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.


  1. What a beautifully written piece. I know the feeling but I never could have put it in such eloquent words. Thanks for that much need respite.

  2. Thanks Annie. Encouraging myself to write a blog entry almost every day means I can't only be pissed off all the time.

  3. You really are a gifted writer, Ish. I tend to skim over your political stuff - let's just say that your politics and mine differ - but it's pieces like this that keep me coming back to this blog.

    I also find that certain music evokes images of places I've been, or people I've been with, when I heard it. I've kept most of my old LPs - there's a tactile pleasure in handling and reading the LP covers that bring back not only memories of the music itself, but even of where I was when I bought it! Being able to acquire music online is so fast and easy - and thanks to various blogs I've discovered a great deal of music I'd have never known otherwise - but I really miss the many hours I used to spend browsing through record stores, reading the record covers, choosing one or two to buy, and then rushing home to listen to my new purchases. I guess browsing through blogs and online stores, and downloading my selections, is more or less equivalent to what I used to do, but in many ways it's not nearly as fun. The music is always there, of course, but I miss the process of discovery.

    I'm not familiar with that Garbarek album, but after reading your description I'm going to have to check it out.

  4. Hey MrBill nice to hear from you. I'm glad there's something here for you.

    Record stores!!! It's so weird that that experience has virtually vanished. I used to make a round of them every week. Mostly all gone. And I was just bemoaning how teeny tiny the type is in CD jackets, when you get one. I so agree with you about the pleasures of LP sleeves. "tactile" is the perfect word.

  5. Amen, brother. I hit my peak in LP buying when I was in college at the University of Washington. There were a number of good record stores within walking distance of the school - Tower Records (which was pretty good for a chain) and several independents. My favorite was Cellophane Square, which sold mostly used records; Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows worked behind the counter, although I didn't connect the dude with the band until later. Instead of using bags, CS wrapped your purchases in newspaper; many times I'd attend my afternoon classes carrying a square, newspaper-wrapped package after having gone shopping during lunch. I'm smiling at the memory - I hadn't thought about this for a long time.

    I could go on, but - time to turn in. Thanks for the opportunity to reminisce.