Column: Not To Scale #2
As previously noted, Not To Scale is a new monthly feature from Oakland music blog, Mapzzz, wherein founder Glenn Jackson discusses any number of music related topics. With that said, read through as Glenn chats about looping, repetition, and more looping…
Not to Scale: Looping (and Repetition) Looping (and Repetition) Looping (and Repetition)
It’s probably a pretty safe bet to assume that most PORTALS readers are familiar with the concept of the loop, as far as music production is concerned. It’s a simple concept, really, and one I would argue is the basis of most all contemporary music. What started as a production tool mostly utilized by experimental musicians and composers, perhaps most famously by Steve Reich and later on as the sonic building blocks which birthed hip-hop, house, and techno music, the loop has now become a ubiquitous aspect of the pop production package. Yet it seems like looping is a facet of modern music that is glossed over with only the most cursory of considerations—usually written off as a simply necessary step in the pursuit of perfection and quantization, or the crutch of lazy musical creators. While there are many examples where both may be true, it still only represents half the story. The rest of that tale goes on to show that the loop is one of the most powerful tools a producer has it his or her disposal, and largely the defining characteristic that sets apart modern music. Here’s a few anecdotes that have led me to believe this…
First off, if you’re not listening to WNYC’s Radiolab program, then you are wasting your time on the internet. Back in 2006 (not that I heard it then), the science-exploring radio show did an episode around the topic of “Musical Language.” The opening story, that of noted audio-curious college professor Diana Deutsch, highlighted an accidental discovery she had made while looping herself mid-sentence. The audio clip below demonstrates this more fully, but basically, Deutsch looped a small section of a sentence she had recorded, walked away, and when she came back, it sounded as if someone had been singing—the loop had highlighted the notes inherent in her sentence merely by repeating them in such a way that they were perceived to have a specific (maybe even intended) rhythm and tonality.
To me, this is what makes loops, particularly sampled loops, so intriguing: if Deutsch’s simple sentence was rendered into music by looping a few words, then imagine what kind of new melodies, rhythms, and musical phrases are possible by looping sections of entire songs—the squeaks of an acoustic guitar can become an integral part of the rhythmic structure, the rise of an organ in the background can turn into its own chord progression, and the one-off roll of a hand percussionist is imbued with a specific melodic pattern just by repeating itself. Of course, the hypothetical examples could go on and on, but I think you get the point. I would throw out there that some of the most highly regarded producers of sampled-based music (particularly Dilla and the perhaps lesser known Jan Jelinek) had a keen sense for mining the sonic subtleties of looping, digging beyond the surface audio content in order to illuminate the textures, rhythms, and progressions we only perceive when audio is mechanically repeated.
The usual (and completely valid) argument against looping is that repetition is boring. Again, this may be true in many instances, but this outlook is also a bit shortsighted—when utilized correctly, repetition in music can be utterly meditative and even somehow tribal in its relentless focus. Once again, I need to enlist a person much more learned than myself to make my point. Robert Henke (a.k.a. Monolake) was a founding member of Basic Channel (ostensibly the godfathers of modern techno) and later on a key designer of the flagship production software Ableton Live, which is to say, he knows what he’s talking about. In 2005, Henke was asked to discuss the merits of musical repetition, saying of its strengths:
Repetition allows to focus on details, to observe music more as a sculpture rather than a process. Repetition is a very complex phenomena, a sample loop offers a different quality of repetition then a piano phrase, played by a real player. Repetition is a huge world and creating something which is repetitive and still existing is a challenge. Repetition forces the composer to focus on the essence, since it exposes every detail again and again.
Here, Henke touches on an important concept behind loops and repetition, the fact that they form more of a “sculpture rather than a process.” Personally, the analogy of a still image versus a movie works better for me, as loops somehow “freeze” time in the sense that they allow for uninterrupted access to the repeated details, similar to holding a photograph in your hand and taking the opportunity to inspect its elements more thoroughly than if the image had simply flashed by on a screen. Still, I think even this misses the point a bit, as most loop-based songs aren’t necessarily about the details buried within, but the fact that their repetition allows for focus on the production’s other aspects—its sonic textures, its sense of mood and atmosphere, etc.
Needless to say, I have more questions than answers on the subject. But nonetheless, loops (and their inherent repeating qualities) seem too often taken for granted, as the detractors usually are the loudest when it comes to their role in modern music. If you’re a producer who uses loops, perhaps it’s time to consider a little deeper why that is, what they help you accomplish, and what you can do with them to yield more interesting and immersive pieces of work.