Beitrag zur Konferenz Grounding Music, Mai 1996, © Autor

Notes Towards A Politics of Repetition

Surveying the Gound, Charting Some Routes1


Richard Middleton (The Open University)

Ceasing to repeat is to die: this is true for individual organisms, for genes and species, for cultures and languages. Yet repetition without renewal is also a kind of death the royal road to extinction. Repetition, then, grounds us in more than one sense and nowhere more than in music, the art of iteration, whose multiple periodicities choreograph our every level of replication. At the same time, it is hardly a secret that the mass reproduction of musical commodities increasingly carries these cycling grooves towards every geographical and social corner, so that, while musical repetition would appear to be a universal, there is a specific history of the recent period which has the effect of compressing both the temporal and spatial cycles of socio-musical practice with a quite particular intensity. Standing on this gobal ground, can we grasp what repetition is doing for us, and to us?2

I have written about repetition before3 obsessively perhaps to the point that one might suspect some Freudian compulsion to be in play here. I would rather say with (but also against) Walt Whitman 'Do I repeat myself? Very well then I repeat myself.' At any rate, when academic discourse and musical practice correlate to this extent, something interesting may be going on. If discourse and practice always produce each other, I am as willing to submit my words to the forming effect of the music's grooves as to admit that the significance I find in the musical processes is far from independent of my discursive frame. But the specificity of the relationship here if such it is may be grounded in broader connections characteristic of the present moment: while intra- and inter-textual dimensions of musical repetition obviously can be distinguished, and while I am more interested in this paper in the first than the second, nevertheless the extent to which they can be separated seems to be declining. The rise to prominence of digitalised sampling and looping techniques 'borrowing' as a multi-faceted principle can be regarded as a symptom of a new paradigm, marked by an increased blurring of the distinction between musical work and musical field. 'History' (repetition's alter ego) is modelled in structures of both discourse and practice, across the configurations of both genre and performance, at both micro and macro levels.

If the history of repetition (constructed across the changing musical field) and the repetitions of history (constructed in the individual performance) constantly intersect, this suggests an initial, simple point which may be introduced by reference to three examples. Susan McClary (1994) draws on Monteverdi's 'Zefiro torna' to illustrate her discussion of the ciaccona and the impact of its importation into Europe from the Americas in the early seventeenth century. She argues that the effect of the ciaccona's repeating ground bass pattern here is orgiastic not only for early-seventeenth century dancers (which she demonstrates) but also it seems for her: 'the ciaccona proliferates its dance pattern with reckless abandon, each temporary conclusion breeding only the desire for yet another truly does not want that groove to stop, even if civilisation itself is at risk' (38). Of course, the effect is created by the whole texture, not just the repeating bass; but the repetition does seem to be inextricably tied to the sensuality: 'What compels the repetitions is a groove of jazzy cross-rhythms that engages the entire body.' (37, my emphasis) Does a repeating bass always have this effect? No and McClary does not say so. Indeed, she is careful to point out that, as Europeans modified the ciaccona, the genre came to be used for 'static [i.e., "timeless"] formal rituals' and for 'depicting obsessive states of mind' (40). Late in the seventeenth century, Purcell's 'Evening Hymn', again with a repeating chaconne bass, creates an effect very different from that of Monteverdi's piece. It is about night, sleep, repose of the soul with God, and is usually taken by listeners to be 'elegiac', 'spiritual', perhaps even a farewell to bodily existence. Yet the rhythmic phrasing of the vocal line, while lyrical, is sharp and (I find) energising. The differences of meaning between the two pieces need careful technical explanation, no less than the technical link in the form of the repetitive structure requires its significance to be theorised.

McClary also draws a parallel between the reception of the ciaccona and that of African-American music by American and European whites in the 1960s. Again the differences need as much attention as the similarities. Her example is Wilson Pickett's 'In the Midnight Hour' but there are songs that are technically closer to the baroque genre: Percy Sledge's 'When a Man Loves a Woman', for instance, which has a repeating bass that is very similar in shape to that of Purcell's piece. However, many listeners might find links not only with that but also with Monteverdi's 'Zefiro torna' soul ballads such as this are often considered both 'sexy' and 'lyrical', both 'sensual' and 'spiritual', located both in the sphere of 'the body' and also in that of 'romance'. Yet, again, it would be bizarre to neglect those features of the music which situate it in a cultural and historical moment that is quite distinct.

Any 'archaeology' of the ground of repetition must, then, account both for historical and cultural difference, and for historical and cross-cultural links. It is certainly the case that, across the board, repetition processes pick up a distinct charge in twentieth-century music. I hardly need to establish the ubiquity of repetition in popular music; but it is pervasive on the other side of the High/Low fence too, in serialism, in Stravinsky's and Bartok's neo-primitivism, in process music, and even, in an inverted sort of way, in the apparently opposite tendency, the search for total differentiation for example, John Cage's all-inclusiveness, where infinite difference ends up sounding all the same. Twentieth-century music as a body is obsessed with this problematic: doing the same, or avoiding it. Moreover, the obsession is replicated in critical theory, where, according to Gilles Deleuze, 'difference and repetition have taken the place of....identity and contradiction', due to today's 'generalised anti-Hegelianism' (1994, ix). If the Dialectic is our tottering Hero, his usurping Other is, for me, best identified as the dialogics of Bakhtin though whether such a binary opposition is the most fruitful way of constructing the repeating antiphonies of theory is a question to return to. First, though, it will be useful to retrace our steps to the moment out of which Hegel's dialectics grew the beginnings of 'late modernity' and the distinct notion of 'history' which accompanied it.

