• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Repetition is a tAgora phenomenon

What do we mean by “repeating?” We mean to do something again, and to re-do that something as exactly as possible. The smaller the variation (if any), the better; if there’s too much change, the second instance can’t qualify as a repetition of the first. With repetition we strive toward a linear sequence of identical acts, all in a row and each taking its meaning from the foregoing instance(s). Think of n, n+1, n+2, n+3, and so forth.

In looking at how repetition works in its home marketplace of communication, the tAgora, let’s consider a few instances, ranging from simple to more complex. After that, we’ll examine its opposite—recurrence, an oAgora and eAgora phenomenon, providing some illustrations of its dynamic function.

1. Repeating for emphasis

Perhaps the simplest case and use of repetition is the attempt to emphasize a point we’re trying to make, to underline its importance rhetorically. We all remember too many over-crafted political speeches, for example, in which candidates tried to move their audiences by citing and re-citing a particular point or issue, trying to drum their favored position into our heads with a particular catch-phrase or sound-byte. Many of us have written memos or essays or personal letters whose mission was to persuade their reader(s) by repeating a policy or idea or belief, again often using the same catch-phrase so that the cumulative force of linear repetition is maximized. This is classic repetition, where each iteration takes its meaning from the preceding iteration(s). And because this practice depends on leading an audience or reader through a planned sequence of fixed things – rather than navigating and activating option-driven networks – it is also a classic tAgora strategy.

2. Repetitive practice makes perfect performance

Classical music performances are in one sense always misleading. We go to the concert hall to hear a Beethoven symphony, for example, and are thrilled by the virtuoso, tightly integrated playing of the strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. But what we experience then and there is only the performance, the very tip of the iceberg. What’s lost to us as an audience for that event is the weeks or even months of repetitive rehearsal – of exploring and practicing small passages within the larger score over and over again, of partial iterations during “sectionals,” when the conductor concentrates on synchronizing and drawing out the violins, violas, cellos, and basses, for example. Repetition is the hidden soul of this long, arduous preparation for the momentary experience of performance. And, of course, everything is tethered to a fixed score (with the conductor’s interpretation, to be sure) that all players pore over and attempt to master through multiple enactments, private and group-based. Any departure from the linear sequence of “re-playings” that constitute rehearsal can only be counterproductive. Behind a successful, real-time, audience-involved performance lies the tAgora process of rendering – and re-rendering – text.

3. Refrains rationalize by repeating

Or take the example of a simple refrain in poetry, perhaps the earliest refrain in the English language, located at strategic sites in the Anglo-Saxon poem Deor. This lament treats the sad fate of the poem’s namesake, who has lost his position as court poet to another oral singer, or scop, known as Heorrenda. Deor chooses to tell the story of his demise and present misery by indirection. He cites several instances of tragedy and lost hope from the body of Germanic traditional lore, and then closes each elegiac cameo with this refrain:

Ðæs ofereode,       þisses swa mæg.
That passed,       so may this.

As different as the several mini-stories are—involving captivity, death, rape, drowning, and other cruel events—each is anchored by this same repeating refrain. Very importantly for our purposes, each instance takes its force from those that precede it. The inherently repetitive refrain serves in effect as an echo that rationalizes the diversity of the episodes. Repetition signals and creates unity within that diversity.

Recurrence is an oAgora and eAgora phenomenon

In the oAgora and eAgora, recurrence is the governing rule and repetition can’t exist. What do we mean by “recurrence”? We mean an action or event that occurs as a reflex of the situation at hand, and then recurs naturally whenever that situation arises again, if ever. Such recurrences aren’t linear in their logic; they don’t depend on each other and they don’t speak directly, or at least primarily, to one another. Instead they depend on an idiomatic response to a recognized scenario. To put it another way, recurrence takes place in the arenas of oral tradition and the web, while repetition is a creature of the textual arena.

Once again, let’s look at a few examples to help explain this categorical distinction between the oAgora and eAgora on the one hand, and the tAgora on the other.

