There’s joy in repetition

Susan McClary “Rap, Minimalism and Structures of Time in Late Twentieth-Century Culture.” in Audio Culture, Daniel Warner, ed, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004, pp 289 – 298.

This essay is the best piece of music writing I’ve read in quite a while. McClary articulates my personal ideology of music perfectly. Also, she quotes Prince!

Here are some long excerpts.

Imagine that a traveler from one hundred years ago arrives at our doorstep and asks us why the music of the late twentieth century operates so frequently on the basis of cyclic repetition. Not just the rap and dance genres of popular culture, but also minimalism — perhaps the single most viable extant strand of the Western art-music tradition.

The proliferation of such patterns across genres has not been noticed very much, in large part because they do not share the same audiences. The devoted fans of Goldie or Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott don’t usually attend Steve Reich concerts, nor do many of the symphony subscribers who admire the works of John Adams involve themselves in the dance-club scene or participate in raves… Yet the genres often sound astonishingly similar, especially in their ways of structuring time.

We can now look back to the 1800s, to what must have seemed then like the infinite variety of symphonic possibilities, and recognize that they all shared an investment in dynamic narratives of subjective struggle towards triumph; we may identify them now as all participating in a specifically nineteenth-century cultural agenda. Indeed, that peculiar way of structuring time (mostly unremarked by commentators of the period) may now qualify as far more important for purposes of cultural history than the manifest content of any given symphony.

Cultural critic Theodor Adorno, who worked closely with the musicians of the Second Viennese School, explained why Schoenberg fought so vehemently against instances of repetition: if we understand a piece of music as an allegory of personal development, then any reiteration registers as regression — as a failure or even a refusal to keep up the unending struggle for continual growth demanded for successful self-actualization. Similarly, reliance on cultural conventions — even those responsible for nineteenth-century symphonies — betrays for Schoenberg/Adorno an intolerable concession to pressures to conform to the outside world. Schoenberg’s embattled Self thus enacts a scenario of extreme insularity, admitting neither reference to the previously existing musical codes that make communication feasible nor to the redundancy that offers the listener internal structural markers; it glorifies a Self so resistant to the constraints of normative social interaction and accepted definitions of reason that it became — and quite deliberately so — indistinguishable from manifestations of madness.

Schoenberg’s position, which came to prevail within the North American academy, has strongly influenced the training of young musicians. This training accounts in part for the automatic reaction against musical styles that operate according to repetition, though many of the musicians who parrot the condemnation of repetition could not reconstruct the prehistory of this controversy: they know only that repetition is bad.

Narrative accounts of music in the twentieth century ought to (but rarely do) find at their core the succession of Black genres that stamped themselves indelibly on the lives of generation after generation: ragtime, blues, jazz, R&B, gospel, doo-wop, soul, rock, reggae, funk, disco, rap. This, I would argue, is the most important tributary flowing into today’s music.

A large part of the explanation for this startling cultural emergence has to do, of course, with the exceptional vitality, creativity, and power of musicians working within these idioms. But quality alone does not guarantee reception — especially when it springs from a long marginalized, even despised segment of the population. What kinds of conditions allowed for the displacement of a dominant tradition by one of negative prestige?

Recall that turn-of-the-century European composers chose to depart radically from the conventions sustaining their customary relationship with audiences. This widespread crisis took place at the same moment as the emergence of unanticipated technologies: sound recording and radio. Suddenly, the performance by an improvising musician could be heard directly, without the previously-necessary mediation of notation. Details such as quality of voice, rhythmic nuance, expressive gesture could be captured and circulated far beyond the musician’s actual location. At the moment these technologies appeared, European composers had their minds set on alienating their usual audience. Black popular music stepped in to fill the resulting vacuum.

Given its ubiquity, black pop music would seem to be the element most clearly responsible for converting our collective sense of time from tortured heroic narratives to cycles of kinetic pleasure. As Prince sings, “There’s joy in repetition!”

[M]y convoluted genealogy [of twentieth century music] would have to include Stravinsky’s primitivism; Debussy’s escape from European narrativity into Indonesian temporalities; the global circulation of blues and jazz made possible by sound technologies; Benjamin Britten’s use of gamelan-inspired sonorities as symbols of alternative sexualities; Aaron Copland’s redeployment of Stravinskian ostinatos to construct the still-prevailing semiotics of the American West; the attempts by a succession of youth cultures to reclaim their bodies through the rhythms of swing, 50s rock ‘n’ roll, disco, or techno; the drug-induced mysticism of the Counterculture and the trance-states sought by New Age devotees in their preference for drone-based musics; the cyclic processes explored by feminist musicians searching for alternatives to what they perceive as the violence of dominant procedures; the virtuosity of Ravi Shankar, who influenced Coltrane, Glass, and the Beatles; the yearning of composers of the 1970s to reconnect with the audiences estranged by the Modernists; the attractiveness of Buddhist philosophies to many Westerners burned out on materialist consumption; the disco movement that emerged from gay venues to challenge rock’s self-proclaimed authenticity and that continues in the various versions of dance-club music; the aggressive international music business which makes the world’s music available as commodity, simultaneously homogenizing and diversifying cultural forms; a commitment to ecology, which inspired Koyaanisqatsi, Eno’s Ambient music, and the Grateful Dead; the technologies of sampling and digital arrangement that greatly facilitate repetitive constructions; the griot and gospel-preaching traditions that inform the cultural practice of rap.

In other words, the structures of repetition that characterize so much of our music testify to the complex, unpredictable history of our century. As the poststructuralists might say, this condition is overdetermined — that is, it owes its emergence to countless moments of creativity, accidents of reception, strange correspondences between distant sensibilities, contributions from long-ignored minorities, and much more. Like all cultural moments, ours has both utopian and dystopic elements, which is why we must continue to strive to make sense of it and debate as participants each new option as it appears.

Who cares if you listen? People who make repetitive music, that’s who.

One thought on “There’s joy in repetition

  1. I have been ‘struggling’ with repetition lately in my compositions. I enjoy adding repetition where it would be useful to cover a certain motif again, but as Schoenberg and friends say, it is not a “good thing”.

    I am not a minimalist composer, more of a neo-classicist/free tonality (Bartok, Ravel, etc.) composer, but I finally decided to stop hindering myself by not repeating (even with slight variation) important motifs because of the ‘stigma’. That is just ridiculous.

    Funny enough, analyzing Ravel’s “Miroirs”, I found significant areas of verbatim repetition! I think our generation of composers can incorporate all of the new tools of Schoenberg et. al. but also not reject the old tools of past eras. Incorporate them all with your own touch.

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