A Study in Repetition

Connor Crowell, age 16

“Sacred Guitar and Violin Music of the Modern Aztecs” isn’t an album that was ever intended to be reviewed critically — it’s an anthropological record recorded in 1977 by two ethnomusicologists simply looking to catalog the ceremonial music of a dying culture. The album is listed as educational on some websites; it was released on the “Smithsonian Folkways” record label. None of this matters however, when one looks at the album objectively: nobody releases a record so that it isn’t listened to, so there is no reason that “Sacred Guitar and Violin Music of the Modern Aztecs” should not be critiqued as any other album would be.

This is music intended to be listened to during worship ceremonies, but I cannot imagine that even then it wouldn’t grate on the listener after two minutes. The average song on the album goes as follows:

1. Create a joyous violin or guitar riff.

2. Play that riff for eight minutes, or however long you feel like, with varying degrees of success as to whether or not you play the riff correctly each time.

3. That’s it.

There are two songs on the album that are not over five minutes long, and even they begin to wear on you before they end. Some may find the simplicity of these songs charming, a “part of our culture musically that is unexplored,” but any claim of the sort would be ridiculous — repetition is a staple of nearly all European-American music, from the 12 bar blues to the Passacaglias of Bach — we have a repeat sign in musical notation for a reason. The problem with “Sacred Guitar and Violin Music of the Modern Aztecs” isn’t that it’s repetitive, it’s that it never builds on top of that repetition: a repeating phrase with variations in it is an ostinato; a perpetually repeating phrase in the background of a song is a chaconne; a song that is just a repeating phrase is a boring song.

“Sacred Guitar and Violin Music of the Modern Aztecs” is meant as a snapshot of a cultural ceremony that is foreign to the lives and ears of its listeners. It is meant to encourage a diversification of musical tastes, to support a broadening of one’s anthropological and artistic horizons. The album, however, only convinces the listener of one thing: people didn’t go to these ceremonies for the music.