Song Series #13: “A soft spot for repetition”

At the ALSCW Zoom event in which I interviewed Zsolt and Marcell Bajnai and they gave a performance, I asked Marcell about the repetitions and subtle variations in his songs. He began by saying that repetition is part of the foundation of songs. His comment, and Kurt Vile’s song “One Trick Ponies,” which has the line “cuz i’ve always had a soft spot for repetition,” brought out thoughts for this piece.

It is difficult to think of a song that does not involve repetition of some kind. There are repetition of melody, rhythm, refrain. There are repetitions of phrases within a verse, of words within a line. There are repetitions of syntax, musical phrases, chords, syllables, single consonants or vowels, guttural sounds. Why is repetition, when done well, essential to a song?

Some of it goes to our childhood. Remember how babies love to play the same games over and over, hear the same stories over and over, sing the same songs again and again? You see them anticipate the next word, the next peak. The fun lies in the anticipation of that known and beloved moment. Adults know that kind of anticipation too. That’s partly why I love to return to favorite songs, poems, stories; I can’t wait to hear that phrase, to see that turn of words again.

Also, repetition allows us to take the songs into ourselves. Within a short while, we know them well enough to sing at least part of them to ourselves. Soon afterward, we know the whole thing, and after that, we have room to hear more details and to imagine the song being played in different ways. They become part of our waking and walking. There’s discovery too: the repetition allows us to hear the changes and variations, which would not stand out if the song as a whole were changing all the time.

I will begin with a classic form of repetition in a song: the verse/refrain structure, where the refrain repeats more or less exactly, and the verses change. (There are many songs where the refrain changes, where the verse contains repetitions, or where verse and refrain cannot be separated, but let’s start here.) The Velvet Underground’s song “Pale Blue Eyes” not only keeps to this structure but does something extraordinary with it. This slow, gentle song carries you along, verse through verse, refrain after refrain, building a story of forbidden love. You don’t realize the heartbreak until you’re right in the middle of it.

The refrain seems simple: “Linger on your pale blue eyes.” But what does it mean, even grammatically? Is someone lingering on the pale blue eyes, or are the pale blue eyes lingering on (enduring)? Is it a command, a yearning, or a statement? The phrase seems to float, like a subjunctive wish, sometimes coming closer to the present, sometimes receding away. Lou Reed’s voice cracks on the “on” itself, the word that is drawn out the longest.

The guitars, bass, tambourine, Hammond organ, and voice carry the song in such an understated way that you hardly notice the sound growing fuller. There are no dramatic shifts, just a sound and a story wrapping around you.

The second song I am including here, Péter Jakab’s “Te vagy az ellenség bennem” (“You are the enemy inside me”) has a different kind of repetition entirely: the repetition, over and over, of that single title sentence. I know nothing about Péter Jakab except that he is the frontman of Jazzékiel, that he released his first solo album, Nem fontos személy, in February 2021, and that Norbert Kristóf (who, along with Szabolcs Puha, recorded Cz.K. Sebő’s EP Junction) released a remix of this particular song. This kind of repetition is millennia old, part of prayer and incantation. Just as when you say a word many times in succession, it starts to sound strange or holy, so when you do this in a song, you become more detached from the words, and at the same time more involved in them. They take on a meaning of their own, apart from where they started out. This song is wonderfully surprising and haunting.

The next song, Leonard Cohen’s “The Partisan,” has yet a different kind of repetition: that of syntactic rhythm. I learned just recently, when listening to Jeffrey Davison’s Shrunken Planet program on WFMU, that Cohen didn’t actually write this song. (I should have realized this long ago; I have had the album Songs from a Room for many years, and it was one of the handful that I brought it to Hungary.) The song was originally written by Anna Marly during World War II. It is not clear to me whether she wrote the original lyrics herself, in Russian, or whether the lyrics were originally written by Emmanuel d’Astier, but the music was Marly’s, and the song became an anthem of the French Resistance. In the 1960s, Hy Zaret adapted it and translated it into English (changing some of the words and meanings). Leonard Cohen’s version is based on Zaret’s—but he simplifies the texture and adds a few verses of the French lyrics to it. If you listen to Marly’s, Zaret’s, and Cohen’s versions, you can hear how Cohen draws from both of his predecessors but gives the new version a soul of its own. (That’s another kind of repetition right there.)

The syntactic repetition is this: in each of the verses, the first three lines constitute an idea, and then the fourth line responds to it somehow. In Hebrew cantillation, there would be an etnachta trop, a melodic phrase indicating a semicolon-like caesura, between the third and fourth lines. Here you can hear it in the vocal pause, the stretch of rumbling guitar, between the last word of the third line and the first word of the fourth.

When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender
This I could not do
I took my gun and vanished.

I have changed my name so often
I’ve lost my wife and children
But I have many friends
And some of them are with me

And so on, up to these aching words:

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing
Through the graves the wind is blowing
Freedom soon will come
Then we’ll come from the shadows

There’s also repetition through the translation itself, or the almost-translation; when the French verses come along, they seem like a distant memory, with the backing vocals and the feeling of wind. And just like memory and wind, the “wind” verse comes back in English at the end, and within it, the repetition of “wind” and “blowing.”

Speaking of translation, this past Sunday was Poetry Day in Hungary, and I had the occasion to think about how poems get translated into song. This often involves a kind of repetition: the songwriter might repeat words and lines that occur just once in the original poem, and may rearrange them somewhat too. This repetition and rearrangement in music gives something new to the meaning. One example of this is Marcell Bajnai’s reworking in song, released on Sunday, of Krisztián Peer’s poem “Félteni magadtól” (“Fearing Yourself”). It would be too complicated to explain and translate everything here, but I particularly like how he saves two lines until a little later in the song, and then again for the very end:

Minek simogatsz, amikor dicsekszem?
Szereted a vesztes ügyeket?

(Why do you caress me when I brag?
Do you love lost causes?)

This not only highlights the two lines, which have everything to do with the title, but also brings everything together. To me, it is supposed to be this way.

Cz.K. Sebő’s song “On a Fine Day,” whose lyrics are the János Pilinszky poem “Egy szép napon” in Géza Simon’s beautiful English translation, does something similar, though different, through repetition.

It’s the misplaced tin spoon,
the bric-a-brac of misery
I always looked for,
hoping that on a fine day
I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.
Always, as always
I wished to be back.

After singing through the poem, the song returns to the four lines,

I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.

That ends the song, so that those lines become the return itself: the return to the words becomes the return to the old house, and so I, the listener, have returned to the house without even realizing it.

This is just a dip into the topic of repetition in songs, which gave me a chance to bring up two old favorites, a recent favorite, and two that I heard for the first time this past week. I look forward to hearing them all many more times.

I corrected my translation of the Krisztián Peer lines on July 2.

To read the other pieces in the Song Series, go here.

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  1. Kolorádó, Home and Not-Home, and More | Take Away the Takeaway

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

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