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repetition is a form of change
Albert Einstein is often misquoted as having said this:
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results
–not Albert Einstein
On the other hand, here’s one of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies:
Earlier this year I ran the Manchester marathon, an act that would fit some definitions of insanity, and most definitions of repetition: I put one foot in front of the other for 6:52:16 until I’d finished running 26.2 miles.
The day before, I asked on Instagram for music suggestions for my running playlist. However, deep down, I think what I was actually hoping for was not music, but for somebody to reply saying
‘David, here’s one weird trick for running 26 miles–just listen to this song and you’ll be able to finish a marathon even if you’ve only really trained enough to get you to 20 miles! No problem!’
This did not happen, but I got some great suggestions:
In the end though, I only listened to one piece of music, on repeat, all the way around–Wild Up’s recording of Julius Eastman’s Femenine, first premiered in 1974:
I’ve run to this piece before, when I ran Manchester 10k. I was aiming to complete that run in under an hour, and this is a piece just over an hour long, so I knew if I didn’t make it, at least I’d have seven minutes of music left (reader, I did not make it, so it’s a good thing I thought ahead).
I imagined this time I would stick Femenine on at the start and then swap to the marathon playlist when it finished, then maybe I’d put it back on again at the end. When Femenine ended, I changed to Caroline Polachek’s ‘Bunny Is A Rider’, the first song on my marathon playlist. But about a minute in, I realised this wasn’t what I wanted, and switched back to Femenine again.
want more of the same?
I don’t get much joy out of the repetitive parts of running. But the repetition and the consistency is how improvement happens. A better fake Einstein quote would be ‘doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is discipline’. Another Oblique Strategy could be ‘repetition is a form of consistency’; ‘repetition is a form of discipline’; ‘consistency is a form of discipline’; ‘consistency is a form of change’, and so on, and so on.
Putting one foot in front of the other, training consistently, going on the same routes over and over again, but adding slightly more distance–all necessary evils, but not things I enjoy in themselves.
The repetition in a piece of minimalist music like Femenine, on the other hand, I find can absolutely be joyous. Minimalism is a term used to describe a musical movement containing within it a wide range of approaches, but one thing many pieces of minimalist music have in common is explicit, deliberate repetition. The textures and timbres of the piece shift slowly and gradually over time–for example, Steve Reich’s piece Music For 18 Musicians, composed 1974-1976:
Femenine hammers the same repeated vibraphone motif over and over again through the entire piece. On top of that a whole range of textures and sounds come about, sound together, and evolve gradually. Much of this is improvised, differing between pieces and interpretations–Grayson Haver Currin writing in Pitchfork describes the score as ‘more as a suggestive framework, allowing whatever musicians are playing Femenine to take liberties with everything besides its rhythms’.
I wrote last month about how John Cage described traffic as ‘the silence almost everywhere in the world now’. John Cage is using the word silence here not to describe literal silence, but something else–the background noise, the room tone, the acoustic wallpaper, the ambience.
In the late 20th century, sound that forms part of a background became the basis for an entire genre, another thing often credited to Brian Eno–ambient music. In the liner notes to Ambient 1: Music for Airports, widely agreed to be where the term ambient music originated, he says:
Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think. Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.
You may have seen an ‘ambient cake’ aisle in some supermarkets. This refers to cake stored at room temperature. Ambient music, like ambient cake, is perfectly happy to sit in a room and not need anyone to pay constant attention to it, or give it any special treatment–as ignorable as it is interesting (or delicious).
Eno was not the first to invent the idea of music that you didn’t necessarily pay full attention to, although this was much less common before the invention of recording and speakers in the late 1800s. Before then, if you wanted to hear music, you had to either play it yourself, or go see somebody else play it. Erik Satie, most famous for his Gymnopédies pieces, coined the term furniture music (or furnishing music depending on who’s translating) as early as 1917, to describe ‘music which had no set form and sections could be re-arranged as a performer or conductor wished, much like furniture in a room, and to act as part of the ambiance or furnishings’.
In Satie’s own words:
‘What is furnishing music? A pleasure! Furnishing music replaces waltzes and operas … Do not be mistaken, it is something else!!! No more false music but musical furniture! Furnishing music completes your belongings, it allows for everything; it is worth gold; it is new; it does not disturb habits; it is not tiring; it does not run out; it is not boring. To adopt it is to do better! Listen at ease!’
