In Loving Repetition



by Justin E. H. Smith

If cultural studies were not so wrapped up in the vapid and fleeting, to the point where they forget all about Baudelaire’s injunction to find ‘the eternal in the ephemeral’, they might just be able to discern some important truths about the sacred character of popular music.

Les Murray has compellingly described religion as poetry spoken ‘in loving repetition‘. When I was 13 I was baptized in the Catholic church. I had been the only unbaptized student in a Catholic elementary school, and it was judged at some point that I might fit in better if I were to become a member of the flock. I acquiesced, happily, and for a year or so I muttered the rosary with deep inward yearning, an obsessive-compulsive freak: in loving repetition.

This experience overlaps in my memory with a period of intense, ridiculous, adolescent Beatlemania. I knew all their birthdays, all their parents’ birthdays, the precise layouts of the streets of Liverpool, of Hamburg, the bra size of May Pang. I knew, most of all, the precise contours of  every available recording of every Beatles song, whether canonical or bootleg.

I do not remember whether the Beatles came before, or after, the Catholicism. What I remember is that they blended perfectly into one another in my fantasy life.

Now the recordings, though I played them back in loving repetition, were not, strictly speaking, repeated. They were each performed only once, in a studio, at some point in the 1960s, before I was born. Perhaps these singular performances involved tracks, and so multiple recordings of different elements, but in any case the whole production of the authoritative version was completed in a finite, no doubt very short, series of steps.

What was produced was what Nelson Goodman would call an ‘allographic’ artwork: a work that can be fully experienced even if the thing itself remains remote, even if the thing itself is indefinable. My copy of the White Album, scooped up at a San Francisco garage sale from some kindly hippie, repairing his VW bus, circa 1985, cannot in any sense be said to be the White Album, and yet I have experienced the White Album as fully as anyone has simply by bringing this copy home and putting it on the record player and listening to it: in loving repetition.

The recording of that album fixed and eternalized a number of contingencies, a number of things that could just as well not have happened: some words muttered, George’s fingers staying on the strings a microsecond too long and generating that superfluous but not unpleasant string noise for which I’m sure there’s a term. These contingencies become canonical. They are awaited lovingly by the knowing listener. They arrive as expected, and they reconfirm the aesthetic order of the world.

This reconfirmation is just as strong when it is experienced in supposedly bad pop music as when it is experienced in the great instances. It is there when Rufus calls out to Chaka Khan, and when Paula Abdul dismisses her would-be lover with just the number of stuttered consonants she has to offer up, and not more or less: B-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-bye. Who, tuned into the FM radio universe of the mid-1980s, did not know what that number was? Who could not feel it coming on, and feel it, when it came, reconfirming the order? This is an unusual way of experiencing music: in the form of allographic, canonical tokens of singular type-recordings. But it supervenes on something much older, even something primordial.

For me, conceptual questions in aesthetics, and perhaps in philosophy in general, are best answered genealogically. And a key genealogical question to be asked for most modern and technologically mediated art forms is: What is that human experience out of which this new form emerges? In the case of cinema, we are fairly familiar by now with the analysis of this new art form into its constitutive ancestral lineages: the realist novel, certain schools of European painting, the shadow theater. We know, also, that the era of musical recording was preceded by a period of commercial standardization of sheet music, which was sold and distributed and played around household pianos by a bourgeoisie that was generally far more musically literate than would be later consumers of vinyl, or CDs, or of the services of Spotify.

The domestic performance of sheet music allowed, certainly, for variability in each instance, but the very standardization of the notes on the page was already a stage on the way towards recording. What surely remained most variable, when families gathered around pianos, was the recitative element, that is, the lyrics, the part of music that has the most evident share in poetry.

To the extent that music involves repetition, whether of melodies or chords or words, it is all rooted in poetry. This is ancient, but still clear in certain traditions that survive into the era of recording, such as the Russian bard style of Vysotsky (the homonymy with Shakespeare’s moniker is not coincidental). Here, as in the music of Seikilos, there is a cycle of words, whose transcendent or non-mundane force is heightened by an accompanying string instrument, but not subordinated to that instrument. In general, if one wishes to find the pre-recording roots of popular music, one does well to look, not only to the history of music strictly speaking (melody and harmony in particular), but also to traditions of oral poetry and oral lore. Alan Lomax seems to have understood this very well in his field recordings: he realized he could not go in and ask only to hear the tunes of Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta, but had to listen to the folk tales as well.

We know that a number of the world’s most glorious works of epic poetry, including Homeric epic, began as traditions of oral recitation, presumably involving some degree of rhythmic articulation, and perhaps also inflections of the voice’s pitch and timber. In this respect, literature and music are really only different trajectories of the same deeper aesthetic activity: a repetition that reconfirms, or reestablishes, or perhaps recreates, the order of the world. To be invested in this repetition aesthetically is to experience it with love, which again, following Murray, is nothing other than religion itself.

I’ve been reading recently the transcribed version of the Yakut heroic epos, the Olonkho— considered to be the Urtext of pre-Islamic Turkic mythology, preserved across the centuries in the oral tradition of northeastern Siberia. It speaks of snow, and reindeer, and human beings, and ancestors, and the transcendent cause of all of this. What I am reading is a trace, not the real thing, and it is enjoyable to attempt to imagine the proper mise-en-scène, by a trusted elder, of these events to which I have only minimal access, and from which the trace nature of the textual version distances me even more. One imagines an expert raconteur, someone who relates the Olonkho with a degree of mastery comparable to the mastery we recognize as involved in conducting the Ring Cycle or playing Othello.

What one would particularly relish, it is easy to imagine, experiencing the recitation directly, and intimately, would be the variety of deviations, and the way the master raconteur controls the deviations for such-and-such desired effect. ‘Here comes that part where he’s going to make a bear-grunt noise!’ the Yakut adolescent might think to himself. And then it comes, and it’s slightly different than the last time, yet perfectly, satisfyingly different. The repetitions are irreducibly social, variable yet constant, and mediated through a figure who in turn mediates between the human and the transhuman spheres of existence.

It is an unusual state of affairs when the repetition can be experienced both in a way that is not directly social, at home with headphones on in front of a record player, and in a way that involves total invariability from one ‘performance’ to the next. My experience of the Catholic faith was also somewhat unusual: it consisted almost entirely in private mutterings of memorized prayers, in a way that remained almost completely oblivious to the existence of the Church, the coming together of two or more people that in turn calls God to presence as well. But these obsessive compulsions, like the socially mediated recitation of epic, or like technologically mediated communion with god-like pop stars through recorded tokens of their canonical creations, are all, as I’ve said, the work of love.

This love seems to send a person straight outside of himself. But since this cannot really happen, since we all in fact stay right where we are, the ecstasy arrives in the next best way possible: through a cycling back, again and again, to the syllables and sounds that order the world, and that may give some hint of its true cause and nature.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website.