Sunday, 11 December 2016

Musical Maturity

Having written my blog yesterday and dispatched it both to the archives and to the wilds of the Internet, I went for a walk. I go for a walk pretty much every day (as the fading heels on all my shoes will attest) because, as many philosophers record somewhere in their works, walking is thinking time. Thinking is an activity in which your relaxed mind feels free to come up with ideas, things which might start you down paths that you otherwise might miss. Thinking is thus a vital activity if you don't just merely want to be trapped in your convictions. Convictions, as Nietzsche wrote in his book Human, All Too Human, are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies. Convictions are self-built prisons.

I started off with an idea for a blog today discussing repetition in music. The idea of repetition reminds me of a clearly still important memory somewhere inside my damaged psyche. As a young teen I was still at that stage where I did what my mother told me. And she wanted me to go to Sunday School. I was well into the phase where I found this boring but this particular Sunday we'd been asked to bring a favourite record along to discuss with the group. I took Wings of A Dove by Madness since at that time I was a Madness fan. The staid Sunday School teacher wasn't very impressed by Wings of A Dove which, even for Madness, who I think its not indelicate to say are not the world's most accomplished musicians, is somewhat of a simple song. "Its quite repetitive" was the teacher's only comment before moving along to the next record. As a 14 year old I didn't take this very well.

Wings of A Dove is indeed quite repetitive but, now much older than 14, I'm not sure if this is a good or bad thing. The Sunday School teacher clearly took repetitive to mean "not interesting or varied enough" or "simplistic" but even these designations don't tell you anything necessary about an impression some music will make. This is because the more you think about it the more you realize that something's repetitiveness or simplicity is not an easy route to judgment. Right now, if I asked you, I'm sure you could come up with pieces of repetitive and simple music that you both liked and didn't like. Both would be equally repetitive, equally simple, but these qualities would not help you to distinguish a like from a dislike or a good from a bad. There are repetitive songs which I'm sure drive you crazy. There are also dance clubs worldwide that resound throughout the night to a 4/4 beat that never stops.

Repeating patterns, themes, leitmotifs and suchlike are at the heart of much music, particularly in the mainstream, and its very likely that much of the music you hear and make is based on it. Indeed, we may even say that repetition is at the heart of the musical traditions we have received. This is true whether the songs we value are of the "verse chorus verse chorus bridge chorus" type or songs based in a simple repeated riff or hook. When I think about repetition I ask myself why this is so. I think mainly of two advantages it seems to have. Firstly, its a simple structure. This makes it not very difficult to understand or follow. So its easy to get into. This leads into the second feature I think of, its safe and secure. Structure always offers security because in a physical world one needs to know one's bearings. A relatively simple repeating pattern achieves this admirably. So repetitive music offers everything the listener needs. Its easy to comprehend and offers safety in familiarity.

But then I asked myself what a non-repeating song might sound like. What happens if we start to step outside these easy to understand and safe surroundings? Some examples came to mind. The first is the track Flutter by Autechre. This track was composed in a very deliberate way in 1994 at a time when so-called "raves" were being banned by the British Government. These were unofficial parties which would spontaneously be arranged and several hundred people would descend on some illicit location and music and usually drugs would take place. The Government tried to ban these events and, in so doing, defined the kind of music being played there as "repetitive beats". The track Flutter was Autechre's response to this in that, so they claim, no bar of the track, which could be played at 45rpm or 33rpm, repeats at all. As Autechre later said of the process of writing this track, they lined up as many different drum patterns as they could and then simply strung them together to produce a piece of music that never repeats a single bar even once. As such, this could not be banned if played at the raves because it was quite literally non-repetitive. Flutter is still a friendly way into the world of non-repetition though since, if you listen to the link I've given, you'll hear it does have a repeating melody.