`History', in the sense constituted by and constituting modern experience, certainly looks at repetition with a suspicious eye. For traditional Western music aesthetics, the individuality of each successive work guarantees what the artist's creative method proposes, namely, a means of exploring, modelling, representing development personal, social, technical. This Bildungsroman mentality, not without power, still, even in pop music criticism, gives rise in the nineteenth century to two predominant interpretative models: music being related to narrative, on the one hand, organism on the other, with both cases governed by the Leitmotif of evolutionary change. (Lyric moments in this repertory seem to be felt as an always subordinate Other: a dream of escape or a (feminised) domestic enclave.) How can such teleonomic thinking deal with repetition? One way was to reject it: 'A sonata is a discourse. What would one think of a man who, after cutting his discourse in two, would repeat each half?...That is just about the effect repeats in music have on me.' (The composer Gretry, quoted, Kivy 1993, 335) Another response was to cover it up, to disguise it as much as possible with developmental detail, and this was common, especially in large-scale movements. A third method is associated with Kant who, by inventing a wallpaper model of music aesthetics, discovered affinities between the patterns of instrumental music and the symmetries of decorative design which had the happy effect (for him) of confirming music's lowly placing in his aesthetic hierarchy. Hanslich, similarly, compared music to arabesque and kaleidoscope but wanting, unlike Kant, to save music for 'creativity', he decided that it is 'an arabesque that is not lifeless and static, but perpetually renewing itself...the active production of an artistic imagination'; it is a kaleidoscope of patterns that is 'always self-consistent yet always new', rather than just 'an ingenious mechanical toy'. Symmetry on its own is 'lifeless'. (Bujic 1988, 29) At the end (perhaps) of this tradition we find Boulez justifying his search for continual mutation in the processes of his own compositions, through a critique of previous European music, where repetition (such repetition as there was) 'was plainly designed to support perception by "sedating" it with memory' (Boulez 1986, 93). Truly, as Chernoff writes in his book on African music, this tradition is 'not yet prepared to understand how people can find beauty in repetition' (1979, 55). Or, to give a more concrete example, in the 1993 case when one, Helen Stephens, was jailed for the effect on her neighbours of playing Whitney Houston's 'I Will Always Love You' continually for six weeks, a music psychologist said that the song's four-chord structure, repeated day and night, could probably count as psychological torture (reported in The Guardian, 32/12/93).

The aesthetic discourse intersects with social criticism. Adorno, for example, for whom any '"I know already" insults musical intelligence' (quoted, Newcomb 1992, 118), sees the dialectic of Nature and History which forms consciousness as shaping musical language through the inter-mediation of sameness and difference. Nature is always 'second nature' a historical construct standing for naturalised cultural convention, invariance, 'what has always been'; history is the qualitatively new, that which individuates. But as conventions are increasingly rationalised, instrumentalised and commodified, ending up in the Weberian 'iron cage' of administered reason, the progressive composer, responding to the pressure of the historical demands of the musical material, increasingly accedes to a 'ban on repetition'. Under the reign of the culture industries, the musical field splits into modernism's cult of extreme individuation on the one hand, the standardised cliches of commodity music almost a 'third nature' on the other. Repetition here stands for a self-willed conformism, mechanised regression, a closure of history. And, ironically, the dialectic as a whole appears to grind to a teeth-gritting, unreconciled stasis.

Adorno often tells this story in terms of a conflict between production and reproduction; and increasingly reproduction triumphs. But it is a mode of reproduction in which life-sustaining 'returns' are reified into seriality, where the creative force of production is realised in the fetishised form of exchange-value. Similarly, the cycles of daily life are transformed into the 'routines' of 'everyday life' according to Lefebvre (1971) a category of experience quite particular to modern industrialised society. 'Routine' harnesses body-cycles to industrial time-discipline.

Obviously, the whole socio-aesthetic formation I have sketched here is peculiar to a specific moment, structured by the complex, multi-sided dialogue of Western modernity and its modernist offspring. 'Only ontological weight to history and a determining sense to our position within it', writes Vattimo (1988, 4). On the one hand, there is the arrow of time, the telic imperative, the solid ceaselessly melting into air; yet, ironically, these are also bound by the conveyor-belt of capital accumulation and fordist seriality into the reproductive treadmill of mass society. On the other hand, modernist artists mark these features, yet are always also rebelling against the predictabilities of normative culture. From Baudelaire through Nietzsche, Freud and Adorno to Barthes, Derrida and Deleuze: the sign of critique, the moment of jouissance, is rupture, a break with the code, a transgression. The terms of debate are set, it would seem, with repetition at one side, shock at the other.

