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:


Stephen Eckert said...

As pervasive as the ostinato rhythm is in the piece, it does not tire one's ear because it isn't the only focus at any given point. It both fills in gaps between interjections from oboe, bassoon, flute, trumpets and eventually whole sections as well as provides support and a rhythmic drive to the melodies during their solos. The fact at that it begins very quietly and grows over a very long period of time also allows for the rhythm to be heard in different timbres and qualities as played by different instruments/sections. The tune that also pervades the entire work is also super catchy, and the repetition of both this melody by different instrumentation and the rhythm seems to fit together and grow naturally.

Robert Humber said...

It is amazing how Ravel is able to use timbre, color and dynamic range to make one small idea sound engaging for 17 minutes! Another thing that can be manipulated in "ostinato-like patterns" is the rhythm/length of the ostinato. While by definition, it is a repeated motif, small rhythmic changes can bring much interest in repetitive pieces. Look no further than Philip Glass... a good example is the Mr. BOJANGLES section of Einstein on the Beach. The violin has a constantly repeating pattern pretty much throughout the entire movement but there are notes/beats added and subtracted along the way, giving the music an extra sense of urgency, surprise and interest.
I think it would be a great exercise for everybody to at least try to write a "Bolero" just to experiment with orchestration and color!

Jack Etchegary said...

I am immediately drawn in, as a percussionist, to the snare drum in this work. This is a very famous example of a snare part that requires a lot of stamina and focus. In fact, stick company Vic Firth makes drumsticks called SD2 - Bolero, literally designed for playing this piece, along with other instances of light orchestral playing, so it really is no joke that this snare part has captured a lot of attention of percussionists and even drum stick manufacturers!

Regarding the piece in it's entirety - yes, there is indeed a lot of repetition. The ostinato for me becomes quite boring to hear yet I can see how it could be much more engaging to play since it requires so much intricate attention. Ravel takes the melodic motif in this piece and shapes it in every which way, sharing it among various instruments, embellishing its thematic structure, etc. This is how I believe he engages listeners. The piece also builds gradually, for a long, long time, so there is also something being anticipated in that regard. For me, it is not the most exciting work ever - I listened to the clip for about 4 minutes until I decided to go ahead with writing a comment and turn off the music. However, I can definitely picture myself enjoying playing the snare drum in the piece for the challenge, and perhaps upon further analysis of the melodic aspects of the work, could find interesting discoveries which could further spark my interest in the piece.

Peter Cho said...

I agree with Robert's comment in that much of the musical interest of Bolero comes from the reorchestration of the same material. I think also that in an ostensibly counter-intuitive way that a lot of the interest in listening to music from this comes from the lack of change. Or perhaps a more positive way to put it is the extremely slow pace in which the music unfolds. Especially if you look at minimalist composers such as Glass, the music is meant to put you in a sort of trance. If you look at Bolero from the perspective of the time in which it was premiered, the idea of an ostinato for 16 minutes was extremely novel.
Furthermore, I think the strength of intent behind music like this elevates the experience of listening to it. For Bolero, Ravel wanted to explore the possibilities of making the most out of a single idea. Knowing this, I listen to the piece with much more of a focus on extremely subtle changes and I am given 16 minutes to ponder the seemingly limitless possibilities that can be borne out of a single musical idea. Other than being a very well written piece (writing this feels like an understatement, but I digress), I think the intent behind the writing is what distinguishes Bolero from some chum who copy and pastes on finale.

Benjamin Taylor said...

As a trombone player, there are many jokes with Bolero. Some people even say Bolero is the trombones most glorious piece with the beautiful melody and the range that makes the trombone so amazing.

I am actually just realizing that the rhythmic pattern used in Bolero is very similar to a bagpipe piece I know, Highland Cathedral. Even though the piece does not use the same techniques in Ravel's Bolero, such as re-orchestration or tone colour, it somehow still catches my ear and makes me entranced.

Josh McCarthy said...

