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The Insistence of Music, and Geese

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There is no reason, no logical reason, why I should think of viewing the world like Gertrude Stein. But it is Stein who has been in my thoughts, since the morning I read this quote from her: “There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence.”

I hadn’t begun that day with Stein. I had begun by reading an exchange among some post comments which mentioned a comparison having been made between Dmitri Shostakovich and Philip Glass. (The participants, if they read this, will recognize the reference.) The music of both composers is only at the beginning of familiarity to me, that of Shostakovich mostly due to the fascinating series over at Prufrock’s Dilemma. But certainly, I was surprised to see their names paired, as I view them as composing in very different musical worlds. The point seemed to be that the compositions of both may appear limited and repetitive, to their critics, or at least to a listener unfamiliar with them. Perhaps that could be said of any unfamiliar artist or genre; still, seeing the names together made me wonder whether there could be a commonality. I felt bewildered yet intrigued; so, search I must, and did.

Strange bedfellows may often be discovered in search results, simply by linking two names or terms with a capitalized “AND”. Not expecting a real link, nevertheless I sought one between the two and was surprised to find that others before me had considered them together. Glass himself has even talked about his early years of listening to Shostakovich. I read whatever among the search results I could determine truly pertained to my query. But in the end, my lack of music theory left me focusing on Stein’s words, which were quoted in one of the articles: ““There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence.” And, realizing that the experience was bound to lead me, not to greater understanding of music, but to some sort of life lesson, I released the musical associations and held only to the quote, placed in the back of my mind, and waiting for the personal connection to reveal itself.

The revelation has been slow in coming. On occasion, I have thought of Stein’s words, trying to ponder repetition and insistence; but real insight cannot be forced, and this was slow. Then, one day this week, I walked past a garden patch of gooseneck loosestrife and saw that they are starting their flower heads: clusters of many tiny blossoms, which form a shape like the head of a goose. The slightest breeze makes the stalks sway and the heads bob. At a few feet tall, they grow in flocks of geese, ever-increasing, so that they appear to be on the march, and in fact do march into neighboring yards. As I noticed the newly forming goose heads, I remembered their mature, repetitive habit, and felt that the lesson about repetition and insistence was surfacing. The same day, in perfect synchronicity, blogging friend David left a comment on my last post, in which I had talked about my love of the kind of music which builds and crescendos – with the exception of Ravel’s Bolero.

Bolero, repetitive Bolero! Was this to be part of my lesson? I don’t mind how many geese grow in my yard, they never seem repetitive, at least not in an unpleasant way. Insistent, yes, marching and trumpeting: joyous! Would they today lead me to a new way of viewing Bolero? Following David’s suggestion, I looked up a carefully selected version of the music I had previously dismissed. Hearing that it was written as a ballet, I see that it needs the ballet, the form of excellent dancers who can control the music with their dignity. Cheap and obvious, the words I had used before, fade away in the presence of art. David wrote in his comment that Bolero works best taken slowly, and how true! Wonderful dancers, accompanied by a great conductor and orchestra, make me see the importance of the timing.

Timing, being everything, brought about the unlikely pairing of goose-headed flowers and a piece of famous music I had not yet experienced in its true form. In the season when the geese emerge in their insistent formation, we have all come together.

Credits: Whatever little understanding of the original question I have begun to gain, I owe to writers David Luhrssen (http://expressmilwaukee.com/article-7067-philip-glass,-dmitri-shostakovich-get-modern.html), Be’eri Moalem(https://www.sfcv.org/reviews/days-and-nights-festival/play-it-again-philip-glass) and Jeffrey Brown (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-july-dec12-philipglass_10-23/).

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8 thoughts on “The Insistence of Music, and Geese

  1. Elizabeth: Though one must wait a while for a post from you, I’m here to say it’s worth the wait! Right off, the way you weave in the goosenecks and the geese is so beautifully deft.

    On the subject of Bolero, I think you may recall this, as it’s come up before, but in case not, Shostakovich once said of the Invasion Theme in the Seventh Symphony, “I suppose that critics with nothing better to do will damn me for copying Ravel’s Bolero. Well, let them. That is how I hear war.”

    Hearkening back to the conversation to which I think you’re alluding (though I’ll confess I only dimly remember it, and it’s probably best not to be reminded), I do suspect that those who find Shostakovich’s music limited and repetitive have likely listened to little more than the Seventh’s “invasion theme,” while those who think Glass’s music is limited and repetitive are likely able to find ample evidence to support that case throughout his oeuvre. Of course, as Justin Davidson once wrote in an article about Glass that resonates for me in almost every line, “To criticize Glass for excessive reiteration is a little like complaining that the rain is too damp. He repeats therefore he is.” (Here’s a link: http://nymag.com/arts/classicaldance/classical/reviews/philip-glass-2012-2/.)