Of course, for the science of semiology, repetition is foundational to language, to culture, as such. As Derrida puts this, 'there is no word, nor in general a sign, which is not constituted by the possibility of repeating itself. A sign which does not repeat itself, which is not already divided by repetition in its "first time", is not a sign.' (1978, 213) Freud's fort-da game, in which the child's repeated cotton-reel play constructs a drama of maternal absense/presence, represents a first step into the symbolic sphere, the shortest possible narrative. As Lacan puts it: 'the game of the cotton-reel is the subject's answer to what the mother's absence has created on the frontier of his domain the edge of his cradle namely a ditch, around which one can only play at jumping...The activity as a whole symbolises...the repetition of the mother's departure as cause of a Spaltung [split] in the subject overcome by the alternating game, fort-da...whose aim, in its alternation, is simply that of being the fort of a da, and the da of a fort...' (Lacan 1979, 62-3).

Music, based in striking fashion, in all its parameters, on periodicities, clearly illustrates the repetition-play of culture as a general principle, but at the same time it offers a quite specific case: for here repetition is always wanting to, as it were, put itself forward, through markers of iteration, transformation, variance and return. A primary task for music semiology, then, is to analyse repetition types. One distinction, which I put forward in Studying Popular Music (Middleton 1990) is between musematic and discursive types, the first built on repetition of short units such as riffs, the second on repetition at the level of the phrase or section.

But the important general point here is the multiplicity of structural and textural cases.

The early Freud saw compulsive repetition as a ritual enactment of repressed material too unpleasant for us to deal with; and this may be of some relevance to long-range repetitions found in nineteenth-century concert music.4 Of more general use, though, is the later Freud, of Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Freud 1955). Here repetition is linked to a Death drive, Thanatos, in its ceaseless dialogue with Eros, the Life drive. Thanatos is an 'expression of the inertia inherent in [all] organic life' while Eros is characterised in terms of 'clamour' and 'disturbance' (ibid). The vital point, not completely grasped by Freud but stressed by Lacan and others, is that there is no instinctual first cause here; the site something like Kristeva's chora, perhaps is simply a given, where life and death define each other, in a multivalency of alliances and splittings, waves and stases. I can do no better than quote Kristeva: 'The death drive is transversal to identity and tends to disperse "narcissisms"...But at the same time and conversely, narcissism and pleasure are only temporary positions from which the death drive blazes new paths. Narcissism and pleasure are therefore inveiglings and realisations of the death drive. The semiotic chora, converting drive discharges into stases, can be thought of both as a delaying of the death drive and as a possible realisation of this drive, which tends to return to a homeostatic state.' (1986, 128) The implications for music are that stasis and change, desire and entropy, identity and dispersal, are always intertwined; and that (temporary) disruption self-loss in jouissance is available not only to modernistic breaches of the code (as Barthes and, ironically, Kristeva herself would have it) but also to repetitive excess of the code's predictability 'carrying it to the limit' (Rosolato 1972, 40).5

Already in 1805, the Kantian philosopher Michaelis saw self-loss in the musical Sublime as accessible through both 'too much diversity' and 'constant repetition' (Le Huray and Day 1981, 290). However, it is important here to stress that the psycho-semiotic processes under consideration take sociologically variable forms; actual 'alliances and splittings, waves and stases' attach themselves to specific, socially constructed objects of knowledge and desire. Thus the transgression motif itself (whether driven by rupture or repetition) may, at least in the melodramatic, rather self-indulgent form typical of the Romantic-Modernist tradition, be historically contingent. When liminality turns towards chic bohemianism, or even armchair revolution, escapism is generally not far behind. If I express a certain weariness with the whole topos of conformity and transgression, this is to jump ahead of my argument somewhat, but at least it enables me to emphasise both the absolute necessity to historicise the modernist psycho-semic model, and, more specifically, to locate it, meta-theoretically, where it belongs, as a trope of the modernity narrative.

This narrative is less unilinear than dialecticians pretend. In particular, the work of Paul Gilroy (1993) and others in recent years has enabled black diaspora cultures to emerge as a counterculture of modernity. In an important study, James Snead (1984) fixes Hegel's critique of African society in his sights and then inverts it. Hegel, Snead points out, defines historical Europe through opposition to its Other historyless Africa. For Hegel, 'The Negro represents the Natural Man...What we actually understand by "Africa" is that which is without history and resolution, which is still fully caught up in the natural spirit', with all its cyclical rhythms. Inevitably, then, Europe is Master, Africa condemned to be Slave, in Hegel's notorious dialectical figure. But Snead argues that Hegel's description is right, and only his valuation wrong. The awareness and acceptance of the unavoidable repetitiveness of life is a wisdom: 'everything that goes around comes around'. This enables him to describe the cultivation of repetition in black music, from Africa to James Brown, as a positive, and to welcome its influence on a twentieth-century West gradually releasing repetition from previous repression.

