Swinging Modern Sounds #7: On Repetition

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The intractable problem of the moment in the arts—in music, in books, in movies, in almost every area of contemporary culture—is the problem of inattention.

The youngsters are used to thinking that every book or song or music video or movie or piece of art needs to get where it’s going ever more quickly, and capitalism, chasing its markets, insofar as it is the grand arts administrator in the West, drives ruthlessly the artistic media further into this grammar of the abbreviated. Don’t let that viewer (or listener, or reader) look away! Don’t let them turn to their iPod or their iPhone (or whatever is next with the “i” prefix). The problem is acute enough, I believe, that if I were to make this sentence you are reading right now especially long, were I to load down this very sentence with enough dependent clauses, were I to subdivide the clauses enough, giving them ever slighter and finer gradations of meaning, tiny little filaments of significance, in which filaments I shade first in one direction, and then back toward some other grammatical outcome, I imagine, citizens of this moment, that you would come to find this sentence too long, and you would begin to think that maybe you should go read some other weblog post that was characterized by a more muscular commitment to succinctness; you would think perhaps that this particular weblog entry doesn’t really apply. Because the web, above all, is defined as the place where reading is done in little hiccupy bursts, and content is temporary, unfixed, unmoored, misremembered, or unremembered, and meanings, when there are meanings, are expeditiously delivered, like caffeine injections, though, I think, all meanings that are quickly delivered, are reduced meanings, and are therefore not meanings calibrated to the complicated, and irreducible world out there, which is manifestly not the fantasy-driven world of the web, but is someplace that requires more care, and more patience.

Permit me then to construct my thesis: the most revolutionary act that any artist, writer, or musician can undertake in the current moment is to be purposefully and artistically tedious. I am not speaking, of course, of work that is so tedious as to drive away attention on purpose (Wagner, for me, kind of has this quality, or, differently, Robert Wilson). But rather work that is incredibly demanding, but which then delivers in proportion as you commit to it. In literature, there are many examples. Proust, Melville, Gertrude Stein. In serious music, there are the epics of experimental and minimal composition, like Morton Feldman’s String Quartet II, or La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano. At the very extreme would be the Long Now Foundation’s clock, designed by Daniel Hillis, to tick once a year, ring one a century, and which intends to keep perfect time for the next 10,000 years—music for which can be found on Brian Eno’s album Bell Studies for The Clock of the Long Now.

Some people find music thus constructed unlistenable. But for me it has just the opposite effect. Nothing is better at creating a space where consciousness can really happen, and in which culture, and its babbling tongues, recedes enough for me to feel, well, peaceful. I am not, let me stress, arguing in favor of New Age anything. The Kitaros and Jean-Michel Jarrés should be sequestered on an island of spas, where massages can take place to their soundtracks until the end of humankind. I mean something else. Example: I was recently reading the very incredible Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, by Daniel Paul Schreber, an account of the author’s dementia praecox, written in the early 20th century, and among those pages is a rather beautiful passage in which the psychotic Schreber discovers, after a long interval of catatonia (during which he is occupied exclusively in listening to the voices), that music affords him some relief: “Playing piano in particular was and still is of immense value to me; I must confess that I find it difficult to imagine how I could have borne the compulsive thinking and all that goes with it during these five years had I not been able to play the piano. During piano-playing the nonsensical twaddle of the voices which talk to me is drowned.” And there’s a great footnote below this passage too: “As one cannot play the piano continually, musical clocks serve the same purpose, and (for the garden) mouth organs, which I recently (spring 1900) asked my relatives to get for me.” Now that’s the kind of music I’m talking about! The kind that makes life better for psychotic persons!

Along similar lines, a woman wrote me out of the blue, three or four years ago, about her husband’s literary work. As I recall the letter, this correspondent said, in effect, “My husband is a really demanding writer, and he can’t really seem to get as many people interested immediately in his work as he would like. Would you consider going to his web site and looking at his work?” (The site in question is to be found at www.timramick.net.) What interested me about this Tim Ramick’s work, beside his stunningly good ear, is the immense difficulty of what he does. He’s part language poet, part post-modern fictionist, part theological adept, part design wizard. Many, if not all, his stories, which are often novella length, are arranged on the page in multi-colored sections, or discrete sections, columns and blocks and helixes, so that you kind of have to decide for yourself which part to read first. How you proceed is governed by an immense (and encouraged) liberty. This is work that is not for the faint of heart. Ramick makes Mark Danielewski’s novels look like comic books. I’d put him in a class with writers like Charles Olson, the Ezra Pound of the Cantos, or, more contemporarily, writers like William Gass. What Ramick’s means, I don’t always know, but what I do know is that he wants you to engage with the work in an aleatory way, to create your own reading experience, and that experience, no matter how you undertake it, involves texts that are dazzling to look at, like minimalist sculpture almost. And, moreover, the work is perfection for the ears. Its reliance on rhythm, cadence, repetition, makes it very singular. Where I might give up, because I am adrift in a land with very subterranean resonances, I am nonetheless seduced by cadence and music, which makes me want to stay and to try again.