    That said, I think you’ve drawn a clever and apt comparison between the Shostakovich SQ 7 Lento and the movement from Glass’s SQ 5. (Perhaps you noticed the commentary on the Lento here: http://www.quartets.de/compositions/ssq07.html.) It reminds me a bit, at the other end of the musical spectrum, of tone-row use by Shostakovich and Britten—that enormous store of creative power that enabled each of them to put ideas of every stripe to use in service of their music.

    I’m intrigued by Stein’s Delphic observation, yet I don’t think I can share her view. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) There is overlap in the concepts, and they may often come together, but there are shades of difference, don’t you think?

  2. Sue, I have been thinking about your comment and appreciate the interest and time you put into it, as well as your consistent willingness to listen to another point of view, even from someone so comparatively slight in background, as you have here.

    Yes, Stein is an enigma, so I don’t wonder too much about agreeing with whatever she meant; I look at the phrase and think of what it may mean to me. Without the context of this quote, we might assume she was defending her famous writing style. As you point out, the difference between the words is more a matter of connotation; and I think that is why it appeals to me: what I learned through this exercise is that when there is beauty in something repeated, it’s not because it’s the same thing over and over, but lies in whether there’s a reason for returning to it again and again. In the flower bed, I could see that reason was unnecessary. After that, gaining appreciation of the music just fell into place.

    Beginning with, but having to abandon, a curiosity about the two composers, this exercise turned out to be about two things that are important to me. The first, a theme I often touch on, is finding connections between any two subjects, despite how distant they seem at first. The other is being able to change my thinking. It’s delightful to begin with a point of view, explore it, and come out the other side with new understanding. I suppose this is just another way of saying “finding connections,” so I’m repeating myself!

  3. “when there is beauty in something repeated, it’s not because it’s the same thing over and over, but lies in whether there’s a reason for returning to it again and again.” For some reason, your reply didn’t show up in my WP inbox, so glad I stopped by. The statement you’ve quoted is definitely a keeper. Have a lovely summer!

  4. First, how glad I am that you found your way to that exhilarating Proms fusion. I wasn’t there, but I was stunned by the broadcast.

    And Sue has said it all so eloquently about Shostakovich and Glass. For me Glass is the art of ungainly (and boringly scored) repetition that numbs one into not listening carefully at all after some time, while Shostakovich is about the art of contrast, significantly arranged events in a big symphonic drama, so that even the bludgeoning ‘war’ development section in the Leningrad is part of a much bigger picture. Similarly I agree with James Macmillan that ‘instant spiritual highs’ in music aren’t of much interest. It’s how they emerge out of conflict or contrast that present the interest – and the emotional depth – to me.

    Still, what you say about nature’s patterning is interesting. I’ve returned to the prose-poet Robert Macfarlane, namely The Wild Places, in which he contrasts the seeming chaos of the wilds with patterns that keep recurring in nature. Again, that conflict.

    • David, glad you found this and learned how helpful your remark has been! It’s interesting that we regard uncultivated places as wild, yet nature does create its own patterns through repetition. In the U.S. we have gardens or beds which we call “English gardens,” a term you have no reason to use in the U.K.! We use it for gardens that we let go a little “wild,” though they begin by being cultivated, allowing free spreading and reseeding; they’re especially good for cutting gardens, as they become so full. Apart from some weeds and aggressive plants that try to take over, they are among the most interesting gardens, where the conflict you mention just becomes fascinating. Nothing compared to the real wilds, but so enjoyable on a small scale. — Elizabeth

  5. ‘There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence.’

    That’s an insightful perspective; and one which I can comfortably relate to. It sort of links in with ancient Greek and Buddhistic concepts of existence as change.

    A lovely and eloquent article; for which, many thanks.

    Hariod Brawn.

    • Hariod, I am only beginning to explore the collected writings at your blog, so cannot reply in any knowledgeable way at this point. I must respond to the kindness of your words, however, and notice the common ground. In a post over your way, you summarize with “We can change at any time in life; all it takes is the will to do so.” And here is the link: after my ramblings here, you get right to the heart of the matter. — Elizabeth

      • I am flattered indeed Elizabeth; though I fear you may find my own ‘ramblings’ terribly unsophisticated in comparison to what you offer here amongst your own most erudite perspectives.

        Hariod. ❤

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