The Rambler :: blog

Monday, October 13, 2003

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Angus is right, of course - 'repetitive' is a really dumb pejorative, particularly for music. Music is the most temporal of the arts, and thus the most concerned with memory and its manipulation. How can it not be repetitive in one way or another?

Angus notes the point that between individual tracks it is equally difficult to tell indie rock tracks apart as it is with the tracks in a DJ set. This is certainly true to some extent. What I think is a crucial difference is the role of memory played here. When rock acts imitate one another - and note that they and their fans will paradoxically be the more concerned about perceived 'originality' - it is to add to a tradition, to work within the boundaries and expectations of a classicised form. (Of course, plenty of acts transcend these boundaries, and make genuinely original contributions, but they're not Green Day/Limp Bizkit/The Darkness.) When dance/techno acts imitate one another, it is partly to fashion a tradition to be sure, partly homage, but in large part to recapture and recontextualise musical material: a guiding principle at the heart of almost all composition. In all of Angus's examples (and my earlier ones), repetition is never doing the same thing twice ('Same again, please/How can you have the same again?' says that advocate of repetitive rock riffery, Mark E. Smith). Memory plays a part, and composers know this.

(As a sideline, I watched Memento for the zillionth time over the weekend. It's striking how musically structured this film - which is, after all, about memory and repetition - is. Just watch it and feel the pulse layers around which the film is built. From the opening, repeated shakes of a Polaroid, to the strophic cutaways between the black-and-white and colour stories, to the beep-beeps of the car locks, marking deep, slow pulse cycles like Japanese gagaku or Messiaen.)

When Mozart returns to his opening themes at the end of a movement (recapitulation), it achieves a very specific effect in the listener: we're expecting this return anyway, and when it comes, after a sustained period of development and change, it sounds comforting and refreshing at the same time. Themes change their character depending on context, as well bring forward a whole set of memories and expectations. (A really good book to read on this point is Leonard B. Meyer's Music, the Arts and Ideas.) (Incidentally, I take the local point Angus is making about lyrics being distinct from music, but in fact rhyming poetry works in a similar way - our memory of previous lines sets up an expectancy when we reach the end of the next line, which creates a powerful point of tension and structure for the poet to work with.) As previous discussions elsewhere have eloquently demonstrated, a musical unit like the Amen break carries with it a whole bunch of suggestions and so on - to the point that Luke Vibert's new record can carry several layers of memory and meaning by nostalgically quoting and manipulating a nostalgic quotation. This is, in part, a tradition-fashioning stance, but, crucially, there is not the rhetorical baggage of 'originality' in the way. Vibert recognises that that break recaptures something very particular and special, and it is that memory that he is working with. As is anyone who has used a sampler or scratched a record in their life. Actual quotation, however, particular to the point of downright precise copying, is extremely rare in rock, because of this different (and flawed) set of musical concerns. Bizarrely, it is an aesthetic of originality over repetition and quotation that has lead to genre stagnation.

N.B. In the spirit of the loop, this post relates to a couple of previous Ramblings, on sonic signatures and context as creative.

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