Repeat with Caution
Louis Andriessen, avoids redundant repetition. Photograph: Francesca Patella

Repeat with Caution

After the rejection of repetition by many modernist composers in the mid twentieth century, the extreme repetition of minimalism seemed inevitable. But, writes John McLachlan, composers don't always know when to stop.

Before minimalism came along, the most prominent distinction separating art music from popular forms was the repetitive nature of popular music. Did anything important change after that? I think It can be argued that minimalism sought to re-integrate folk and popular norms into art music, which sounds reasonable given the undoubted ivory tower problem current in modernist art music at that time (the 1950s and 1960s). But did minimalism renew art music or did it expand the definition of popular music? Many composers today would say both: that there are the artistically acceptable minimalists and there are the sell-outs who, at this stage, really are writing commercial music pure and simple.

Many others reject all minimalism as a sort of betrayal of tradition. You can judge composers’ opinions on style in two ways, either by the music they write or what they say: they will talk respectfully of minimalism in many cases, yet few European composers show the influence of it in their music, beyond a general drive to accessibility that was due anyway. Others, and most readers, will think, ‘Well it’s a bit late to worry about any of this, get with the programme.’ But is there still an issue around repetition? I think there is.

This is not to say that repetition should be virtually forbidden, as it was by the avant-garde of the 1960s, but we can and still should ask, ‘When does repetition become redundant.’ The essential question (for minimalism) might be reduced to whether use of repetition adds to or takes away from what a piece of music is trying to say. The original provocation of extreme minimalism — such as LaMonte Young’s Composition 1960 #7, with an interval of a perfect fifth ‘to be held for a long time’—was about debunking the exaltation of abstraction over aural experience; while it was arguably reactionary in nature, it did throw into relief deep questions around the state of mind of the contemporary music listener that had hitherto been brushed under the rug. In this regard minimal music was adding something, and this is still relevant to admirers of LaMonte Young or Pauline Oliveros.

Modernism at that time had a tenet of purism that sought to excise rhetorical devices and redundant elements in music. This arose from the historicist view that art music was progressing to higher and higher forms requiring greater and greater concentration from composer, performer and audience, a view still current in many places (especially in parts of Europe). Modernist composers were not only likely to reject pop music along the sociological lines posited by Adorno in his essay on jazz, where popular taste is berated as a symptom of a sick society, but they would reject much of the past of art music too. Rhetorical devices that travel alongside the substance of music, pointing out the interesting features for you, such as introductions and recapitulations, were not to reappear.

Many composers today still assume, in line with the modernists, that you should not clutter your music with such quasi-functional gestures. If you take a modernist ear to Mozart or Haydn’s lesser contemporaries (which is not recommended), you can find many howling examples of what might now be regarded as either padding or spoon-feeding the listener. 

Clearly this concentration of material, the avoidance of repetition and rhetoric, has made the task of composing much harder, and accounts for why composers nowadays write less music, on average, than in the past. More annoyingly, many (non-minimal) composers today simply invent new forms of padding that take a while to spot. These days, to my ears, they exist in two principal forms: hectic surface motion and ectoplasm — extra slow sounds that join seamlessly such as drones. These textures are not by definition always padding, but they lend themselves well to pointless extension, and are in danger of becoming clichés. (It always has been possible to write music that is poor by its own criteria of excellence and gain some admiration for the result.)

As a composer, it is always worth asking, ‘Is this material, or the extension of this material, necessary to the piece?’ This is to question the musical purpose of the material. Another redundancy-related question operates at the micro time level: ‘Is something else right here doing the same job?’ This is the question of doubling. It may be reinforcing or hammering home rhythmic points by several players, or it may be the over-obvious screwing up of tension in several parameters at once — making for example film music often so hollow or irritating. As with repetition, in popular forms all this is more or less part of the definition of music.

The word redundancy as used so far is imported from information theory, a branch of knowledge that is dated to 1948 and which informs the analysis of languages and other complex systems involving transfer of information — vital to the effective understanding of genetics and also to the mechanics of mobile phone systems. Interestingly, it is understood in those fields that data loss at the receiving end is anticipated, leading to some necessary repetition and extra help like rhetorical pointers: precisely the things that good classical music did well and which were excised by modernism. Here, only excessive repetition or irrelevant data is called ‘redundant’. 

While the peaks of modernism in music (which are fifty years past us now) went against local and formal symmetry because it involves structural repetition — and because it led to avoidance of perceptible pulse and a messy level of complexity and layering — the modernists also spoke about information theory, and tried to adapt their practice to account for self-acknowledged difficulties being put before the listener, without necessarily abandoning their sense of progress achieved. They found that information theory could also illuminate an objective difference in quality between popular music and other forms.

By the time you come to the generation after Boulez and Stockhausen, a huge move away from layered complexity became evident, so that composers as diverse as Lachenmann, Andriessen, Volans and Barry all simplified art music while remaining true to the abiding qualities of avoiding both redundancy and over-reliance on symmetry. There are two even more recent generations, and many of these are striving to re-absorb repetition and rhetoric to do new, interesting, and often grotesque things with them. It is a slow, hard process and one that still defines the path of the cultural stream.

Published on 30 November 2011

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána.

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