Thursday, January 02, 2020


My discovery of a performance of Corelli's La Follia on recorder and harpsichord (Michala Petri and Mahan Esfahani) led me to recordings of follias by Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI: La Folia, 1490-1701, and Altre Follie, 1500-1750. What I thought was one composer's set of variations turned out to be a tradition more than two hundred years long.

Though everyone improvised over pretty much the same bass line, each composer brought their own quirks. It was a wonderful reminder that there is great value in saying the same old thing, even just slightly differently.
It was reinforced when I read James Hatch's recent essay, My Semester With the Snowflakes, describing his experience as a 52-year Yale freshman, former Navy SEAL with a Purple Heart. I've read something like this before, I'm pretty sure -  military vet meets Ivy League - but the previous essay by no means obviated this one: this was similar, but different; more of the same that deepened my understanding.

And at just the same time, I started reading Karl Ove Knausgård's essay accompanying Stephen Gill's book of photographs, The Pillar. It begins:
A pillar knocked into the ground next to a stream in a flat, open landscape, trees and houses visible in the distance, beneath a vast sky. That is the backdrop to all of Stephen Gill´s photographs in this book. We see the same landscape in spring and summer, in autumn and winter, we see it in sunshine and rain, in snow and wind. Yet there is not the slightest monotony about these pictures, for in almost every one there is a bird, and each of these birds opens up a unique moment in time. We see something that has never happened before and will never happen again. That it takes place in the midst of a landscape characterised by repetition, in which time is cyclical, sets up a keen existential dynamic: on the one hand, everything has happened before, there’s nothing new under the sun; on the other, every moment is unique and carries the hallmark of the miracle: what happens happens only once and never again.
The highlighted passage encapsulates my experience with the follias, and the essays: it may be a slant repetition and not boldly original, but yet every new variation is new.

(These thoughts are just about composition. Performers always take something that's been made before, and make it new every time. The blues may have something of both.)

P.S. Just heard the podcast Baby Shark on TwentyThousandHerz - it's all about repetition and variation. See especially the analysis by Charlie Harding from about 12:14.

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