Drumming moves us. In the figurative sense, of course: it means something to many listeners and performers, hence a celebration for its 50th birthday, of which this essay is a complicated part. More on that soon.
But it also literally moves us. Kinetically. Patterns unfold and we—or I, most certainly—feel them in our (my) bones. But something curious happens as they relentlessly unfold: the physical sensations that a pattern inspires as I groove along transform as new patterns arise. My sense of comfort in my sympathetic movements dissolves, and does so in unsettling, even disorienting ways. For example, from the first strike: what I think is compound duple or quadruple, in the initial moments of the piece, goes triple almost immediately, simply by adding more material, by filling the space. Then phasing melt-feels its way to true compound duple, all of this before the two-minute mark. As these grooves telescope and shift, one into the next, my relationship to my own body becomes confounded and complicated.
Thom Yorke, on Anima, lets fly a lyric that puts it into contemporary language: “I’m breaking out the turntables/and now I’m gonna watch your party die.” No one wants to dance with Yorke spinning records (grossly untrue, of course, but necessary for the lyrical persona), and I imagine the dance party with Drumming blaring feels a similar way: I thought this was fun to move to, but now I don’t know what’s happening, over and over again, until the floor is empty. True but not true: that is the weird pleasure of the piece, as well as a reason it has been called “concert music” versus any number of other musics, including the traditions on which it is based, or from which it was appropriated or even stolen, depending on who you ask and where you land. More on that soon.
First, though, to lay out just one initial point of tension: the premise of this entire line of inquiry—the music does this so my body does that, but then something happens to make me wonder if my body had really understood what I heard—privileges musical syntax, the notes on the page and the ensuing patterns, notationally prescribed, swirling around and inspiring our attunements to them. It’s a way to think about music. There are other ways to think about music, though, which perhaps shouldn’t need to be said but actually bears repeating, holding some ground.
This essay takes up one of these different listen-think-ing lenses, one that holds ground for an idea. Specifically: if I hear in reverse inside this music, because in the space of the piece new musical things keep happening to challenge the way I consider old musical things, might I also think in reverse about this music? In the spaces held for performance of and thinking about Drumming, new things happen as well, things that might challenge the way I consider those very spaces. Indeed we might see hearing in reverse as a rhetorical strategy that goes beyond music, that might be populated by a whole different set of inputs—cultural, historical—and apply that lens to different work and for markedly different reasons. In Drumming we hold the hearings and re-hearings and un-hearings in our bodies. In other work, based on these cultural and historical inputs, we might hold them in different places: the mind, the heart.
This essay was supposed to take the aforementioned lens and look through it in order to hear Reich’s 1967 tape piece Come Out in a different way. After digesting Drumming. After the election of Donald Trump. After the murder of George Floyd. The initial proposal reads like an idea from another world, another life. To quote my earlier self:
Steve Reich’s Drumming presents opportunities to hear in multiple registers, or more provocatively, to hear in reverse. By that I mean that the musical materials of Drumming organize us kinetically, until our organization of-the-moment is complicated/confounded by subsequent re-framing events. The original material takes on greater complexity and richness, moving us differently in retrospect, given what it would become.
I connect our reverse-hearing in response to material that unfolds at the level of musical syntax to our reverse-hearing in Reich’s tape work; syntactical reorganizations of pieces like Drumming allow us to re-hear reorganizations of different scope in Come Out. Transforming human voice into sounding object opens space for critical engagement: how has reverse-hearing, at different orders of magnitude, done social justice work? How might it still do that work?
Sometime between proposing that idea for an essay and even beginning to make that now-imaginary argument, a seismically significant reframing event occurred: Val Wilmer’s 2018 recollection in A Hidden Landscape Once a Week: The Unruly Curiosity of the UK Music Press in the 1960-1980s, in the Words of Those Who Were There, resurfaced and spread through the New Music community, in a national moment—movement—of reckoning.
How do we understand Come Out given that context? What does it mean to hear that piece, a work explicitly tasked with doing social justice work, in reverse, given what we now know and what we say we believe?
You know, the other day I heard somebody talking about Steve Reich on the radio. And I interviewed him once for Melody Maker—and I’d just come back from Ghana, and he’d been to Ghana too, the same place as a matter of fact, and heard the same music. I was talking about a person who was playing with him—who happened to be an African-American who was a friend of mine. I can tell you this now because I feel I must. This was in Michael Nyman’s house, and we were talking, and I mentioned this man, and [Reich] said, “Oh yes, well, he’s one of the only Blacks you can talk to.” So I said, “Oh, really?” He said “Blacks are getting ridiculous in the States now.” And I thought “This is a man who’s just done this piece called Drumming which everybody cites as a great thing. He’s gone and ripped off stuff he’s heard in Ghana—and he’s telling me that Blacks are ridiculous in the States now.” I rest my case (Wilmer in Sinker 2018, p. 60).
