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Come Out to Show the Split Subject: Steve Reich, Whiteness, and the Avant-Garde

Biareishyk, Siarhei

Steve Reich’s Come Out (1966) begins with articulated speech—a mere sentence—and in the span of 12 minutes and 54 seconds, by way of looping and phasing, it deteriorates into utter noise. Come Out is a tribute to the Harlem
Six case (1964) in which six African–American youths were falsely accused
of murder. The voice in the composition belongs to one of these six men,
Daniel Hamm; the noise at the end is a product of Reich’s experimentation
in the development of what was then a new avant–garde technique. Jacques
Attali theorizes music as an “organization of noise,” arguing that music is
“inscribed between noise and silence, in the space of the social codification”
(Attali 11;20). In order to transcend the musical tradition and its own time,
many avant–garde composers appeal to this sphere of noise—a sphere
identified as the “Other” of music; through the composer’s intervention, such
noise becomes the avant-garde’s music. In Reich’s Come Out, the composer
ostensibly identifies the noise as the signifier in the sphere of technology,
namely, in tape recordings; and yet, one must insist on the question, why
is the recorded voice that of a black man—of the domain that whiteness
constructs as its Other? As I will argue, this sphere of noise, for the avantgarde
musician, shares functional equivalence with what Jacques Lacan
theorizes as the function of the “big” Other. It is nevertheless necessary to
insist that the Lacanian field of the Other is a battery of signifiers; it is the
field of the symbolic order that is understood as the Other of being, which
is by no means synonymous with racial Otherness. If the Lacanian Other
then overlaps with racial Otherness, as I contend it does in the case of Steve
Reich’s Come Out and the avant–garde music more generally in a greater
scope, it is a result of historical contingency and not structural necessity. But
this historical contingency is a reason enough to insist relentlessly on the
conditions of such historical manifestation; one must question all the more
rigorously: why, in the development of the Western avant–garde music does
the field of the Other fall on the voice of racialized Otherness? What is the
function of this Other in reconstituting a subjectivity in crisis?

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Current Musicology

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Academic Units
Music
Publisher
Columbia University
Published Here
September 29, 2014
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