1. Language itself is a fundamentally recurrent medium.

To take the simplest case first, consider how everyday language works. Embedded in social context, you constantly draw on your navigational abilities – not your rote memory – to work your way through a day’s experience in social life. If you use the “same” phrase twice during that day, it’s not because you recall the first conversation and seek to parrot what you said before. Unless you specifically set out to quote yourself (a textual strategy), you’re not striving to copy or iterate or rehash. Phrases turn up because the situation calls for them to emerge – via recurrence, not repetition.

The idiomatic nature of recurrence is perhaps most obvious when the reflex in question makes little or no literal sense. College students, including my own children, widely practice a telephone-answering ritual that illustrates this phenomenon. When the phone rings, the first words out of the mouth of the person who answers are very often “Not much,” in response to an initial “So what’s up?” or the equivalent on the other end. Although the answerer might actually be straining to complete a term paper, heatedly discussing international politics with a roommate, or running a marathon, the canonical reply would still be “Not much.” Nonsensical? Not at all, because within the focused idiom of the telephone call that mysterious reply has the force of something like “OK, I’m here; what do you want?” And the superficially illogical phrase will emerge not because it builds on the last telephone call, or the one before that, but because it’s what the social contract of language calls for in this particular situation. In short, “Not much” recurs; it doesn’t repeat.

2. Recurrence in jazz: improvising along a linkmap

Simply put, if jazz players repeat it just isn’t jazz. Unlike Western classical music, for instance, jazz isn’t score-bound. Instead, it requires that instrumentalists improvise along a core melody, navigating the linkmap of the tune in question and practicing variation within limits. In this scenario no two performances can ever be identical – even if the personnel and the song are precisely the same – and no single performance, however much admired, will ever be the original or final version of the song. Jazz performances amount to recurrence, not repetition.

Consider Pat Metheny’s “When We Were Free,” a five-minute, 39-second version of which is available on the album Quartet. If you decide to play this recording (a frozen performance) a dozen times, the last 11 will amount to repetitions of the first experience. No variation whatsoever: the recording memorializes one possible navigation of the basic melody undertaken at a specific time and place, and will never change. Although that performance itself involved rule-governed improvisation, it’s now an artifact, static and incapable of morphing.

Not so the more than 12-minute version of the same song that I heard live at Columbia, Missouri’s Blue Note venue in 2004. Perhaps spurred on by the enthusiasm of the audience, Metheny soared far beyond what he attempted in the Quartet recording, probing many more dimensions of the basic linkmap and providing an even more imaginative extrapolation of his fundamental musical ideas. But was this 12-minute performance actually the “same” song in spite of the differences in length, depth, and so forth? Yes, certainly; within jazz conventions “While We Were Free” happened again. It recurred. But unlike the last 11 times I listened to the recording, that performance had nothing to do with repetition.

3. OT performances recur

During our fieldwork in Serbia we encountered an epic singer, Živomir Stojanović, who proudly displayed a crudely hand-edited booklet as the source of the oral poem he was about to perform. In other words, he identified a published textual artifact that he was not only able to read but had himself also modified, presumably according to personal preference, as the source of what we were about to record. This unexpected scenario seemed to call our understanding of composition-in-performance – variation within limits, in particular – into serious question. From the perspective of the Pathways Project, if a guslar can read and edit texts, isn’t he depending more on tAgora than on oAgora dynamics? Isn’t his performance more repetition than recurrence?

But closer examination soon revealed our initial impression to be off the mark. As victims of deeply ingrained textual ideology, we automatically assumed that this performance – along with every other performance of this song, for that matter – would simply amount to a verbatim iteration of that same hand-edited, published text. As citizens of a textual marketplace, we unthinkingly gave first priority to the artifact without considering whether an iron-clad, inviolable connection between the text and the performance(s) really existed.

When we backed up an ideological step and checked our recording of the recorded performance against a photocopy of the guslar’s “personal edition,” we noticed that he didn’t follow his supposed source much at all. The first few lines were similar, but after that point he diverged, added, subtracted, and substituted, fashioning something quite different from the textual template. To put it more precisely, the singer wasn’t trekking through a text; he was navigating the web of his poetic tradition. And in that fundamental respect his performance was most certainly an example of recurrence rather than repetition.