“This is all Drumming is,” Reich told students and faculty at the Sō Percussion Summer Institute during the summer of 2018, and then played a short pattern on his thighs with both hands. We were delighted at this apparent modesty—it’s just this little thing, it’s nothing. But we might hear him (and Drumming) differently: Reich privileges process over core material. The bare syntax is not what matters in Drumming. The pattern that everyone now knows, that you might vocalize if someone asked “How does Drumming go?” is an input to the system. We might as well have started with G-G-G-Eb, short-short-short-long, right? Fate knocking put through so many permutations that we forget that we found it catchy, or didn’t?
But there is also a way this rhythm is specifically embedded or honored in the algorithm itself, something about the character of the rhythmic relationship he tossed off that defines what subsequently happens in Drumming. Could we phase out on any old thing (G-G-G-Eb, short-short-short-long?) and have the same sense of activation and pleasure? To take it up even on a superficial level, the idea that the cited generative material is, in fact, two things at once, two hands, two feels, actually means a lot in Drumming, as though the idea of juggling different rhythmic understandings—as well as the specific twists and turns of this specific one—create a base-case listening state in which we accept that we need to divide our bodies in (at least) two.
The materials Reich presents as critical to Drumming, even in a context designed to minimize them, provide a kind of answer key to what the piece does and how we might respond in turn. We don’t pour a rhythm into a preexisting algorithm and see what happens; there is a dynamic relationship between the generative materials and the obstacle course they subsequently run. Which tangles us up: the materials that were lifted in Val Wilmer’s account, and in the accounts of many, many others, don’t matter as much as the system in which they take flight, and that system is shaped by those materials in fundamentally important ways.
Engaging these questions in this way shows us what we think a composer does or ought to do: make, as my composition teacher in college called it, “grabber material,” (which, as an aside, he said I was ok at), and make that material take flight, (where, as another aside, he implied I was coming up short, and that this was a more significant indictment)? But even if we privilege the more allegedly sophisticated version of composition—system design rather than invention of cellular materials, development of material rather than its invention—do we really believe that any old system will accommodate any old set of core materials? Even more pressing for an eventual look at Come Out: what happens when the generative materials are, for a contemporary listener as well as for a young Steve Reich’s actual location in space and time, closer to home?
Reich told us that Drumming is merely a rhythm that he didn’t write, and Reich devised a system to honor that material by transforming it. Reich told Val Wilmer that “Blacks [were] getting ridiculous,” and Reich embedded Daniel Hamm’s voice in a seminal piece of minimal music that raised money for his legal defense. How can we hear the entirety of these conditions at once? Maybe we listen to them the way we listen to Drumming. What does the growing edge of awareness tell us about where we have been? Confounding musical material, material that arises in seeming conflict with whatever is going on in the foreground, actually tells us something about that foreground, draws a different frame around it. So can the resurfacing of what Reich said work in real life the way confounding musical material works in Drumming? Does that resurfacing make us re-hear his work, make us leave the dance floor?
To set up the situation more explicitly: on the one hand we consider the way Drumming operates—Reich presents material, then sets new material against it that makes us hear it differently. Its nature appears to change, or grow richer. On the other we consider the presentation of material arising outside the bounds of a piece of music—Reich’s words ringing out 50 years later, set against his body of work or, more specifically for this case, against a single work that takes up racial injustice directly and with the immediacy of an actual person speaking actual words on an actual recording. Does it make us re-evaluate the whole enterprise of seeing Come Out as doing work in the world? Or, perhaps, of even celebrating anything at all?
Here is a provisional place to land, a stop on the ride: we see that even work that was attempting to do some good, by raising money and foregrounding a real person’s voice in a moment of recalling intense trauma and structural—actually actual—violence, was brought into being by someone whose contemporaneous words aligned with policies and practices that put Daniel Hamm in that position in the first place. Framed thus, evidence for this perspective, from the piece itself, abounds: the speaker, rendered unintelligible through relentless processing, is erased and in its place we get sonics, the emergence of a music that takes flight independently of what Hamm said and why he said it. Look what I did to this, Reich seems to be saying. Look how much music was in these words. Listen to the rhythm and the cadence. Notice them over the darkness undergirding a perverse imperative: Hamm needed to be actively bleeding to receive medical care. Why are we even talking about this person and this music? This essay’s energy ought to be reallocated towards doing something that might actually move the needle.
