A friend sent me a link to an article in Aeon Magazine about repetition in music. It’s an interesting read, though it didn’t go into a lot of areas that I wish it had.
Not very far into the article is a recording of human speech, and the author makes the point that if you extract a moment or two of human speech and subject it to repetition within a metrical framework, the ear assigns to it a number of musical characteristics that make it satisfying to listen to.
This reminded me of a concert that I heard back in the mid-1980s by the composer and electric guitarist Scott Johnson that, as they say, really blew my mind. I was delighted to discover that someone has posted the recording of the piece I heard on YouTube, and I commend it to your listening pleasure. It you are like me, listening to it will sensitize you to the hidden music in the random human and environmental sounds that accompany us every day.
The piece is called “John Somebody,” and it is for electric guitar and pre-recorded tape. It uses speech and laugh fragments to create a hybrid work that combines careful manipulation of the source material – “You know who’s in New York? You remember that guy… J-John somebody? He was a– he was sort of a–…” – with rock-style improvisation on guitar.
The first time I heard it, at a new music festival at Jacob’s Pillow in 1986, I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. It doesn’t have the same impact on me now that it did back then. A lot of the techniques that were so innovative (and arduous) back then – cutting pieces of recording tape and splicing them back together – are now ridiculously easy to do with digital looping.
But see if you aren’t charmed by the first 2 minutes of “John Somebody.” Then, listen to about 1’30” of the final section when the composer captures a very musical laugh and gives it an almost fugal treatment. I think it’ll make you feel good.