The theory of 'Signifyin(g)' developed by literary theorists Houston Baker (1984) and Henry Louis Gates (1988) is congruent with Snead's approach. Signifyin(g), as found right across black culture, is the continual paradigmatic transformation inter- or intra-textual of given material, the repetition and varying of stock elements, the aesthetic of a 'changing same', to use a phrase invented, I think, by Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka. It is a vernacular theory, derived from the cultural practice itself, and posed explicitly against the teleologically oriented aesthetics of the official culture. But Signifyin(g) is not only different, it also Signifies on the official process of signifying, with its syntagmatic chains of narrative: 'The absent g is a figure for the Signifyin(g) black difference.' (Gates 1988, 46) So, there is not only Otherness but also relation commentary, giving voice to those 'outside the groove of history' (Ralph Ellison, quoted ibid, 62).

These theories have begun to feed through into musical analysis, notably in David Brackett's study of James Brown's 'Superbad' (Brackett 1995, Chapter 4). The multiple Signifyin(g) processes which Brackett reveals in this recording affecting lyric language, textural patterns, vocal structure, harmony, rhythmic relationships locate repetition within definitely countercultural lineages.6

Hovering around all these theories, sometimes explicitly, is the figure of Mikhail Bakhtin, who categorically rejected Hegelian dialectics, and for whom meaning lies in the dialogue of utterance and the always already said: no Aufhebung, only heterology a double-voiced, or multi-voiced circling around changing sames. But we need to look further at the identity of these multiple voices.

Snead identifies a counter-current in Western thought, running from Vico through the Counter-Enlightenment, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, to modernism a current where cyclic theories of history and valorisations of repetition can be found. But the purchase of this lineage on the surrounding culture is never really engaged. Similarly, Snead's treatment of repetition in the bourgeois music of this period is simplistic. Above all, we must tell him, Hegel was wrong, not right, about the history-less state of Africa, as actual historical work has shown. The dangers of a simple Nature/History dualism are manifest in his picture of the renaissance of repetition in twentieth-century music as a reconciliation, a simple return. Such thinking is not uncommon. Steve Reich (1974), for example, connects process music to age-old, 'ritualistic', pre-historical compositional methods; he wants a dance music that rejoins an ancient consensus about the rhythmic regularity and pre-determined structures of dance; he describes playing his own music as 'imitating machines' but claims that this is akin to Yoga breathing exercises 'the kind of attention "mechanical" playing calls for, which is related to sitting and counting one's breaths, is something we could do with a great deal more of right now' (53)

Similarly, something of a consensus seems to be emerging within cultural studies over what is almost a separatist notion of black difference. Tricia Rose (1994) considers the Adornian view of repetition but plays down its relevance to black music, where repetition can draw on 'long-standing black cultural forces' in order to function as 'collective resistance' to industrialised patterns. The Adornian critique is a 'massive misreading' (70, 72) but this conflict of interpretation is not related to musical or cultural mechanisms which could explain it. Even Brackett ends up presenting the 'critical difference' between black and European musics in a way that threatens to absolutise it, rather than placing both dialogically within Gilroy's transatlantic culture of modernity.7

Of course, it is very hard to think past the baleful influence of Western modernity's characteristic psychology of culture, with its system of Self and Others, its essentialising structures of projection. Sean O'Riada describes the circular nature of traditional Irish music as 'the graph of real life. Every day the sun rises, every day it sets. Every day possesses the same basic characteristics, follows the same fundamental pattern, while at the same time each day differs from the last in its ornamentation of events' (quoted, O' Connor 1991, 67) But how far are descriptions of this kind fulfilling our mythologies of the 'folk'? And how much use, if any, might they be to understanding the role of repetition today?

Given the mutation, noted earlier, of the cyclicities of daily life into the routines of 'everyday life', Grossberg (1994) sees rock music as living within these routines, accepting them as a confining framework, but at the same time as imagining Others especially Black-Others as able to escape. Thus the rhythms of routine are partially transformed: 'de-territorialised', they serve as a way of imagining saturday-night 'fun' as permeating the everyday. Reducing 'freedom' to transient 'fun' is the price paid to the forces of alienation and to the bourgeois structure of Self-Other projections: the repetitions both set the limits of this strategy and point still, perhaps, towards a certain utopian moment.

Unavoidably, then, repetition's meanings have shifted. A key moment the inception of 'everyday life' in 'mass society' coincides, interestingly enough, with the 'death of God', one effect of which is to imply the internalisation of cultural memory, as ritual gives way to secular knowledges. Hacking (1995) argues that memory only became an object of scientific knoweldge in the late nineteenth century. The sciences of memory including Freudianism began to supplant the idea of the soul as the key discourse of the modern self. Modernism probed this cultural knot. At the same time, everyday men and women learned to live within its new structure of hopes and fears. The teleological journey of the soul, together with the ritual structures marking its passages, metamorphose into the secular dreams, memories and self-constructions of contemporary experience, and at the same moment, provoked by the 'tedium' of their never-ending repetition, Nietzsche as mysogynistic as he was elitist invents the secular religion of 'eternal return'.8

