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.