In the course of things, I became acquainted with Tim, therefore, the author of these works, and his wife, Laura. Tim and I found that we both liked music of the sort I’ve been describing here, incredibly demanding, sometimes noisy, minimal, repetitious music. With the result that Tim, one day, sent me a video clip by a band called Orthrelm. Tim and Laura’s son, called Reeve, is young, and likes music that is very loud, music that comes out of the gene pool that gives us metal, and perhaps Tim came by Orthrelm by way of Reeve, or perhaps Reeve came by it by way of Tim; in either case here it was. It’s no secret that these days I often listen to music that is very, very quiet, and this is in part due to the high frequency hearing loss that I sustained at the hands of David Johansen in Providence in 1983, or at the Glenn Branca concert the next year, or at the Husker Du Halloween gig in 1986, and so on. I used to like to stand near the amps where you could feel the sound waves. Orthrelm, therefore, being somewhat in the category of grindcore, is a little out of my middle-aged comfort zone. Tim and Laura somehow managed to send the Orthrelm video clip to me twice, and both times, I found it ridiculous, pretentious, and somewhat horrifying. The link is here, though if you are a glutton for new experiences, you might try here too.

Some of my resistance had to do with my contempt for the whole death metal idiom. Some of it had to do with hating soloing, in general. I underwent re-education during the regime of punk, and the whole idea of that late seventies year-zero version of punk rock was that guitar solos were Satan. Moreover, as regards the Orthrelm video, this wasn’t even an interesting solo, it was just the notes that your fingers could play really quickly, your pick hand, also a hammering on hand, playing very very quickly, while the fingers of the left hand could also attempt some hammering, on that part of the neck where the frets are really close together. (Which is one reason that Frank Zappa, in later life, liked to solo way down low—because no one else liked to do it.) Furthermore, as revealed on the tape, this was just an incredibly boring band to watch. The drummer (he’s playing only the one kick drum—so rare in the metal universe) is completely expressionless. The guitar player, who makes a few token efforts at a gentle headbanging, is the kind of scruffy middle class kid you could imagine helping you carry groceries to the car, and he seems to be wearing khakis and a cardigan sweater (or maybe a sweatshirt). What’s to like in this performance? And: how much of this stuff is actually composed? What’s to say that the guitarist isn’t just wailing out scales, to show untouched he doesn’t yet have arthritis in the relevant knuckles? I mean, he doesn’t actually compose that shit, does he?

I wrote to Tim and I said, “I can’t stand it. I hate it. It represents everything I hate.” He was polite about my reply (he often is), and we were off on some other subject soon enough. But not long after, he sent me a link to something very different—the work of a filmmaker, Martin Arnold, an Austrian guy who has made a career out of taking little passages of found footage and repeating them until they become . . . there’s no other word but sublime. Here’s a representative clip, which can also be found on Arnold’s web site—along with the following quotation: “The cinema of Hollywood is a cinema of exclusion, reduction and denial, a cinema of repression. There is always something behind that which is being represented, which was not represented. And it is exactly that that is most interesting to consider.”

The methodology, the intensive study implicit in this work, Arnold’s work, is not unlike that of the composer Carl Stone, who takes bits of music (on Mom’s Barbecue, e.g., a favorite album of mine in the nineties) and breaks them down into their component gestures, until you hear the aesthetic quintessence of the desire for music, and how little separates the preliminary intentions of music, music at its most elemental, from the stray bits of audio that surrounds us in every environment. Arnold, like Stone, makes gesture musical, makes microtonality melodic, and makes the whole of his assemblages, dramatic, strange, ritualistic, mystical, even alien. He deconstructs (if we can still use that word without feeling compromised by it) family life and routine and the sentimental architecture of conventional film and makes of them something else, something nearly subatomic.

All of which goes to demonstrate a truth that I have often thought about: that repetition is pleasing, as Horace says in the Ars Poetica. What’s so pleasing about it? That it’s predictable? That is makes life less haphazard? That it is like unto our heartbeats, the predictable rhythm that accompanies all our living and being? Or is repetition more like respiration, which for me is the preliminary material for all musical lines? (And it’s what I resist, in part, in Orthrelm: no rests). I’m not sure why repetition is pleasing, but I know what I like. Whether it’s Rothko’s overpowering sequences of “windows”(or, to give a more recent example, Maureen Gallace’s innumerable paintings of houses), or Steve Reich’s pulses, or the minute gradations of rhythm in Beckett’s last works, repetition slows down movement and makes it more comprehensible. And much more beautiful.

I have had to realize, according to this line of argument, that I wasn’t giving Mick Barr, guitar player of Orthrelm, enough credit. After looking at Martin Arnold for a while, it becomes a lot harder to resist Orthrelm. Though Barr owes some of his playing to the same idiom that gave us Blood Red Throne, Shade Empire, Impaled Nazarene, et al., he does, by depleting that music of everything but the solos and then subjecting the solos to a maniacal level of scrutiny, transcend the degraded genre that spawned him. He does, in fact, achieve art/metal nirvana. For example, there is one clip of him on YouTube that is genuinely, indisputably exquisite. A solo piece, with lots of old-fashioned melody, to be found here.

Cat can play. By which I do not mean that his fingers are fleet. By which I mean: you will need to concentrate.


Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →