Saturday, March 8, 2014

Say That Again?

Every now and then our colleagues in the sciences really do come up with something interesting. Today's example is an article by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis about repetition in music. It is an excellent article, well worth reading. There are a couple of sound clips that show how just looping a single spoken phrase so that it repeats over and over turns it into something resembling music. She might have mentioned a famous pair of early pieces by Steve Reich where he does exactly this on a larger scale. The first piece, "It's Gonna Rain" takes a short phrase from a public speech and by looping it in various ways, creates a piece of music:

The second piece, "Come Out", takes a brief spoken phrase from a news report and processes it in a similar way:

Much later in his career he used taped speech fragments transformed into musical themes in his piece for string quartet(s) "Different Trains":

Going back to the article, there was one section that particularly got my attention:
Can music exist without repetition? Well, music is not a natural object and composers are free to flout any tendency that it seems to exhibit. Indeed, over the past century, a number of composers expressly began to avoid repetitiveness in their work. In a recent study at the Music Cognition lab, we played people samples of this sort of music, written by such renowned 20th-century composers as Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter. Unbeknownst to the participants, some of these samples had been digitally altered. Segments of these excerpts, chosen only for convenience and not for aesthetic effect, had been extracted and reinserted. These altered excerpts differed from the original excerpts only in that they featured repetition.
The altered excerpts should have been fairly cringeworthy; after all, the originals were written by some of the most celebrated composers of recent times, and the altered versions were spliced together without regard to aesthetic effect. But listeners in the study consistently rated the altered excerpts as more enjoyable, more interesting, and – most tellingly – more likely to have been composed by a human artist rather than randomly generated by a computer. The listeners in the study were college undergraduates with no special training or experience in contemporary art music.
Ah yes, one of the things that the avant-garde modernists did was to ban the simple-minded repetition found in previous musics. This had the predictable effect of making their music extremely hard to listen to so it is not surprising to me that restoring some repetition to this kind of music would improve the listener's aesthetic experience. Which makes one ask, if the listener's aesthetic experience was not the highest goal of this music, then what was?

The avant-garde phase of modernism essentially ended when people like Steve Reich and Philip Glass rediscovered the power of repetition.

Here is the first part of Philip Glass' String Quartet No. 3:


Rickard Dahl said...

Yes, repetition to some extent is obviously needed. I think the greatest composers knew how to find a balance between repetition and variation. Why many (later) modernist fail is because of the lack of repetition. I think modernist techniques such as tone clusters, microtonality or extended techniques can be very nice tools but only when used properly. Many of the modernist composers weren't interested in using these sort of techniques to create enjoyable pieces of music. On the other end of the spectrum we have the minimalists sometimes overdoing repetition and ofc pop music is full of too much repetition (not only too much repetition but often also the same old boring chord progressions used in predictable ways, lackluster melodies, lack of variety in instrumentation etc.). Btw, the string quartet part you linked seems to be using one of the chord progressions that appear quite often in Philip Glass' violin concerto (1st movement mainly). I've listened to the violin concerto live but I thought it got too repetitive at times, especially during the last movement where two varying sections are alternated many times without reaching any kind of climax.

Bridge said...

It is of course not as simple as either having repetition or not. There is a fine line between using repetition to your advantage and writing repetitive music. Neither music that is entirely stream-of-consciousness nor entirely repetitive can ever be good, and the ability to strike a balance therebetween is what separates the great composers from the mediocre. One of the things I most admire about Beethoven's music is how masterfully it is designed to be repeated. Not only do the large repeats he uses not sound forced but they actually greatly improve the music through reinforcement. I can't count the number of times Beethoven has convinced me a theme is great simply by repeating it. He's not the only composer who's able to do this of course, but in my experience it is rare for music to be so good that repeats don't feel even a little contrived. They can potentially ruin a piece if not applied with care.