Drumming’s example, however, guides us. What if the system into which core material is embedded has to accommodate and honor it in order for the piece to function as music that we keep coming back to, that we wish a happy 50th birthday? What if the systems are attuned to the materials, somehow issue forth from them? What if Drumming and Come Out are not just algorithms into which you can pour any old thing? Think of Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room; that the text references the process makes the work fold back on itself and, if you are like me, gives you chills. It is less obvious in Come Out but it is there.
Violence first: Hamm had to “open the bruise up,” “make the bruise blood come out to show them.” That is what we know because it is the first thing we hear. And then, curiously, Hamm is gone. We land so quickly on “come out to show them,” taken up with so much focus, that the specific circumstances and the specific horrific situation almost disappear. Reich doesn’t loop “I had to open the bruise up.” He doesn’t loop “blood.” We might forget that anyone is doing anything at all, that there was a subject in the first place. The decoy critique is that the words become song through repetition that leads to degradation; Reich renders Hamm incoherent and as listeners we ultimately attend to an abstraction of his vocal quality. But Hamm was hardly there to begin with; his position as subject is dissolved almost immediately and instead we are left with the truncated version of what he actually said. It doesn’t take an endless process to erase him, just a snip of the tape in the first few seconds of the piece.
That specific cut, though, leaves us with an imperative, said at us: “come out to show them.” Erasing Hamm refocuses the work on us, personally. On the listener being told what to do. And in that refocusing we actually become more like the speaker, made to do something; in Hamm’s case the imperative is self-harm in the name of self-care. In ours? “Come out,” we are told, and in so doing we’ll “show them.” I hear it as vengeance. I hear it as they will get their due. A call to settle the score, reminiscent of Reich that same recent summer telling us about WTC 9/11: “Wait a minute,” went his recollection of the idea crystallizing, “I still have unfinished business.” He is no stranger to settling the score, and neither, presumably, are we, knowing what we now know. This is just the beginning, but reading the beginning this way changes everything.
What unfolds over the course of the piece complicates even this complication: the call to arms is itself the thing that then dissolves, the idea that is dismantled. Reich submerges the imperative in the sound of that imperative. A command deployed for the sake of righteous retribution is, after all, still a command. Instead of meeting force with its equal and opposite energy, Reich harnesses it, spinning it into a web that both neutralizes its semantics and celebrates its cadence, its sonic character. The piece speaks back to authority by absorbing its coercive language and refusing it on the grounds that we were supposed to have been listening to something else all along. His agenda was not to gratify force by opposing it; instead, he dissects the show of force into its component parts at the level of sound, renders it an absurd thing to listen to as a set of instructions. Instead, listen to the voice, or what is inside the voice, or what the honoring of those properties would dictate at the level of process.
This is all Come Out is, he might have said, and then played the tape. But like the parallel claim about Drumming, we hear it retrospectively. We hear it now, knowing what we know about Reich talking to Wilmer and Wilmer talking to us and all of us talking to each other. Drumming affords us a model: a way to honor the always-present that animates and complicates and even diagnoses the always-already-past.
We might animate a little two-handed pattern, a voice recording of a terrible moment on a terrible day, or a statement and its resurfacing, but we can’t animate them convincingly if we don’t honor what they are, if we don’t tell the truth about them. Not any process will do, but some process will. Drumming processed the pattern and Come Out processed the recording. This essay attempts to process the statement, having studied, lived with, and learned from how this particular, peculiar music might work.
We take the occasion of Drumming’s 50th birthday, a party to which I showed up late for reasons already disclosed, excuses already made, to celebrate a way of hearing. Because we keep adding to the timeline at the leading edge, the ground we have traversed looks different. Antiquated. Worn. Dangerous. The work, it turns out, contains the key to its own unspooling, makes us admit that what we thought was happening was not actually happening, that we were missing something, that we could only see what was being shown to us. We wait, bated breath, for what happens next, knowing it might reframe what is happening now, in the music and in the spaces in which we celebrate—and complicate—that music.
Yorke, Thom 2019. Anima (LP). XL Recordings.
Sinker, Mark (ed.) 2018. A Hidden Landscape Once a Week. Strange Attractor Press.
Reich, Steve and Musicians 1987 (CD reissue). Drumming. Elektra Nonesuch.
Lucier, Alvin 1981. I am sitting in a room (CD). Lovely Music Ltd.