I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped to ask yourself what appears to be such a basic question but: what is music? Is it compositions played on instruments? Can it be improvisational? Does it have to have purpose? Is it simply the subtle alteration of tones, rhythm, melodies, something to fill the silence, controlled, programmed noise? What is music? As in all art forms and walks of life, I believe this statement is an important one to keep asking ourselves because it will spur people on to push the definition to the very limits; challenge the preconceptions and go on to do radically different things. If you (like me) see music as simply sound with a thought behind its creation, then you’ll be prepared to accept Steve Reich’s 1966 piece Come Out as a legitimate piece of music.
Note that I said “sound” with a thought behind its creation. I get very mad when people mention John Cage’s 4’33 as a legitimate piece of music. Reader, it is 4 minutes and 33 seconds where the musicians don’t play their instruments. I hesitate to say “silence” because that’s what the point of the piece is apparently; to challenge our ideas of what silence is, because you can never hear “silence;” during performances of the piece one can hear people rustling their coats, shifting on their chairs, coughing, the wind outside, the air conditioner in the hall and so on. It’s an interesting idea, but to legitimately “compose” this piece with the purpose of intending on “performing” it, to justify it academically and so on is just too far for me. That’s where I get off. 4’33 made me lose any respect I might have had for John Cage, and I can’t listen to any of his music as a result. I might be missing out on something great, but that’s my prerogative. Anyway, lengthy rant aside…
Come Out certainly challenges one’s definition of music. Its composition is actually quite simple. Reich acquired a recording of a black teenage youth talking about his experience of a 1964 Harlem riot. In order to convince the police that he was injured and required treatment, he (and I quote the song) “had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.” After repeating this phrase three times at the beginning of the piece, Reich them loops the end part – “come out to show them” and splits the recording into two separate channels. These two channels then split into 4, and finally into 8, and over the course of 13 minutes they become slowly but very obviously out of sync. The song slowly moves from an eerie chant to completely indecipherable, unintelligible wall of noise. Yet there is order in the chaos. There’s a definite rhythm, there’s thought behind it. The “melody” consists of the phrasing and emphasis patterns used by young Daniel Hamm when he said those words. It is, to quote the great Edgard Varese, “organized sound.”
But how is it music? There are no instruments. The source of sound is a spoken voice – not even singing, just speaking. And the reason it’s classed as music rather than a spoken word recording is solely because of the way it’s programmed. Can music be that artificial? Well I argue it can. I don’t see why the mode of creation should have any bearing on whether it can be classed as music or not. So this piece was artificially created by a guy with 2 tape recorders that were slightly out of sync. There’s still thought behind it, it has structure, and that to me is most important. It’s a little unorthodox (well, plenty unorthodox) and perhaps hard to get one’s head around, but it’s music like this that pushes our understanding forward and seeks to expand views not just on music, but life as well. Or you could think it’s all a load of garbage like that Cage piece, your call.
Words – Adam.