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Just can’t get enough

September 3, 2013

Once is not enough.


A couple of days ago, the entire simonsometimessays posse – ie four of us – hied us to the home of very good friends for supper, games and (above all) a glass or two of something fortifying. Quite how we managed to arrive singing The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond is a point which is not properly clear in my mind. Nor is the horror on the faces of our friends: I’m sure I sounded just like John McDermott, but they hustled us inside as quickly as was decent. And actually, I don’t quite remember why I mentioned it.

Hang on though, I’ve got it. Harriet, one of our wonderful hosts and a sort of extra adoptive member of the sss clan, recently recommended this song: Counting Stars by OneRepublic. “Who are they?” I wondered to myself. “Probably a little-known indie band with some good tunes, destined to be tomorrow’s yesterday’s men*,” I replied.

Oh, dear. How little I know. Two minutes’ reading on The Website of Knowledge revealed that OneRepublic are really very big. What an embarrassment**. How on earth can I have missed that?

Well it’s easy. The plain truth is that there is just so much music. Too much to listen to it all, in the same way that there are too many books to read them all, and we live in a world too big*** to see it all, even if you never heard anything, read anything or went anywhere twice.

I regularly encounter people who will never re-read a book, or go to the same place twice on holiday. There is something superior in that attitude that seems to look down on people as unadventurous and incurious who do repeat their experiences. But – with respect to any who share that view – that’s nonsense, and rather shallow.

Sublicius Bridge

I can never hear too often How Horatius Kept the Bridge (where this one now stands)

In the first place, if it is simply not possible to do everything, why try? In the second place, you don’t have an identical experience each time you read a book, or hear a piece of music, or visit a place. And in the third place, artists, composers, writers, architects, etc – not to mention God and/or nature (take your pick) –  have given us works of beauty and richness that will repay a lifetime’s appreciation and study. It is rather presumptuous to act as if we need to see or hear something only once to understand its value. That would be to consign the consideration of art and nature to a series of checklists: “I’ve read Dickens/heard Beethoven/done Venice”. Besides, there are some things of which, as Depeche Mode once said, I Just Can’t get Enough.

Even without considering the desirability of hearing something for a second, third, fourth or umpteenth time, at a structural level repetition is in the essence of music. Any piece you care to name depends on repetition of words or music – and frequently both – for structure and integrity. Let me demonstrate…

…but before I get to the examples, if you are one who does not listen twice to anything read the next paragraphs first, because if you don’t know what you’re listening for you may either be forced to abandon your principles and listen again, or miss out on something interesting.

So, to start with: The first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor****. (Let me first mention that there is no music I love more than this; and let me also put forward the speculative opinion that even if you only ever hear it once, it will blow you away. If it doesn’t, I despair…)

Like most works with symphonic form, it has a theme, which is repeated, developed, varied, recapitulated, put to one side and then returned to at the end with a flourish. So far, so normal. Break it down to its micro-structure, and you find that repetition is even intrinsic to the central melody, which begins with a group of three notes played three times; thereafter the notes change but the same rhythm is maintained for several bars longer. All is beautiful, fluid and connected, and the total effect is of a unified and complete creation.

I grant you, this would not work too well in literature: “Reader, I married him, married him, married him” would have looked a bit, well, silly. But put repeated words against music, and something else happens. Which leads me to example number 2.

A few years ago it was reported that someone had written a scholarly paper on repetition in the music of Abba. (I can’t find or remember any more detail than that about the authorship, so apologies in the unlikely event that you are the scholar in question and have nothing better to do than read this idle stuff.)

The illustration in the report I saw was Money, Money, Money, and the argument went that the (undeniable) brilliance of that song was due to the fact that it balanced a highly repetitive melody against a varying set of chords and accompaniment. If you listen, you’ll hear how true that is.

(I also came across something on the subject in the Bismarck Tribune (what?!) from 2010: it’s worth a look. I admit to having to look up Bismarck, wondering ignorantly why a 19th Century German chancellor had his own newspaper.)

In the end, though, we should be wary of over-analysis, and of reducing the art to a science. So I shall leave you now, to go and listen to Counting Stars one more time. After all, if something is good enough, you can listen to it over and over and over*****.

SPOILER. This has nothing to do with the racy 1973 novel, Once is not Enough, by Jacqueline Susann. Sorry if that spoils it for you…

*             Yesterday’s Men by Madness. Still going strong, and still writing and releasing music which has evolved, though perhaps not moved on as much as it should have in 30 years. However, as I can attest, they are a great live act.

**           Embarrassment also by Madness.

***        A World Too Big by Jamie Bramble

****        This version, conducted by Karl Böhm, is a touch slower than many; it has attracted criticism for that reason, but I like it because I have just that little bit longer to savour each moment.

*****       Over and Over by Morcheeba. A beautiful, relaxing track, with the stunning, frictionless voice of Skye Edwards showing what “silky” is meant to sound like.


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