Conference Review: Again & Again: Musical Repetition in Aesthetics, Analysis, and Experience, 25-26 April 2019, London

On 25 and 26 April 2019, the City, University of London Music Department hosted ‘Again & Again: Musical Repetition in Aesthetics, Analysis, and Experience’: a two-day international conference investigating the wide-ranging topic of musical repetition.

As one of music’s most fundamental and definitive features, repetition unfolds across many different timescales, genres and techniques, and engenders a multitude of experiences and percepts. From the recapitulation in sonata form to self-similar cells in the late music of Morton Feldman, to the layering of repetitive loops in Electronic Dance Music, to cyclical quasi-repetition in African drumming: the notion of repetition penetrates all areas of music-making. In fields such as music production, industry, education, and performance, the notions of repetition and repeatability have similarly proven to be vital.

‘Again & Again’ sought to stimulate a broad, interdisciplinary conversation about musical repetition in its broadest and its most particular terms. The event invited perspectives from across all domains of music studies, including music history, music theory and analysis, ethnomusicology, composition, performance, popular music studies, and sound studies.

After an overwhelming response to the call for papers, a total of thirty-six papers were selected for presentation. These included research on topics as diverse as the experience of musical repetition in cognition and psychology, the cultural or socio-political significance of musical repetition, and the relationships between repetition as musical phenomenon and philosophical notion. The programme was divided into ten thematic sessions, all of which explored the phenomenon of musical repetition from entirely different angles, such as the taxonomy of repetition, its perception, its performativity, and the various challenges the phenomenon poses in music analysis.

The event attracted more than fifty international delegates to central London and received generous financial support from the City, University of London Music Department; the Society for Education, Music and Psychology Research (SEMPRE); and the Royal Musical Association (RMA). Highlights of the conference included a remote keynote presentation by cognitive scientist Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis (University of Arkansas), who spoke about how repetition plays the mind, and an on-site keynote presentation by media theorist Tilman Baumgärtel (Hochschule Mainz), who presented his research on loops as a cultural practice. The conference also featured a few interesting technical exercises, with one of the delegates joining the event via YouTube livestream.

In addition to that, the conference featured no less than three concerts. In his lunchtime recital, London-based pianist Mark Knoop explored multiple pathways of repetition, tracing a route from the music of Domenico Scarlatti to the works of contemporary composers, such as Bryn Harrison, Ana Sokolovic, and Tim Parkinson. During two evening concerts, City’s very own Pierrot Ensemble performed Simeon ten Holt’s austere Canto Ostinato, while London-based Explore Ensemble marked the end of the conference with a performance of Morton Feldman’s Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, in which endless repetition seems to lead to the suspension of time.

Besides being praised by several attendees as ‘the first conference that actually ran to schedule!’, ‘Again & Again’ turned out to be an inspiring event, which featured an inherently multi-disciplinary conversation on musical repetition. We heard from neuroscientists, media theorists, philosophers, computer scientists, cognitive psychologists, musicologists and ethnomusicologists, dance and film scholars, performers, and composers, to name a few. After two days of vigorous discussion and debate, it became clear that repetition is so much more than merely saying things twice.

Looking at the future, I hope to build on the debate that was sparked at ‘Again & Again’ through publishing and the creation of an (online?) network of repetition-theorists. Perhaps there could even be a repeat conference in other universities?

Christine Dysers is in the final stages of completing her PhD in Music at City, University of London. Her research focuses on the different types and effects of musical repetition in the oeuvre of Austrian composer Bernhard Lang.

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