Christine Dysers

City, University of London

Waltzing with chaos: drifting repetition and dynamic attending in the music of Bernhard Lang

Repetition is perhaps one of music’s most fundamental, definitive and cross-cultural features. When it comes to addressing the issues of perception and cognition linked to musical repetition, however, the tools currently at hand in music analysis are rather limited. In search of classification and generalisation, most analytical methods portray repetition as an element of stability and sameness. Nevertheless, empirical evidence by cognitive psychologists such as Leon Jacobovits (1962) and Diana Deutsch (1995), and musical experiments by minimalist composers such as Steve Reich (1965; 1966), suggest that in some cases, repetition may be experienced as difference. It is the paradox of musical repetition: that in certain situations, the identical comes to be perceived as different.

But how can one think of musical repetition beyond the safe confinement of the established music-analytical tools and methods currently at hand? Using the oeuvre of Austrian composer Bernhard Lang (°1957) as a case-study, and drawing on the differential ontology of French poststructuralist philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) I will set out some strategies for exploring the issue of musical repetition on both an analytical and a philosophical level. I will argue that Deleuzian philosophy may provide a fresh and not in the least dynamic perspective on musical questions of difference and multiplicity, such as those posed in the oeuvre of Bernhard Lang.
Lang proudly describes himself as a ‘repetition perpetrator’: a ‘loop composer’ in the broadest sense of the term. While his oeuvre references a broad variety of sonic environments, ranging from contemporary composition to free jazz, hip-hop, and turntablism, his works are mainly characterized by the ample usage of literal and near-literal repetition. In Lang’s 2010 string quartet Monadologie IX: The Anatomy of Disaster, a small snippet of Joseph Haydn’s Sieben letzten Worte (1787) is subjected to an elaborate computer-generated looping process. From the score, extended sections of repetition and micro-variation can be abstracted. Although the score hence suggests a high degree of sameness or similarity, my perception is one of dissimilarity, divergence, and ultimately, difference. My experience of listening to this work is, in other words, comparable to that of looking through a kaleidoscope: although the object of my perception remains stable and invariable, I perceive it as fluid and ever-changing.

In an attempt to account for this discrepancy between my understanding of repetition as a concept, and my experience of repetition as a phenomenon, this paper focuses largely on issues of metre and its experience in both cognition and perception. I contend that the perceptual experience of decentring, drift and disorientation that arises when listening to this piece, is made more salient by the tension between the historically implicit expectations of metre encapsulated in the Haydn sample, and the ways in which Lang’s looping processes subvert those expectations. Drawing on Justin London’s theory of dynamic attending (2004), I argue that Lang’s looping processes give rise to philosophical notions of difference and non-identity.

Keywords: musical repetition, auditory perception, metre, philosophy


Christine Dysers is a PhD candidate in music at City, University of London. After obtaining her master’s degrees in musicology at the University of Leuven (2012), and in cultural management at the University of Antwerp (2013), she was affiliated as a research fellow with both University of Leuven and Royal Conservatoire Antwerp. She specialises in music of the 20th and 21st centuries, with strong interests in music philosophy and the political. She has published several articles. In 2015, she contributed a chapter in a volume on protest music and dissident composers. Her current work focuses on the use of musical repetition in the oeuvre of Austrian composer Bernhard Lang. Christine is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and a member of Sound Practice and Research at City (SPARC).