Repetitions, Pulses and Flow

by Joseph Trivers    ¦   June 29 2017

In 2016, music critic Ben Ratliff published Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in An Age of Musical Plenty. He suggested that the use of language and terms referring to generalized human activity could open new ways of listening to music and musical engagement. Terms such as repetition, density or speed could help a listener navigate across different musical cultures and traditions. I won’t engage in a discussion about the merits of Ratliff’s approach here, but his notion of finding generalized patterns to help guide one’s musical exploration and listening was inspiring. Using the constructs of a generalized human activity could not only serve as a way to explore new music, but also act as a catalyst to reflect on how different general musical patterns have shaped my listening.

How did the notion of repetition in music, for instance, play throughout my life?  How does it connect to some of my earliest memories of being fascinated with sound in general? In the following, I’ll explore how the fascination with repeated pulses, chords and small rhythmic structures first interested me while at church and then explore some of those ideas in different music ranging from Zen sutra chanting through to Radiohead.

Anglican ChurchI grew up going to church in the Anglican tradition. I loved listening to the sounds that were created as part of the liturgy: in particular, the pulses and rhythms of the bells signaling the start of the service and the sound of prayers being recited by the congregation. I loved hearing the priest addressing the congregation and the congregation’s communal responses to the priest’s exhortations whether in standard responses to greetings, litanies, or general prayers. Of the communal prayers recited by the congregation, the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer were fascinating aural soundscapes because the familiarity of the prayers, and the comfort most people had in reciting them, helped yield interesting sonorous results. Most of the congregants had been reciting these prayers their entire lives and would recite the prayers by memory during the service. As such, the prayers would flow according to the natural rhythm and patterns of the English language. I could detect a broad, general standard rhythm and pattern. On the surface, it sounded as if everybody was speaking the same way, but if you listened closely enough, you could hear variations at a local, individual level. Each person would speak with a different intonation or accent, pronouncing certain words differently or even placing the emphasis on syllables differently.

That aspect of hearing and searching for minute differences within an overall generalized rhythmic pattern of speech fascinated me. Even though I was supposed to be praying with the other congregants, I would often just listen to the words and prayers of others. Listening was as much a form of praying as reciting the words themselves. The sounds of bells and prayers at church evolved into a lifelong fascination of listening for how repeated chords and rhythmic pulses within a piece of music might serve as a means of its organization and the basis for melodic improvisation and variation.

In hindsight, familiarity with the words and one’s fellow parishioners helped the prayers achieve a steady rhythm, cadence and seeming uniformity. Other attempts to arrange a uniform reading of a single passage by a group of people might prove to be problematic and nearly impossible without rehearsal. In other religious traditions, such as Japanese Buddhist sects like Shingon, Nichiren or Zen, the use of percussion instruments aids in the chanting of sutras (religious texts or scripture). The instruments set a rhythmic base and pattern over which the chanting can occur. The chanting isn’t melodic in the same sense as Gregorian chant; rather, it is monotonous in the sense of being sung on one tone only. In the video that follows, the mokugyo, a round percussion instrument made of hollowed out wood, accompanies while the monks chant the Heart Sutra, one of the foundational sutras in the Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions. The resultant chant is meant to be functional: the words of the sutra should be the focus of one’s attention. If one merely listens to the chant, the beating of the mokugyo and the chanting sounds relentless and borders on the impersonal and mechanical. In the experience of actually doing the chanting oneself, they might find that the steady cadence helps carry them into a deeper, more settled state. It is meant to be a meditative practice after all.

I am not certain of the extent, or if indeed any, to which Japanese sutra chanting influenced the composition of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstuck IX. It is certain that he knew about the mokugyo and keisu, as the sounds of both instruments are used at key structural points in his electronic composition Telemusik. The opening of Klavierstuck IX is reminiscent of the Zen sutra to which we just listened. It begins with the same chord being played 140 times in a row, after which the same chord is intoned another 87 times before Stockhausen begins to explore a contrasting scalar melody adorned with grace notes. The repetition of the chords requires a degree of imagination on the part of the performer to engage the listener and to play with dynamics, overtones, use of the damper pedal and the sonorities of the piano. Stockhausen also anticipated that over the course of the 140 and 87 repetitions of the chords the same performer may not voice all of the notes of the four note chord identically giving rise to minute variations within the same material. The contrasting melody also seems to grow out of the chords as if aspects of it were hidden within the chords themselves. Stockhausen alternates between these two different musical ideas for the remainder of the piece, with the heavier block chords gradually giving way to the more sparse melody.

The relationship between pulsating, repeated notes and a resulting melody, is more overt in Kinglet by Ottawa-based artist Chime of Wrens.  Chime of Wrens is the project of Tom Thompson, who, using a pedal steel guitar and a series of pedals, weaves his musical textures based on the loops and effects created from the instrument’s tones. The music of Chime of Wrens is largely improvised, but much of the improvisation is the fruit of Tom’s experimentation and exploration of the effects that can be created using the pedals, delays, loops, feedback and distortion. In Kinglet, Tom discovered that he could create a steady, pulsing chord using his delay and then feeding that delay backwards through the system. He then weaves short melodic fragments and motifs on top of that pulsating chord to create large waves and washes of sound. The repeated chords serve as the building blocks for a wider exploration of different aspects of dynamics, tempo and subtle degrees of distortion. The swell of new melodic voices wheels around largely the same short motif with each new voice having its own unique take on the melody.

As a range of harmonic and melodic textures expanded from the first repeated chords in Kinglet, a similar feature can be detected in the opening movement from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards de l’enfant Jésus, titled Regard du Père. In this movement, Messiaen explores two different levels of repeated notes distinguished by their densities of texture and rhythm. The denser chords of the bass and middle register are contrasted by the notes repeating on the octave in the treble. Further distinction between the two levels of repeated notes is achieved as the octaves in the treble are intoned at twice the speed of the chords in the bass. In Kinglet the melodic material grew out of the harmonic accompaniment of the repeating chords. In Regard du Père, the repeated chords are themselves the melody and will continue to appear in some guise throughout the remaining 19 pieces in Vingt Regards. Messiaen also explores a harmonic direction that wasn’t necessarily a part of the three other pieces we’ve explored so far. Another interesting feature of the Messiaen is the fact that the repeated bass chords allow the listener to recognize broader temporal patterns of varying lengths. There is a malleability and flexibility to the broader rhythm that adds to the enrichment of the musical experience.

A flexibility and fluidity permeates my final selection, Pyramid Song by Radiohead. The first time I listened to it, I couldn’t determine the metre of the song. I thought it was a compound metre, and even though the pattern is cyclical, it gives me the impression of being suspended in a body of water, seemingly weightless. It isn’t until the high hats start playing a steady beat at 2:13 that you can pinpoint a steady and regular pulse. Still, the same rhythmic pattern is repeated throughout the song and provides a foundation on which the vocals, bowed electric guitars and strings can be suspended, flow or swim. The music feels simultaneously exotic and familiar and highlights that which I find most enchanting in the ebb and flow of repeated rhythmic patterns I’ve explored thus far. The repeated figures suggest both stasis and movement. The words Thom Yorke sings help summarize many of the emotions, thoughts and memories evoked by this brief exploration, “I jumped in the river, what did I see? … And all the figures I used to see, All my lovers were there with me, All my past and futures.” What else is music for other than to help us connect with each other, and return us to our innermost selves?

Joseph Trivers 
Bibliothécaire d’acquisitions - Musique / Acquisitions Librarian - Music
Dépôt légal / Legal Deposit
Canadiana publié/ Published Canadiana
Bibliothèque et archives Canada / Library and Archives Canada

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