Not surprisingly, then, 'the folk' and 'blacks' were not the only Others in the modernity drama: the 'masses' and their culture were also often figured in repetitive terms standardised, objects of reproduction, devoid of historical grandeur and so was Woman, so close, apparently, to the rhythms of natural cycles.9 And the interconnections between all these figures within the mythologies of bourgeois culture are well known. Interpretation is not easy: objects of projection, in speaking back, can Signify on, and in that sense work with, aspects of the myths. Thus Kristeva (1986), in her influential article on 'Women's Time', is anti-essentialist, but nevertheless argues for a practical strategy of accepting the effect of sexual difference on experience of rhythms of reproduction on the one hand, the arrow of history on the other. In rejecting the structure of projection, then, we need to recognise the right to self-definition of its objects, and this is likely to lead not to the inversion of a previous duality but to the recognition of a spread of experience and position.

Gurvitch (1964) maps out a range of modes of time-awareness and relates it to different social formations, social groups, historical stages. That done, a second need is then to relate this spectrum to a much more detailed study of modes of time-awareness found in music practices: a start has been made by Jonathon Kramer (1988). Then we must think this dialogic matrix in context: the context of the longue duree of modernity, and its myths, that of the specific trajectory of this formation revealed by contemporary change, and that, finally, of a given local variant.

A further programmatic need, perhaps, is for a historical anthropology of representation. For poststructuralists, the signifying act as such is representational in a particular sense, as one signifier represents itself to and through others. (The theory of Signifyin(g) seems close to this.) But this internal process of repetition and difference is of a different order from the representation of externalities which has been so important in Western music aesthetics. Here what arises is the attempt to picture something beyond the music whether internal emotion or external scene, story or object. And this is historically specific: 'the fact that the world becomes a picture at all is what distinguishes the modern age...The word "picture" now means the structured image that is the creature of man's producing which represents and sets before. In such producing, man contends for the position in which he can be that particular being who gives the measure and draws up the guidelines for everything that is.' (Heidigger 1977, 149, 150) In contrast with that mode of philosophical imperialism, repetition in the first sense, repetition as practice, can be thought of as more like just a facilitator of conversation. In so many descriptions of folk-repetition whether celebratory or patronising what happens is precisely the turning of a practice into a representation in the second sense a portrait of otherness. Such misrepresentation is, in this sphere, the inevitable concomitant of being a counterculture of modernity; and analysis today needs to grasp the complex interactions of representation and practice which are emerging.

This moment 'today' is both singular and multiply connected. Fed by certain strands in ecological and feminist thought, and by the sense of an 'end of grand narratives', there is I think a renewed awareness of the 'relative constants' of human limitations, death and inter-generational repetitions. As Kierkegaarde (1939, 183-4) puts it, 'every generation begins again from the beginning...No generation has learned how to love from another, no generation begins at any other point than the beginning, and no subsequent generation has a shorter task than the generation that preceded it.' Accepting this leads unavoidably to the view that 'Repetition is reality, and it is the seriousness of life. He who wills repetition is matured in seriousness.' (Kierkegaarde 1942, 6) And this provides the space where the sediments of pre-modern lineages, which never gave up fertilising some of modernity's roots, can be brought to the surface. Even for Adorno, 'The dawning sense of freedom feeds upon the memory of the archaic impulse not yet steered by any solid I.' (Quoted, Huyssen 1986, 27) Yet the moment is also in many ways unique. Telos collapses for the very specific reason that, so to speak, after Auschwitz it cannot face the world. At the same time, ironically, the ever accelerating tempo of capital accumulation leads to a succession of 'time-space compressions', as David Harvey (1989) calls them, fundamentally altering the spatio-temporal matrix within which repetitions take place. Benjamin's flood of reproductions circulates in an ever-shrinking world, against an ever-shortening horizon, governed by an ideology of ceaseless but aimless change, and by the time of the later Baudrillard has left all distinction between original and copy behind, so that 'simulacra surpass history' (Baudrillard 1988, 138). But the collapse of telos does not require the end of history. Baudrillard's vision is, at the least, readily congruent with the alliance of neo-liberal triumphalism and apocalyptic fundamentalism which is already celebrating the final, millenarian narrative denouement. But the end of history signalled here is inscribed only in ideology, and Baudrillard either misses or rejects the Benjaminian insight that simulation not only uproots meaning but also, through the re-internalising of repetition, the de-contextualising of representation, potentially frees practice.

