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50 Years Ago: Steve Reich’s “Come Out”

This article is about Steve Reich’s early minimalist tape music composition, “Come Out,” constructed of the looped recording of a young African American man recounting a story from his arrest for a crime he did not commit.

In an interview at the nearby Friendship Baptist Church a few days after the incident, the 18-year-old Hamm recounted being brutalized in shifts by six to 12 officers over the course of the night, along with the fact that “they got so tired beating us they just came in and started spitting on us.” But even after hours of abuse, the cops weren’t about to allow Hamm to be admitted for treatment, since he was not visibly bleeding. Thinking fast, Hamm reached down to one of the swollen knots on his legs where the blood had clotted beneath his skin: “I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.”

Those 20 words, spoken by a young man who would unjustly remain in prison for nine years, still land like a truncheon. And utilizing just that one sentence, composer Steve Reich made one of the most visceral pieces of music of the 20th century. This month marks the 50th anniversary of Come Out, which made its live debut on April 17, 1966.