Riffing on the refrain

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On January 21, on ABC 702 Sydney, I heard a follow up to a story about the music of Jimi Hendrix (see link below). The presenter – Linda Mottram – was talking with a young musician about why Jimi Hendrix’s music was so powerful for him. This musician – Will – was 14 years old. He was not alive during Jimi Hendrix’s time, but with such incredible neatness, identified a ‘Sharp nine’ chord as the distinguishing feature of Jimi Hendrix’s music. He played a chord that is in a couple of Hendrix’s songs – Foxy Lady and Voodoo Child. Then, he played another similar-sounding segment of music, which – he revealed when Linda Mottram asked which Hendrix song it came from – was his, ‘something he’d come up with’ that was based on Hendrix’s sound.

That chord, that ‘sound’ – that included the chord and other parts of Hendrix’s/Will’s music – formed a refrain, in the way that Deleuze and Guattari (1987, p. 356) describe a refrain as ‘any aggregate of matters of expression that draws a territory and develops into territorial motifs and landscapes’. This is a concept that has my attention at the moment, and, because of its musical connotations, the conversation on the radio captured my interest.

There was something recognisable and ‘same’ in the chords and the music, yet, also different each time. My interest in this was intensified when Will said he played on the same brand of guitar as Hendrix – a Fender – and had the same type of amp – a Marshall. It turns out that Hendrix was left-handed, but had his guitar strung as if it was going to be used by a right-handed musician playing left-handed. I’m not a musician, so, how this stringing would have worked, and what newness or distinctiveness it would have produced, are lost on me. What I could sense though, was that something distinctive was produced in the relations between Hendrix, his guitar, his left-handedness working back on right-handedness and back to left-handedness (and) then Will, in another time-space, not left-handed, but with the same amp, playing (some of) the same chords and (some of the) same music, and producing something similar, but different. Recognisable as somehow Hendrix and somehow not.

In the ‘(some of) the same chords’ in my sentence above, I recognise the refrain – it is only ‘some of’ the ‘same chords’ – there is already (and always…) a hint of the new assemblages into which refrains flow. Just as Will has deterritorialised Jimi Hendrix’s chords, he is reterritorialising other music – Will’s music – that at once contains the Jimi Hendrix assemblage of chords, stringing, guitar brand and amp – but passes into, and forms, other assemblages. Jimi Hendrix’s music is powerful for Will, not because of some suspended Jimi-ness that he is accessing, but, because of the way Hendrix’s chords allow him to do new things, to make new sound, that at once contains but is more than the ‘Sharp nine’.

Hear the interview: Does Jimi Hendrix still matter?

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