fine. But I don't want to speak for a group that I feel myself a member of or that nobody else would recognize me a member of.) In fact, when I do tape loop pices on text, I seem to always end up using people who I strongly disagree with. I have no timidity distorting their voices and re-ordering their words. Also, the temptation to illuminate their voices like gilding on a medival manuscript is not present as it would be with words I agreed with.

So, I still have not done enough research on Riech's tape pieces to write that chapter of my thesis. I have a few lingering reservations about It's gonna Rain. But I can say, unequivocably, that Reich was a progressive, on the correct side of social isues and he did good work. It's inspiring that it makes lasting music that's still worth listening to. I would characterize Come Out as a sucessful piece of protest music, one that is not easily co-opted, and continues to have political and musical significance.


Jesse said...

I agree with you about Come Out. It's a great piece, and has definitely influenced my whole compositional life and most of the long papers I've written on experimental music.

Any thoughts on other political Steve Reich work, like Different Trains?

Les said...

alvin says that different trains is not political. i need to listen to it again.