Recently I’ve been thinking about music needlessly again, specifically about the importance of repetition and its varying functions in music. In Western music as a general rule, rhythmical repetition has been subordinate to the linearity of developing melodies, which tend to have a forward thrust to them that makes the piece as a whole feel […]

Recently I’ve been thinking about music needlessly again, specifically about the importance of repetition and its varying functions in music.

In Western music as a general rule, rhythmical repetition has been subordinate to the linearity of developing melodies, which tend to have a forward thrust to them that makes the piece as a whole feel like a journey through moods, landscapes and emotions. This is some of my favourite music, and in fact music in this Romantic tradition was some of the first to really precipitate me into the shakes I still get when hearing an exceptional piece of music. Yet as I’ve spent more and more time listening, another trend has developed in what I enjoy most about music – repetition. From the intellectually mighty Contrapunctus fugues by Bach to the simplicity of Nick Drake’s ‘Riverman’, from the stripped-back structures of the Delta Blues to the minimal techno of Robert Hood, many of the pieces of music I cherish most seem to be based on immensely repetitive patterns of rhythm, melody or both. Now, how to explain why Rob Hood’s ‘Chase’ is incredible and not just basically the same thing for six minutes…

I started thinking about this when reading an old essay by Thomas De Quincy called The Palimpsest of The Human Brain, which explains how the present moment is experienced as a constant overwriting of the summation of past experiences, which are still there but folded out of sight and faded like an old scroll. De Quincy lived in a time before motorised transport, before recorded music existed, when to experience a symphony you had to be sitting in front of an entire orchestra. Normal life, meanwhile, will have been concerned almost entirely with routine, whether you were farming in the countryside or working shifts in one of the many factories springing up across Europe and the US. The symphonic form, with its sense of drama, of a life unfolding in miniature, must have been a thrilling encounter with some kind of totality of experience, in the days when it was such a rare thing. The Place of Dead Ends

Nowadays we can listen to 24 symphonies a day, alongside endless other cultural products. That palimpsest of our mind and memory is constantly working in overdrive, constantly being overwritten, our immediate environment providing an exciting but tiring assault on all our senses. It all happens so fast that it’s easy to lose track of who we are.

This is where repetitive music comes into its own. Unlike the classical narrative forms – which have also been adopted by modern pop music with its drive towards stories that pull common emotional heart strings – repetitive music escapes this linearity. This might seem like a nonsensical statement, especially when metrical evenness is paramount in a lot of repetitive genres, but the repeating loop, whilst often reliant on cadence, loses sight of its beginning and its end after a while. It makes a little gap in time where we can lose ourselves in something that is almost the same for a period, and that constant overwriting of our present with new experience slows from a torrent to a trickle. The music enables a clearing of the immediate present from the mind, or at least a fading of its grip on our consciousness.

Take a break from the whirlwind of constant self becomings by listening to William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. Lose yourself in the techno forest of GAS’s Zauberberg album. These pieces of music don’t try to fill themselves to the brim, but rather define a frame in which the listener themselves can instigate their own thought, their own infinity of polyrhythms. So each repetition isn’t identical, but a continuing framework for whatever happens in the white space the music leaves on the sonic page. Like a slender poem in a sea of blank paper, it makes silence scream with potential. We might even discover ourselves there, and have time to review the multitude of presents that so quickly fade into pasts in our modern world. Or maybe, like my Dad once said, they’re just half-finished pieces of music.

Ben Dorey.