Not the least singularity is what I think of as the 'dual world system' governing today's music regime: the astonishing confluence, in a twin triumph, of global capital circulation in the political economy, African musical diaspora in the sign economy modernity and its counterculture, relatively autonomous still, but symbiotic. Is this a joke by the World Spirit at Hegel's expense? Frederic Jameson's concern (1984) that postmodern ecstasy represents a false Sublime, powered by the giddy cycles of commodity circulation, might worry us that the Slave is now complicit with the Master; but such eithor-or apocalyptics, themselves complicit with an outworn paradigm, are sounding tired. Chernoff's insistence (1979) that the effect of multiple repetitions in African music is not frenzied but refreshing, that 'ecstasy' would be seen as tasteless, is a useful caution. Similarly, Morton Marks (1974), in his study of African-American religious music, takes issue with Victor Turner's theory that liminality strips participants of their identities; the ritual structures he discovers are 'rule-bound but liminal' (112), their mechanisms depending on switching successive or contrapuntal between different repetition patterns. On a philosophical level, Kierkegaarde (1942), while carefully distinguishing different modes of repetition and recollection, nevertheless finds them overlapping. Similarly, Deleuze, in his entertainingly loopy book, Difference and Repetition (1994), defines true repetition, counter-intuitively, as 'repetition of difference', which takes place in 'another dimension, a secret verticality' (18); but it is always in disguise, intermingled, on the one hand, with 'brute repetition' what Deleuze calls mechanical repetition-of-the same and, on the other hand, with resemblance: the grouping of differences under a concept, or in another word, representation. 'It is always in this gap, which should not be confused with the negative, that creatures weave their repetition and receive at the same time the gift of living and dying.' (21)

Deleuze's radical repetition repetition as a doubling of the unique, a 'swarm of differences, a pluralism of free, wild or unamed differences', freely cut from 'bundles and networks' of 'radiations in all directions' (50, 51), continually insisting on absolute and incommensurable singularity offers an impossibilist manifesto, which, however exhilarating, could never provide a home for actual living (any more than Barthes' state of jouissance is for permanent habitation). Practically, its value is in exposing the negativity of resemblance (always measuring difference against an origin), and putting in place as permanent challenge the positivity of uniqueness. Politically, the need then is to locate the particular repetition forms, for a given situation, which pull most strongly towards the requirements of what we could imagine a de-centred field of difference to be like. I am attracted by Kristeva's programme (1986) for a reconstruction of 'women's time'. She argues for the parallel existence, and interweaving, of the cursive time of production and the recursive, cyclic time of reproduction, and their recuperation to the internal structure of the subject, in an 'interiorisation of the founding separation of the socio-symbolic contract' (210): that is, the shifting of socially oriented splitting, scapegoating and projections to the interior of identities, social or individual, putting them into a new fluidity.

This may look like a bringing of Hegel and Bakhtin together in some fantasy-sythesis. It is not: negation is side-lined, and projected sublation rendered groundless. However, fragments of Hegelian telos are all around, and are being re-assembled in a multitude of ways, in a context which takes electronic reproducibility for granted. 'Life' and 'death' take on new meanings, as well as re-connecting with old ones. The value of musical practice in this situation is to offer an arena for inter- and intra-subjective conversation, an arena that is specified by somatic breadth, deep ecological resonances, and multiple synchronic and diachronic connections. To close, I will briefly discuss a scatter of musical examples, drawn from wildly differing areas of what I take to be the contemporary popular music culture, illustrating aspects of the reconstruction of history as it passes through the prism of varied repetition-practices.10

The first example comes from Henryk Gorecki's now-celebrated third symphony. At the start of the second movement, we hear the hallowed tonic-subdominant move, repeating over and over, tonic and subdominant chords bleeding into and overlapping each other, the progression unclosed. The cadential pull alluded to maps the structure of the modernity narrative, while its religious associations (I-IV = 'Amen') root this narrative in its Christian sources. In a symphony linked to mourning for Nazism and the Holocaust, this is indeed historical debris; what can the composer do with its teleonomic potential except rehearse and at the same time refuse it?

John Adams's 'On the Dominant Divide', from his Grand Pianola Music, also deals in historical debris, in this case the I-V progression (there is also more specific allusion, in the piano figuration and the main theme, to Beethoven's Emperor Concerto and Hammerklavier Sonata). The initial dominant pedal is comically over-extended, and the repeating I-V chords of the theme are bathetic. Adams is obviously having fun at the expense of the hoary old perfect cadence (more particularly, its crucial role in the developmentalism of Beethovenian form); perhaps too at the expense of the grandiose nineteenth-century style, and even the Hollywood epic theme-tune style, that grew out of it. But the naivete seems to transfigure these over-used materials, the aimless repetition to cancel the narrative weight of the cadence: the historical burden is lifted.

Almost any rock song could provide good material for analysis. But here, of course, repetition is much more powerfully present than in the musical lineages which Gorecki and Adams deconstruct. Nevertheless, in heavy rock it is put to specific uses which, often, are not free of their own complicity with the master discourse particularly through its grinding imposition of the structures of patriarchal demand. P.J. Harvey, in 'Send His Love to Me', re-assembles a whole bagful of heavy rock cliches harmonic, melodic, rhythmic but the female focus to the texture re-sexes them, while the relentless repetitions nail them to the floor with magnificent if scary obsessiveness.

By contrast, Tricky in, say, 'Suffocated Love' seems to

pass a whole aesthetic tradition of atmosphericism, running from Romanticism and expressionism to pop ballad and ambient music, through the filter of trancy dance loops. The repetitions slip between relaxing physical gesture, everyday urban dread and the babble of inner consciousness. A heritage of angst is relocated, but at the same time somehow dissipates through the holes in the open texture with its multiple positions for listener identification, its circling loops of reassurance.

