On Repetition

I love repetition. I also hate repetition. I think I’ve always felt this way–at least, I can’t remember a time when things were different. But it’s also true that my musical education and experiences have intensified and complicated this love/hate sentiment. And in the post-(post?)-minimalist new music landscape, repetition is undeniably an important and divisive issue for everyone.

One of the reasons I love/hate repetition is this very divisiveness, the fact that everyone has different preferences and tolerances regarding repetition. Some people can’t stand more than a tiny amount of it, while others can’t get enough of it. In my anecdotal experience, this divide doesn’t seem to be split along the lines of musical education as you might expect. Sometimes tolerances for repetition seem incongruous across genre lines–someone might despise Daft Punk’s “Around the World” and dig Louis Andriessen’s Hoketus (or vice versa) even though the use of repetition is functionally similar. This holds true even in cases where the repetition is the stated reason for the reaction. This exposes a huge fault line in the discussion of “accessibility” in new music. How can universal accessibility possibly be defined when people are so divided on such a fundamental aspect of music, for seemingly purely aesthetic or even arbitrary reasons?

It is common for composers of a certain vintage–Frederic Rzewski, for example–to rail against repetition (while allowing for its usefulness in certain prescribed scenarios). A professor once told me he was deeply concerned about how technology made musical repetition too easy to execute, with the advent of looping, copying, and pasting. I definitely absorbed some of this attitude during my composition studies, and developed an allergic reaction to repetition in my own music that was directly at odds with many of my instincts. The principle of continuous variation, in which nothing directly repeats, seems in many ways “safer” for a student composer who must demonstrate prowess and progress. Unfortunately this means a lot of music gets written out of fear, which can be productive in small doses but quickly becomes poisonous in larger ones.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more and more comfortable with repetition as a composer, and I’ve begun to feel that the basic emotion behind repetition is joy. It’s saying, “I like what’s happening now; let’s do that again.” Naturally I find it preferable to write from a place of joy than a place of fear. But repetition can take on a host of other meanings too. It can be extraordinarily difficult to grapple with, as anyone who has performed a lengthy minimalist piece can attest to.

Repetitive music often gets maligned as background noise, encouraging passive listening, but it can also encourage the listener to actually confront the musical materials they’re faced with. In this scenario the simplest figures can contain a world of ideas in the mind of the listener. I can think of no better example of active listening.

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4 thoughts on “On Repetition

  1. Alex Temple

    I’ve never really understood why so many people equate “easy to do” with “bad.”

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but whether I like a piece that involves a lot of repetition has a lot to do with how much I like the thing that’s being repeated. For example, I can’t sit through Drumming, but I could listen to Eight Lines forever.

    Reply
    1. Isaac Schankler

      Yeah, that’s another thing about repetition — it’s really risky! You are kind of banking on the fact that people will be on board with the idea that you’re repeating. Repetition is brave, and stupid, and brave.

      Reply
  2. Jon Fielder

    I have a very similar love/hate relationship with repetition. A lot of my early music was inspired by minimalism, but as I’ve done more in-depth study of music I’ve become more drawn to avant-garde and experimental music. Although, there’s something to be said about repetition in that aesthetic. Even though a rhythmic cell and/or melodic passage aren’t directly repeated over and over, one can still find the use of repeating gestures, melodic or rhythmic fragments, chord voicings, etc. They’re usually just spaced further apart and are hidden between the cracks of everything that happens in between. I think if you look hard enough you can find repetition in a lot of music, even if it isn’t directly applied measure to measure or necessarily audible on a first listen.

    Also, I like your comparison of repetition in Andriessen and Daft Punk. It’s interesting that the same means can draw very different reactions from listeners.

    Reply
  3. Danvisconti

    Great post–and your characterization of the essential confidence and joy of repetition is spot on. I wish more people thought deeply about the emotional impact of musical decisions such as this.

    Reply

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