A second example of music which eschews the path of easy repetition is that broad swathe of music labeled "kosmische". The example I choose here is Popol Vuh's In den Gärten Pharaos which is much like the music on their previous and first album, Affenstunde. Its a 17 and a half minute piece of studied abstraction. But, if you've listened to it, yes, you will tell me that it contains repetitions within it, not least the percussive sections where repeat rhythm patterns are played on bongos and suchlike. I agree with you that it utilizes repetition in parts but then so did Flutter. My point here is not that one should swap a childish reliance on repetition for the maturity of music that never repeats, as if, in a very crass and stupid way, one were good and the other bad. If anything, its to open the musician's mind and the listeners' ears to the possibilities. I have already noted that repetition or lack of it is, in itself, no guarantee of anything. Neither a repeating nor a non-repeating compositional strategy guarantees a piece of music people will or won't like or, more importantly, that will or won't be interesting to some listener. For example, some people love Discipline by Throbbing Gristle. Others have it as a high contender in the "worst song ever" category and I've read more than one person say its not music at all. What I think it is is a masterpiece of the mixture of repetition and noisy abstraction.

                           "Wreckers of civilisation" Throbbing Gristle

Were this a blog in which I were cataloguing even more and more examples I'm sure I'd spend the rest of my Sunday morning now going on an interesting musical journey through music that uses abstraction and repetition in interesting ways. Should you have examples of such, because everyone's exposure to music is only as wide as their own experience, then I hope you'll note these in the various comment sections where you see this blog. Its good to share musical experiences. However, I'm always conscious that I need to keep these blogs focused and to the point. More than one Facebooker has told me in the past that my usual 10 paragraphs (or so) is too long for him to bother with. These are those for whom music much longer than 3 or 4 minutes is regarded much like a prog rock drummer's 10 minute drum solo. Its dull and boring and who wants to listen to that?

But this comes to be relevant to this blog because, having thought about repetition on my walk, a narrative started to unfold in my mind. It was a narrative of growing maturity. I thought of the younger me. Aged 9 I was a member of my local Cub Scouts. We didn't have a car but the Cub leader had invited me to a local swimming pool on a Monday night to learn to swim. I had to walk (on my own) but it was in a direction I'd never gone before. It was very much out of my comfort zone. Well, inevitably, I got lost and more and more upset. Eventually a passerby asked me, the crying child in the street, what was wrong and if I was alright. I spluttered through my tears that I couldn't find the swimming pool. The helpful stranger set me right. I hadn't walked far enough down the main road to find the left turn I was supposed to take. I arrived at the pool in a strange area just as the session was finishing. But, of course, through all my trauma I now knew where the pool was and had enlarged the local territory with which I was familiar.

It was this narrative of growing maturity, accommodation to new territory and a growing ability to deal with new things that particularly appealed to me in a musical context from this traumatic personal recollection. As children we are used to a fairly tightly defined local area. Yes, we may go off on little adventures but its always within the context of a comfort zone and tied to our personal sense of confidence. This naturally varies from person to person but in each case it can be enhanced and grown. This fits in very nicely with what I was saying yesterday about training the musical sense in each of us. This is not a given, a static thing once and for all the same. It can be nurtured and matured or it can be left to stagnate and become stunted or malformed. As people we go from being children nervous about the world to adults meant to be more confident and able to deal with a bigger territory. A child may stick close to home but an adult might be expected to be able to travel from city to city or even country to country. It is normal human development to mature and develop the skills necessary to deal with this.

So when I now write a blog about musical maturity, which is what this blog has been about, this is what I mean. I mean developing a musical sense which does not stick in one rut. I mean the ability and even the desire to want to tread new ground with a confidence that has naturally developed. It means that, like cities or countries, we do not see going to one or another style of music as bad or good. We just see them as different and as each with their own challenges or good points or bad points. The 9 year old me listened to his mum's Abba records. The 47 year old me still remembers that but wants to explore abstract electronics, music composed by chance operations and music made on modular synthesizers. This is how it should be for to have stuck with the Abba records would have been to have refused to grow, change and develop. In such people something is not ideal and has gone wrong. It is the ideal to spread one's wings if one has them for this is how you learn to fly. So by "musical maturity" I very much mean an appreciation of music based on an analogy to the adult geographical sense. Its an ability and willingness to move about more freely, to accept and even welcome difference, to judge on something more than the local, childish values you had in younger days.


  1. There's another kind of maturity in which you listen to something you've known for years and are shocked by something new you hear in it. Because the way you listen changes.

    On a separate note, I think Stockhausen took a pretty dim view of repetition.