Ah Bolero. This piece has haunted my dreams for four years now. I have always had the ostinato and melody stuck in my head. But when it comes down to it, the piece is rather well done, congrats Ravel. Just because there isn't very much going on in this piece layer-wise, there is still plenty going on musically. Considering how the entire piece is just one big build up to the final melody that is impressive. Writing minimalistically is very tough, since every note you write has to be perfect and have intention. I would love to try and sit down and try to write a minimalist piece like this or that of Max Richter's music. I probably wouldn't get very far before I went insane.

Cleary Maddigan said...
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Cleary Maddigan said...

I don't like Bolero... there. I said it. I find the ostinato boring. In fact I find most ostatinatos boring, especially sixteen minutes of it. Part of it probably comes from my early days as a cellist in school orchestra, being forced to play the same four notes over and over in the all too well known Cannon by Pachabel. What made it more outrageous was the fact that the viola had a better and more interesting part than I did. Although, i just spent about a hundred words ragging on the idea of the ostinato, I can see while people enjoy them, they are simple. Most ostinatos (at least the popular ones) dont require a whole lot of theoretical and compositional knowledge to undertand. This makes them more accesible to listeners. People often enjoy what they can understand. Whereas not as many people might enjoy or understand unity within the tone row choiced of Weberns music.

Naomi Pinno said...

Interesting topic! Ostinatios are very effective. I think they often either effectively ruin or effectively make a piece. I enjoy many pieces with ostinati, however I think they should be used sparingly and not simply for the joy of copying and pasting 339 times! I agree, pieces containing ostinatos are often predictable, however when writing for a relaxed audience or children it might be just the thing the composer needs because it will allow the listener to follow loosely without paying too much attention. Also, I love the toothpick!

Pallas A said...

I actually really like ostinati and I think they have a bad rap. Their repetitive nature ensures that there is always something familiar present aurally, and its hypnotic effect allows other musical ideas to develop in a way that they couldn't under normal circumstances. When listening to music with an onstinato, I imagine an image that is very blurry, and as more elements are incorporated onto the ostinato, the picture begins to focus. As the orchestration gets thicker and the musical content becomes less straight forward (either harmonically or melodically), it never feels like a different picture because the ostinato unifies the section.

However, I do have to admit that playing ostinati are not fun at all and can be very physically demanding. In the first movement of Shostakivich's Leningrad Symphony, the snare ostinato goes on for over 300 measures (like Bolero). In the score, they even suggest having 2-3 snare player rotate playing since it requires an insane amount of focus. With regard to musicians' distain for this kind of music, I sympathize with the fact that that players may not enjoy having to focus on 2 measures of rhythm for 20 minutes or waiting 200 measures to play. Physical burdens aside, I have very little sympathy for people complaining about a boring line. Sometimes you have to play very repetitive part in a bigger plan for the it to be executed well.

Zachary Greer said...

The power of a good ostinato is quite remarkable. They're also incredibly malleable (meaning so much possibility for variation within), like a seed that can infinitely grow, OR, allow other things to grow out from it. Often times they can feel like a foundation, or a blanket sound that has a feeling of perpetual motion. With that laid down on the bottom, lots of other things can be effectively placed on top of it, but they can unfold slowly, without there being a stagnant feeling because of that hypnotic feeling of forward motion. If you don't do anything with it then YES, it WILL be boring. In Boléro, Ravel is constantly variating the orchestration, and really the entire piece is like one big crescendo. Gradually he makes the orchestration more dense, more instruments are given the melody, until eventually we hear it in multiple sections and quite forcefully in the brass at the end, giving it this grandiose feel. Ravel manages to make the piece always feel like it's building to something, so the listener is always wanting the next step.

Ostinati are also major tool in film music. If I just mention Hans Zimmer, can we all agree that he uses ostinati like it's going out of style (but it never does). Say what you want about Hans, but he's one of the smartest film composers to ever work in the business. He knows how to use ostinati incredibly well. Just listen to any of the Batman scores from Christopher Nolan's trilogy. And they're not just simply ostinatos. The concept may be basic in theory, but what Hans does is he uses them in interesting instruments, especially percussion. But, it's definitely not just hans. Lots of other film composers use it. I could name several, but I'll just leave it with the one and only Ennio Morricone. In particular his main theme for 1969 film H2S.

Anyway... Ostinati are cool.