Unlike John Cage, he is not a fan of street noises:
We must bring about a music which is like furniture, a music, that is, which will be part of the noises of the environment, will take them into consideration. I think of it as melodious, softening the noises of the knives and forks, not dominating them, not imposing itself. It would fill up those heavy silences that sometimes fall between friends dining together. It would spare them the trouble of paying attention to their own banal remarks. And at the same time it would neutralise the street noises which so indiscreetly enter into the play of conversation. To make such a noise would respond to a need.
Like minimalism, ambient music has a tendency to move slowly, often with repeating or unchanging motifs. Lawrence Kramer used the term ‘vertical listening’ to describe one way of experiencing music like this, and compared it to viewing a sculpture–the thing itself never changes, but we change our perspective by viewing from different angles, getting different perspectives on the music as the piece continues.
I ignored my playlist and listened to Femenine on repeat. What I needed wasn’t a string of bangers to pump me up–I needed consistency, repetition, the musical equivalent of somebody saying ‘keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going’ to me in a steady, encouraging voice as I ran.
I was surprised to find details of the music jumped out at me in ways they hadn’t before–lines I hadn’t noticed, motifs coming back, and what sounded to me like foreshadowing of my favourite part of the piece–about three quarters of the way in, when the piano unexpectedly bashes out the melody to ‘Be Thou My Vision’. When this happened the first time around, about 10km in, I had a sudden burst of the mythical runner’s high. I did wonder at the time whether this was a bit early for that kind of high to be kicking in. And I think it was–at about 20 miles, the limits of my training kicked in, and I started walking. Shortly after, my phone ran out of battery.
For much of the run, there had been people saying ‘keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going’ to me in reality, but towards the end nearly all of them had gone home before I’d limped my way past wherever they were camped out. I was the last runner to cross the finishing line–just before I got there they started packing away, and were asking runners to finish up on the pavement next to the finishing line, rather than go under the big archway. I had to ask them to let me jump the barrier and finish the way I’d been picturing all the way through training and around the course.
I recommend giving Femenine a listen all the way through, and the rest of Julius Eastman’s brilliant and fascinating work, which is currently being recorded as a seven-volume anthology by Wild Up, and is well worth giving some time to, ambiently or not.
As I said earlier, unlike repeated notes and repeat listens, the repetitive parts of running have little appeal for me, and I’m extending that to running a marathon. Once is enough.
Insanity is running a marathon twice
want more of the same?
📆 Upcoming Events
I am playing electric guitar and viola for my beloved Hippo, come for some bank holiday fun
📝 Quickfire Reviews from April
📺 The New Series of Succession: absolutely smashing it, amazing stuff
📺 The New Series of Taskmaster: incredible, one of the best
📺 The New Series of Ted Lasso: actually not very good IMO, not doing it for me
🎥 Linoleum: Stumbled accidentally on this film about an aging children’s TV science presenter and a series of weird occurrences that happen to him, and was pleasantly surprised
🎭 Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead at The Lowry: absolutely amazingly staged, incredible performance from the lead, loved the movement, thought it was really good–but despite all this didn’t feel moved/enthusiastic/that into it? Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood. I am reading the book
🕹 Dorfromantik: a weird little neverending jigsaw/sudoku game hiding underneath a landscaping toy
🎤 The Carlton Club Karaoke: The only karaoke night I have ever enjoyed
🎻 Vulva Voce: excellent feminist string quartet performing exclusively music composed by women
🎸 DieKaiDie: best noisy/crunchy/fuzzy/guitary/autotuney/bangers band I’ve seen in ages
🗣 Two final shoutouts
Brume Ambient Sundays
Those last two acts on my list, I saw at Brume in Manchester. If Brume gigs were the only ones I went to, I would still be getting all the musical nutrients I need to thrive, as they source only the highest quality music from all the major sound groups.
They also run an excellent live ambient music event monthly if you want to go and ignore some interesting music for yourself:
Perhaps the most encouraging man in the world, I would not have been able to come close to finish a marathon without listening to hours and hours of guided runs narrated by him on the Nike Run Club app’s training plans.
Until my phone ran out of power, the other thing I heard all the way around was occasional interjections from Coach Bennett cheering me on and reminding me to check my form.
He also has a newsletter–here’s one of his pieces about how to choose music for a running playlist (spoilers: it does not say listen to one piece of minimalism on repeat for the entire run).
Bye for now!