“Repetition is a form of change.”

I’ve often heard this line, from Brian Eno, repeated, especially regarding Philip Glass and minimalism (a recent talk by Bruce Brubaker of NEC at the Atlantic Music Festival comes to mind). Alex Ross also wrote in The Rest is Noise that “Repetition is inherent in the science of sound: tones move through space in periodic waves. It is also inherent in the way the mind processes the outside world.”

I think it’s true. It used to bore me, too — when I disliked Philip Glass, I would think, “I don’t care whether the sheep is a red sheep or a purple sheep — I’m still counting sheep.” I was not nearly dedicated enough to follow the repetitions in Mozart or Beethoven sonatas (it has to be subtly different, it needs to not be the same the second time around, etc). But I’ve been feeling lately that maybe the exercise in repetitions for Philip Glass or Mozart is also an exercise in listening — but the fact is that it’s recreated anew from the same jumble of notation. How many configurations can you get out of the same phrase? It’s fascinating and endless.

There’s that. And then there’s also the disturbing counter in other kinds of art: that repetition can also be an entrapment into stasis, something like a broken, mechanical tape recorder repeating some horrible message that one can’t turn off or tune out. Take into account Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s wonderful, wonderful, disturbing, sick, beautiful novel. Take into account Humbert’s tortured obsession with 12-year-old Dolores Haze.

Chapter 26 of Part 1:

Don’t think I can go on. Heart, head–everything. Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita. Repeat till the page is full, printer.


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