Sound Commitments: Avant-Garde Music and the Sixties

By Robert Adlington | Go to book overview

6
The Problem of the
Political in Steve
Reich’s Come Out

Sumanth Gopinath

Among the many ironies in the legacy of the “long 1960s” within the United States, a relatively minor one can be found within the repertory of American electroacoustic music. Specifically, Steve Reich’s wellknown composition Come Out (1966) has, in retrospect, served as the most prominent historical memorial for the legal and political drama known as the Harlem Six case. During most of the 1960s and early 1970s, the plight of the Harlem Six—six young African American men from Harlem wrongfully accused of and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of a Jewish storekeeper—came to symbolize the racism and corruption rampant in the American policing and criminal justice systems. Inseparable from the Harlem Riots of 1963, which number among the earliest of dozens of battles between police officers and impoverished black city dwellers during the decade, the cause of the Harlem Six attracted many distinguished spokesmen and women, including Ossie Davis, James Baldwin, Louis Aragon, Bertrand Russell, Gunter Grass, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Sweezy, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono.1 And yet, today the measure of awareness is strikingly different: few reminders of the case can be found in mainstream English-language print media over the past decade—except, of course, in commentaries on Come Out.2 Although for reasons of differential access and usage the Internet serves as an imperfect gauge of mass familiarity, it is worth noting that while Come Out has, as of this writing, a short but informative and mostly accurate Wikipedia page mentioning the Harlem Six, the Harlem Six case itself does not.3

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