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Philosophy and Literature 24.1 (2000) 111-125

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Phonography, Repetition and Spontaneity

Lee B. Brown *


Phonography is an ever-improving machine for capturing acoustic events, cloning them, and scattering them through the world. More eloquently than any professional media scholar, the journalist Evan Eisenberg made people see--in his book, The Recording Angel--that among the uses of sound recording, convenience is only the most obvious. 1 In a chapter titled "Ceremonies of a Solitary," for instance, Eisenberg details how recording media help consumers organize individualized rituals tailored to their schedules. With phonography, people can repeat experiences as often as they like, and under conditions that are theirs to arrange.

Eisenberg's was mainly a world of vinyl albums. But his views can be amplified with an eye to the diversity of recording formats the industry has offered its consumers over the years. The approximately three-minute time limit of the 78 and 45 rpm "single," for instance, organized time in quite different ways from the approximately 23 minutes it takes for the needle to track a vinyl album. People are still working out personalized ways to relate to the longer stretches of time provided by compact disks, and to the fact that you don't have to turn the disk over to hear all the music on it. Sequencing the tracks as you like is one way of organizing your listening time. Repeating a favored track is another. Scrambling the tracks is still another. All of these are ways of responding to the peculiar capacity of phonography for replaying our musical experiences.

For some theorists, however, the virtues of repetition must be at least qualified. The German social philosopher, Theodor Adorno, believed that the desire for repetition is an infantile or "regressive" one. 2 In [End Page 111] psychoanalytic terms, he saw this obsessive impulse as masochistic--like the urge to bite your nails. The activity is partly painful, and you never get full satisfaction from it. But you can't stop doing it. Like drugs, the hypnotic pulse of popular music betokens the need for more of the same. The subject matter is no less repetitive--chiefly fantasy narratives of love.

Repetition actually plays a role at several levels in Adorno's view. First, a piece of popular music is constructed out of repeatable elements. Since the materials of popular music come from a standardized stock, the basic patterns are bound to be repeated. Even the modest degree of variety found in any given piece of music is regularized by its monotonous rhythm. The beat must go on . . . and on. Simplicity and standardization, of course, are virtues, from the point of view of the commodity industry.

Second, pop record releases are intended to be played over and over again. And that's exactly how they are consumed--up to a point. Eventually, repetition reveals the shallowness of the music. The love affair ends. But at this point, we can amplify Adorno's analysis; for even this phase in the life of a pop hit plays into the hands of the commodity industry. Weary of the stale item, the consumer is ready to go out and replace it with a new one. Finally, repetition plays its role one more time--when the rejected item is recycled as a "golden oldie." The system hums.

For Adorno, a partial antidote to this grim cycle is serious, or "classical," music. For example, we cannot replace bits of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with other bits without ruining its overall sense. The organization of the parts of a piece of popular music, by contrast, is fortuitous, devoid of a "logic" of musical progression. While a pop tune recycles a few simple parts for our passive reception, the structural relationship between the various parts of the Beethoven piece make real demands upon our musical intelligence.


But Adorno's tendentious comparison between merely popular and "serious" music is of only tangential interest here. Although the symbiosis between popular music and phonography is undeniable, a broader view must consider the fact that the medium targets music of all kinds...


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pp. 111-125
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