Thursday, March 30, 2017

Ostinatos; making a lot from a little (1. Boléro)

An ostinato is a musical idea that repeats immediately (as opposed to returning later in the composition) and persistently (it usually is repeated more than once). It can be melodic or rhythmic, and is usually fairly short – one to four bars – but it can be longer. Kids love 'em.

And not just kids; it is widely used in many musical styles and periods.

The attractiveness of ostinati for composers is easy to understand; you can generate a lot of material from a relatively short musical idea, and, if you do it well, audiences may respond well to the music.

With the advent of computer-notation software, and, more specifically, the "copy" and "paste" commands in those programmes, it has become extremely easy to use ostinati in compositions. And, with programmes like GarageBand, which comes bundled with every Mac computer, you don't even need any musical knowledge to write loop-based music; in this context, "loop" and ostinato mean the same thing.

The downside of repetition, however, is that too much can make a composition overly predictable, unless the composer finds ways of varying, interrupting, growing, evolving, or otherwise adding interest to repeated patterns; music that is overly predictable can lose the listener's interest.

An example of how to successfully repeat an idea to an almost absurd degree is Ravel's Boléro. It uses the two-bar rhythmic ostinato figure below throughout the work; this two-bar rhythmic unit never stops repeating until the work's (very loud) conclusion, about sixteen minutes later:

There is even further repetition within this two-bar ostinato: The rhythm on beat one is used on the first two beats of each bar; four of the ostinato's six beats are identical. This is repetitiveness ad absurdum, and I won't stand for it!!! [Just kidding, of course; the piece is awesome.]

The above pattern is repeated 339 consecutive times in Boléro (yup, I counted), which means that the rhythm on beats one and two of each bar is heard 1,356 times.

That's a lot of repetition!

One can argue that the uninterrupted repetition of the same short rhythm for sixteen minutes in a composition is a bit much – or a lot much – but Boléro is Ravel's most popular piece, so clearly, millions of people have no issue with it. Indeed, its popularity may in part be due to this rhythmic ostinato!

So, the question I have for you is this: What makes it work? What does Ravel do to keep our interest despite the 339 ostinato repetitions? Why do audiences cheer enthusiastically following the conclusion of the work, rather like sports fans cheering an exciting overtime win by their favorite team, instead of standing up to boo the repetitiveness?

I once listened to a radio documentary on Ravel's Boléro in which orchestral musicians were asked to give their thoughts on the work. Many said that they don't look forward to performing it because they perform it so often, there is such a high degree of repetitiveness, and, in some cases, once the piece starts they have to wait an extremely long time before they get any notes to play. However, once  rehearsals begin, they gradually feel their resistance melting and become ensnared by the hypnotic power and beauty of the work, to the point where they feel like standing up and cheering along with the audience after reaching the triumphant final chord.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Here's a performance of Boléro, conducted by an unshaven man with a toothpick instead of a baton,  if you wish to have a listen: