Wednesday, February 09, 2011
Music & Memory
I love my iTunes. My home PC is clunky and annoying and in need of replacement (yes I am knocking on wood), but what a pleasure to conjure up so much music right from my desktop. Even with tens of thousands of songs on my iTunes it's only a fraction of my music collection, but I've organized most of it into accessible playlists and when I sit down at the puter I page through trying to match my mood.
The other day I started playing through my "ECM" playlist: it's all songs and some full albums from the German ECM label, which started in the 1970s with a vision of supremely intellectual mostly instrumental music rooted in jazz but branching far out from there in several rarified directions. As I was playing songs, mostly long introspective ones without much in the way of hooks and whose melodies are not the kind of things you can sing or dance along to, I kept having these weird half flashbacks. I know most of these records well, having carted around their records and then CDs for years before loading them into my computer. They weren't simply memories: They were angular flashes of light, of remembered instants and smells and temperatures.
It wasn't like I remembered where I was or who I was with when I heard a song repeated from some earlier decade. It was something much less distinct and both more subtle and more real. It was a weird sense memory. I remember buying Jan Garbarek's "Dis" album sometime in the very late seventies when I lived in Chicago. It's a memorable record: along with Ralph Towner's distinctive guitar and Garbarek's unmistakable soprano saxophone, Garbarek plays an instrument he calls a wind harp. I don't remember how he actually described the instrument on my long-replaced vinyl record sleeve, but I pictured some strange device set out on nordic ice causing the ceaseless impersonal arctic wind to reveal its sensitive inner vibration. It's a drone sound on the record that is unforgettable. I must have played this record hundreds of times, though certainly years have gone by (you know that makes me a certain age to be able to say that) when it was silent and untouched. But the other day when the song "Vandrere" from "Dis" came up through my computer speakers (Bose, thank you), I remembered -- no, I felt -- some particularly clear winter sunlight coming through a morning window in Chicago. I remembered not which apartment I was in but how I was standing and where the sound was coming from. It wasn't a complete enough feeling to be nostalgia. But it was like brushing a ghost from the past.
"Seriously Deep" from Eberhard Weber's "Silent Feet" album came up in the playlist. Slow bass and piano lines converge before a minor key groove kicks in, riding cymbals and a spiralling soprano horn filling the empty spaces. One would not mistake this for American jazz: it's very European. Make that very northern European. And yet there is some weird moment when I've felt this music before. A previous moment of late-night or afternoon introspection. I don't remember the thoughts this music conjured up so many years ago, but I feel the catalyst, this music, as a strangely physical sensation.
Looking over my iTunes playlist I'm reminded that I have a playlist actually called "Nostalgia." But even here, these are not the songs of a memorable concert or road trip or love affair. These are sounds, on this list mostly from albums lost to the mists reclaimed via downloads, strangely obscure and privately experienced. There's a handful of Brazilian albums I failed to convince anyone else to love (Zeze Motta!). There's a haunting lost album by Mercedes Sosa from the 1970s. There's an Aretha Franklin ballad ("As Long As You Are There") that never made it to CD. There's Grace Slick's utterly cheeseball solo album from the early 1980s "Software." There's soul songs I discovered as a little boy that my parents disdained. These songs conjure up not exactly memories but feelings.
There are certainly songs from the past that have more specific meanings and associations. The relationship bookended by Con Funk Shun's "Make It Last" and Lisa Loeb's "Stay," well let's just say the pain has drained out of those songs. The first song I heard a drag queen lip-synch (Linda Clifford's "Don't Give It Up"); the songs from the first huge concert I ever went to (Earth Wind & Fire!); the glorious song that will always reminds me of late 1970s house parties and a boy I had a mad crush on (Ronnie Laws' "Always There"). Those are nostalgia.
But a certain old disco song comes on, and there I am stepping over a threshhold in my memory, not remembering a specific night or lost or surviving friends, but feeling the air change from outside to inside, feeling again anticipation and vibrating energy, blinking color lights in another room, a familiar beat beat beat, strings sweeping me up in a moment of transcendence.
Jarringly I return to earth. The light shifts in sound.