Measuring Steve Reich (February 2016)
I pick up a ruler understanding that it is already a fantasy, a fantasy object, a dream come true. What can be measured, and what lies outside the accounting tables? What about art – can the experience of art, its impact even, its affect, be subject to measurement? Cultural orgs round the world justify their activities by hauling out their rulers, or someone else’s rulers, in an attempt to answer these impossible questions. And slowly, of course, the questions reliably deform the ones who are trying to respond to them.
Does the artist measure up? After the initial frisson of discovery, the threshold of audience experience can be hard to recapture. I think we all recall those moments in our youth when we read a book that changed our life, or listened to a piece of music that made every tune afterwards sound different. These experiences offered us new ways of measuring experience, or even better, for a delirious moment, they banished measurement altogether.
For me it was Steve Reich’s Come Out. Steve put a tape loop onto a brace of tape machines and let them run slowly out of sync, so that what had begun as witness testimony to police brutality became a sublime and abstracted drone, as if were transcending the systemic injustice of cops and racism. I still believed in systems then, that systems could be made better, measured, perfected even.
After the so-called Little Fruit Stand Riot in 1964, New York’s racist police force charged six black men with the murder of Margit Sugar and injuries to her partner Frank. The six men (Wallace Baker, Daniel Hamm, William Craig, Ronald Felder, Walter Thomas, and Robert Rice) were regularly beaten by police while in custody and their trial was a triumph of white supremacy.
Reich was approached by civil rights activist Truman Nelson, who offered him a collection of recorded voices from the defendants. Nelson was familiar with Reich’s stuttering tape loop masterpiece It’s Gonna Rain (1965), and hoped for something in that vain. He wasn’t disappointed. Reich used the voice of 19-year old Daniel Hamm who was trying to show police that he had been beaten near the fruit stand. Daniel Hamm: “I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.”
Steve Reich: “And then, on the strength of that piece (It’s Gonna Rain), I was asked to do a piece as part of a benefit for the retrial of the six black kids who’d been arrested for murder in 1966, who were referred to as the Harlem Six. Now, there was a murder committed, but one of them did it — not all six. This kid, Daniel Hamm — whose voice I was using — did not do it and was acquitted. I was given a stack of about ten reels of tape with mothers and voices, and I said to the guy —Truman Nelson was his name — who was a civil rights person and scholar of John Brown, I said, ‘Look, I’ll do this and I’ll do it for nothing, but you’ve got to let me make a piece out of anything I find.’ He said, ‘What do you mean by a ‘piece’?’ So I played him It’s Gonna Rain, and he was just strange enough to say ‘Hey! That’s great! Good! You want to do that? Go ahead!’” (An Interview with Steve Reich by Gabrielle Zuckerman, American Public Media, July 2002)
Reich re-recorded the fragment and played small tape loops on two machines, then four, then eight. Because the machines didn’t play at exactly the same speed they slipped out of synchronization, creating a phase shifting effect, and then a reverberation, and then an all encompassing drone. What was enthralling for this listener was that I could hear how it was being done, it was process-oriented music and the listener was part of that process, even as it was being stripped bare, made transparent. Here was Daniel Hamm speaking from a place of the underneath, and retuning himself as a being that owed no debt (because he was poor, because he was black, because he’d been accused). His was a voice that broke apart a system, the crisp lines of language itself, unleashing a force that lay latent within this sentence fragment, waiting to come out and show them. And in these ruins, this blur, this cacophony, this machine choir, lay a new hope and beauty.
Jack Halberstam: “Moten and Harney want to gesture to another place, a wild place that is not simply the left over space that limns real and regulated zones of polite society; rather, it is a wild place that continuously produces its own unregulated wildness… While describing the London Riots of 2011, Harney suggests that the riots and insurrections do not separate out the request, the demand and the call’ — rather, they enact the one in the other: ‘I think the call, in the way I would understand it, the call, as in the call and response, the response is already there before the calls goes out. You’re already in something.” You are already in it. For Moten too, you are always already in the thing that you call for and that calls you. What’s more the call is always a call to dis-order and this disorder of wildness shows up in many places: in jazz, in improvisation, in no8ise. The disordered sounds that we refer to as cacophony will always be cast as ‘extra-musical,’ as Moten puts it, precisely because we hear something in them that reminds us that our desire for harmony is arbitrary and in another world, harmony would sound incomprehensible. Listening to cacophony and noise tells us that there is a wild beyond to the structures we inhabit and that inhabit us.”
This bit of Reich magic became the measure for all future musical interludes for me, it made pop sound thin and inconsequential. There are some experiences written on water, others on stone. The fact that it was machine-made music was also a plus, machines were a new way to measure the merely human. What had began as a threat (the machines are taking over!) was now embraced as a new pleasure. I could recognize right away that the small measure of audio tape that Reich had uncovered, the few centimeters that ran again and again across the heads of his borrowed tape recorders, were his way of re-imagining the world. I admit that the methods were tightass, this was a utopia where everything ran on time, where obsessive order freaks ruled, and yet there was a reliable transcendence produced, and for a moment, that seemed enough.
Steve Reich: “What’s important about the piece is that this repeating pattern is played against its self, and gradually slips out of sync with itself, and goes out of phase. This is a process that I discovered by accident. I had two cheap tape recorders, which were some of the first mono machines that came to America after the war. I had a pair of stereo headphones with two separate plugs and I plugged one in the back of one machine and one into the back of the other, and made these two loops as identical as I could. I pushed the two start buttons and, by sheer chance, they started in unison. The odds are not too good for that to happen, but they did.
I had the stereo phones on and it felt like the sound was in the middle of my head. It seemed like it went from the left side of my head and down my arm and across the floor and then it began to reverberate. And finally, I got to this relationship that — in my mind — was what I wanted to do, which was [sings] “It’s gonna, it’s gonna, it’s gonna, rain, rain.” It was the 180°, or the mid-point on top of each other. But what I realized was that it took several minutes to get to that position. This journey, this trip is far more interesting than that particular destination. There are all these irrational destinations in between.” (An Interview with Steve Reich by Gabrielle Zuckerman, American Public Media, July 2002)