Repet­i­tive strains

BBC Music Magazine - - The Full Score - IL­LUS­TRA­TION: MARIA CORTE MAIDAGAN

Os­ti­nato. That’s a word you’re go­ing to read more o en in these pages than in the lat­est is­sue of Gui­tar World. The mu­si­cal prin­ci­ple is the same, though, whether we’re talk­ing about the har­monic cy­cles of cha­connes in Baroque mu­sic from Pur­cell to Bach, the obsessive ma­nia of a Bruck­ner scherzo or your favourite gui­tar ri s and elec­tronic licks from

Led Zep­pelin to Da Punk. A large amount of our mu­sic is ob­sessed by these re­peated pat­terns that lodge in our brains with a stub­bornly irresistib­le power. The stub­born­ness is the clue – that’s what ‘os­ti­nato’ means in Ital­ian – but in­stead of be­ing an­noyed by these never-chang­ing features of sym­phonies, songs and arias, we’re ad­dicted to them. The way os­ti­natos get stuck in our con­scious­ness, and the ways com­posers and song-writ­ers use them, is a defin­ing fea­ture of so much of the mu­sic we love.

Which is a strange bio-mu­si­cal phe­nom­e­non. Be­cause un­like the im­mutable foun­da­tions of Pachel­bel’s loop­ing Canon, or the ri from Julius East­man’s Stay On It, built on a sin­gle repet­i­tive idea for all of its 24 min­utes, our lis­ten­ing bod­ies are in a con­stant state of flux. Noth­ing is ever the same in the chem­istry of our brains, and yet we’re con­sumed by mu­sic that’s made from pat­terns of un­chang­ing os­ti­natos. Some com­posers have re­alised the con­nec­tion be­tween the stub­born power of the os­ti­nato and a dan­ger­ous world of mech­a­nised vi­o­lence and de­hu­man­ised terror. Stravin­sky’s Rite of Spring is a hymn to the os­ti­nato as mur­der­ous

terp­si­chorean ma­chine, driving the Cho­sen One to her death in a mael­strom of churn­ing os­ti­natos. Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry takes it fur­ther, ask­ing

100 or­ches­tral mu­si­cians to evis­cer­ate them­selves of their hu­man­ity, trans­form­ing into spit­ting, splurt­ing mu­si­cal ma­chin­ists, a sound­ing im­age of So­viet in­dus­trial power, all done through a ter­ri­fy­ing os­ti­nato pile-up.

Con­versely, in mu­si­cal worlds made by ma­chines, where os­ti­natos can be per­fectly re­peated, these mu­si­cal ma­chines have be­come the sounds of plea­sure rather than de­hu­man­ised pain. In Donna Sum­mer’s I Feel Love, the cease­less elec­tronic os­ti­nato is what catches the vo­cal in a vice of plea­sure; and in the deliri­ous rep­e­ti­tions of so much dance mu­sic, from Strauss waltzes to Ibizan DJS, those os­ti­natos are de­signed to ex­tend our plea­sure for as long as pos­si­ble.

A fi­nal stub­born para­dox: you can use these never-chang­ing facts of our mu­si­cal life to take us on jour­neys of emo­tional and ex­pres­sive va­ri­ety. That’s what Brahms does in the pas­sacaglia fi­nale of his Sym­phony No. 4, find­ing a tragic tra­jec­tory and a dizzy­ing di­ver­sity from the rep­e­ti­tion of a sin­gle bass-line. Which sug­gests that in or­der to truly ex­pe­ri­ence change, we need some things to stay the same: just an­other stub­born philo­soph­i­cal quandary cre­ated by the strange world of os­ti­natos.

We’re con­sumed by mu­sic that’s made from pat­terns of un­chang­ing os­ti­natos

The hyp­notic os­ti­nato, those re­peated rhythms or phrases of mu­sic, can both drive us to­tally in­sane and take us to states of sheer plea­sure, as Tom Ser­vice ex­plains

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