What we hear in these examples is a range of 'changing sames' as they intersect with the magnetic images wired positive or negative of varied historical force-fields.

But this, one might think, is to describe them under the rubric of critique taking us back, surely, to the antinomies of Adornian critical theory. And under that rubric the popular acceptability of these pieces might be thought to devalue them. This, however, is to apply the wrong perspective. Its plausibility arises in the first place, I think, because of the important role played here by historical debris, all of it pregnant with the wash of inherited representational fields. Yet to varying extents this debris is mobilised in dialogical practice while (also to varying extents) retaining and refracting the representational backwash. To find examples of critique in contemporary music, we must look elsewhere to late-modernism. Alastair Williams (1989) does precisely this, searching the post-Webern repertory for ways of working within the apparent impasse represented by Adorno's road-blocked dialectic: a Hegelian dialectic with the Aufhebung missing, as Williams describes it. He finds them in Ligeti's inter-animations of stasis and movement, repetition and difference, which can be regarded, he argues, as a form of immanent critique there is no outcome, but still we hear glimpses of the possibility of a utopian 'immediacy'.

That the critique remains immanent marks its limitations, however. In the third movement of Ligeti's Chamber Concerto, multiple intersecting and overlapping clock-like mechanical repetitions layer and cut up the otherwise fragmentary motion. The idea seems to be to signal at once the unacceptability of 'the same' and the impotence of 'difference'. But the music refuses the vernacular; any familiar gesture is treated as worn out, a frozen aesthetic mark, guaranteeing the really worn out ideology of musical autonomy; 'comprehensibility' functions only as an ironic opposite to the modernist norms of dissonance and irregularity. The music's bracketing of history cannot shake off the horror which results from an inability to break with the authors of the plot (from Hegel and Beethoven to Schoenberg and Cage); its 'contained extremism' forgoes the possibility of dialogue, to remain mired in a 'non-supercessionary dialectic' (Williams 1989, 216, 217)

'Negation' as a strategy is looking tired. Born (1993) points out that, as the negative becomes familiar, it always itself becomes repetitive. Moreover, it cannot explain the appeal of constant variation of the same. Most of all, it insists on structuring the musico-political field around a centre, so that difference can only be heard as negative to a positive, rather than as difference-in-repetition just 'difference without any necessary antagonism, another form of positively constitutive identity' (285).

Even so (the argument might continue), the examples discussed above are all characterised by considerable compositional finesse, which arguably makes it easy to bestow approval. What about Deleuze's 'brute repetition'? What about music which just repeats Satie's Vexations, say? Or where the change is minimal and, perhaps, governed by an apparent mechanicity? In early minimalism, for instance, or in some rave music. If we compare, say, Steve Reich's Come Out (1966) and Prodigy's Everybody in the Place (1992), we find some technical features in common, in terms of the types of electronically mediated sound but also the repetition processes, built on looped chains of superimposed short riffs. (Of course, there is a difference too, to do with the way difference is incorporated: Reich builds imperceptible change into the compositional system, while Prodigy break arbitrarily from one textural matrix to another.) Though I do feel interest in the textures, and engagement in the rhythms, I find also that I continually relapse into a state of boredom. And I can see that, in certain contexts, this might produce a condition of self-loss which some might regard as regressive. Reich (1974) has written about his music of that period in terms of its capacity to bring on a sort of 'ecstasy' through subversion of 'personality', while the discourse around rave is full of references to childlike, oceanic states which the music is supposed to induce. However, I am reluctant to dismiss such musics at least, without much more detailed examination of its tactical usages in specific contexts, within the wider net of specific life-worlds and histories; especially since to do so might imply an alliance with the criticisms to which both styles have been subjected, from the remnants of Old Modernism and Old Rockism, respectively.

The concerns I have relate to what I hear and read as attempts to efface agency: there is a sense that repetition is functioning as a pre-determined system. This severely limits music's political purchase. For me, a preferable strategy is to seek techniques which, while striving to undercut the polar authority of any centristic creative power (a Boulez; a Springsteen?), maintain an openness to event which facilitates discursive constructions of agency. The point here is to see that music does not so much reflect social patterns as at once mediate and offer social identities which may include modelling new (even utopian) positions. Hence music producers not only have significant social power but also political responsibilities. (This is not meant as anything approaching the crude behaviourism of pro-censorship lobbies.)

More to my taste, then, both aesthetic and political, is a piece like Abdullah Ibrahim's Soweto Is Where It's At. As in some previous examples, we hear a harmonic cliche this one (a two-bar sequence: I-IV-I6/4-V) is a cornerstone of the South African jazz/jive repertory; but also a favoured cadential progression of composers like Mozart and Rossini. Ibrahim refuses closure, Signifies on this cliche of Western musical modernity, opens it up to process, by repeating it as the foundation for twenty minutes of improvisation. The foundation remains, rock-solid, though rarely self-identical, and constantly sprouting forth new generations of melody whose ancestors we have heard somewhere before.

