The Power of Recurrence: Further Thoughts on Form

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I recently had the pleasure of seeing a live performance of Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 10 for guitar and tape. Davidovsky is an Argentine-born composer who has spent most of his career in the US, especially at Columbia and Harvard universities. As with much American music from the more “academic” strain (Davidovsky’s biggest mentor was Milton Babbitt), Synchronisms No. 10 does not follow any traditional form. Instead, the piece appears to be through-composed, with a number of distinct sections following organically upon each other, creating an interesting and colorful variety of sound worlds. Somewhat surprisingly, the piece begins with several minutes of solo guitar before the electronic part enters. However, near the end of the piece, the guitar’s opening gestures recur exactly as at the beginning, but with an electronic accompaniment this time. As I listened to the performance, the obvious recurrence of this passage gave the whole a much more defined shape in my mind, causing me to smile and nod in approval almost involuntarily. Suddenly, it seemed as if I liked the piece a whole lot more, even though it had done nothing new.

Even though Davidovsky studiously avoided using any classical forms, I realized that this recurrence of the opening material was actually functioning in a way analogous to a recapitulation in traditional form, even apart from the return to a home tonality which is traditionally associated with it. This suggested to me that perhaps the main purpose of traditional musical forms such as sonata and rondo is not to provide a tonal structure, but simply a framework for recurrence. In a piece of any substantial length, some element of recurrence is necessary to create a satisfying listening experience, whether the language is tonal or atonal. In fact, I would argue that the longer a piece is, the more essential repetition or recurrence is to maintaining a coherent construction of form.

Similarly, in the visual arts, the larger a work’s physical dimensions, the more important its form or composition is. The painter, potter, sculptor, or architect constructs these forms out of elements dealing with the distribution of materials across space, such as shape, color, balance, and proportion. However, while a work of visual art can be grasped instantaneously, in a single glance, a work of music must be experienced through time. Therefore, its structure must be articulated through elements dealing with the disposition of materials across time, such as repetition, variation, recurrence, expansion, or contrast.

Because of this principle, I would argue that truly through-composed music (that is, forms relying exclusively on variation or contrast instead of repetition or recurrence) can only work on small scales. One significant exception to this might be so-called process music, in which certain musical parameters follow a clearly-defined trajectory over the course of the piece, so that the character of the music is constantly in flux and thus never literally repeating. These large-scale trajectories provide a way for the listener to conceptualize the entire piece in a single glance, so to speak, without needing to recognize material they heard earlier. Even so, most examples of process pieces use either repetition or recurrence as well to help construct the form. Composers may even construct processes that undo or spiral back upon themselves, so that the end of the piece is the same as the beginning—a sort of terminal recurrence that signals the piece’s completion. (For a brilliant example of process music, see Thomas Adès’ In Seven Days.)

In an earlier post, I reflected on how minimalist art showed me that the ideal balance between repetition and variation in a work often tilts much more towards repetition than I think. After my experience listening to the Davidovsky, I now wonder if this principle applies to all musical styles, not just minimalism. For example, one of the most stimulating experiences I’ve had as a composer was taking a seminar in Schenkerian analysis, a music theory paradigm which attempts to show that tonal music uses the same basic patterns at all levels of its structure, from phrases to sections to entire pieces. As a theorist, I don’t necessarily buy all the assertions of Schenkerian philosophy, but as a composer, it opened my eyes to the potential to expand any musical idea without adding any new material, by simply replicating the pattern of the whole in each of the parts, much like a fractal.

To take a completely opposite example, serial music also relies heavily on repetitions of a basic tone row, albeit transformed through processes such as retrograde and inversion (not to mention extreme contrasts in rhythm, timbre, or texture). While serial music is notoriously difficult for listeners to comprehend, I wonder if this is not due to its lack of tonality but rather to the fact that the repetition and recurrence in its structure are not apparent to listeners, having been buried by the radical variation of other musical parameters. The same sort of structure is still there, but it fails to create a sense of cohesion for listeners if they are unable to perceive it.

In my opinion, the difficulty for composers in writing long pieces is not in coming up with enough ideas to fill the piece, but in stretching out a single idea to fill the appropriate amount of time, like blowing up a balloon or throwing a pot on the wheel. Much as novice potters tend to leave the walls of their pots too thick because they don’t realize how far they can stretch the clay to enclose a larger volume, aspiring composers tend to leave their musical materials underdeveloped, moving on from an idea before it has grown to its full potential.

So the next time I’m stuck searching for inspiration in a piece, I intend to check what I’ve already written and consider if it might just be time for some repetition, or at least a little more stretching of an idea. After all, if you never pop a balloon, you’re not blowing them up big enough, right?

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