Needless to say, the specifics of Ibrahim's cultural location cannot be passed over. Yet, in large measure his proposition can be grasped right across the Westernised world.11 On this level, symptomatic is the decisive assumption that closure has become literally incredible. But it was closure narrative control of difference that was always the real business of the allegedly developmental procedures favoured by bourgeois music aesthetics. Paradoxically, it is repetition, when put to productive work, which can best open up the future, freeing difference from conformity to pre-given narrative shape.

John Rahn (1993), distinguishing different types of musical repetition, puts his faith in what he calls 'lively' repetition, 'whose telos is not given ...but is in the process of being formed' (50). We can adapt this (adapt because Rahn seems to associate such lively repetition with a composer like Beethoven while, in traditional fashion, he regards 'entertainment music' as cultivating unmotivated repetition, repetition as slavery, a Baudrillardist 'simulation' of life). For Rahn, lively repetition 'is transformation...and all transformation rests on the possibility of repetition, of repeatable qualities and patterns. The world is not a world, a life is not a life, if it makes no sense at all. Sense is dependent on repetition, without which nothing can be recognised...This process of continual repetition...creatively folding a life back over its traces as it unfolds, is a source of great satisfaction...for without this process, without hope of telos, there would be no life. Who among us is ready to die?' (53) At the same time, 'We are in this world limited in our very being. The only way to take our destiny upon to want ourselves to be limited by death. It is therefore by way of dread and the thought of death that we arrive at repetition. We must take what we are upon ourselves...[we must] live our own death in advance. We overcome our failure by becoming conscious of that failure.' (Philosopher Jean Wahl, quoted, Baker 1984, 217)

A humility in the face of the failure of so many of modernity's projects necessarily re-writes, but need not destroy, hope. Millenarian apocalyptics root themselves, again, in false duality. When I quoted earlier from Gianni Vattimo, I omitted an important phrase: 'Only modernity, in developing and elaborating in strictly worldly and secular terms the Judeo-Christian ontological weight to history'. Modernity's teleonomic imperative the Enlightement, Hegel, Marx comes out of that heritage. It is a heritage that must retreat from the centre, and from the concept of a centre. Yet even the mainstream of this heritage is not seamless. Jewish tradition sees not an apocalyptic end-point to telos but constant, hard-won renewal in the real time of this world. A Jewish commentator's advice to computer engineers working to re-programme computer clocks to cope with the millennial threat of the year 2000 can easily be adapted to the purposes of musicians and their listeners: 'treat the final number as an arbitrary one and simply start again' (Guardian, 27/1/96)


1 'Over and over' is a hook from the Brand New Heavies' song 'Dream On Dreamer'. As well as being an appropriate motto for this paper, it accurately summarises what the record does: the song is a treasure-trove of repetition types. Other versions of this paper were given ('over and over'!) at the eighth international conference of IASPM, Glasgow 1995, and to seminars in the Music Departments of the University of Sheffield and of Royal Holloway College London (both in February 1996). Thanks to participants for their comments. ( zurück)

2 This paper is written unavoidably from a standpoint located in a 'developed' Western society Britain. I am acutely aware that the 'global ground' on which repetition operates today must map very differently for observers situated elsewhere. Dialogue around this difference is urgently required.

3 e.g. in Middleton 1990 Chapter 7.

4 Newcomb 1992 applies this perspective to Mahler.

5 For a more detailed account of this argument, see Middleton 1990, 287-92

6 For other examples of the application of the theory of Signifyin(g) to music, see Brown 1994, Floyd 1991, Tomlinson 1991

7 By contrast, Gates emphasises that the principles of Signifyin(g) are not confined to black culture.

8 Maybe, also, Nietzsche's Dionysianism is not too far away from the 'orientalism' which Said (1978) identifies as the guiding principle of nineteenth-century philology.

9 On this see Huyssen 1986 Chapter 3 ('Mass culture as woman: modernism's other'), Modleski 1986.

10 Ideally I should preface the discussion with a more detailed account of interpretive method than space permits. In brief: theories of immanent meaning and of currently fashionable receptionism are equally rejected here. It is necessary to acknowledge both the ontological weight of the sound-patterns even if we cannot know them 'in themselves' and the historical weight of accreted discursive contexts, generic associations and techical developments. These givens set limits, which outlaw interpretive solipsism and require defence of the alterity of musical practice always socially constructed but never collapsible into the pre-musical. Thus the strategy is to locate an appropriate 'interpretive frame' which situates meaning somewhere between an apprehension of what is given and a delineation of a selected meaning-context in this case, dominant understandings likely to be operational (consciously or unconsciously) in Western societies.

11 For what strikes me as a central European parallel, listen to the Vienna Art Orchestra's semi-improvised meditations on some of Satie's 'frozen' forms, including his Vexations. The European tradition, its gestures drained of virtually all mobility by the eccentric French avant-gardist and turned into proto-minimalist system, is sprung into proliferating, Signifyin(g) life.


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© 1997  Richard Middleton