Monday, 22 July 2013

Music, Memory and the Mind

Eine Kleine LP Music
I've arrived at the time in life when memory becomes an issue, namely the point when for some occasional, inexplicable reason, names of people, particularly celebs., just disappear from mind. I can sense the required information tucked away just out of sight, but for the life of me I can't get at it, until, bingo, when my mental back is turned it pops back into view like a naughtly little hobgoblin, having a laugh. Memory becomes for most people a compelling subject. On a mundane level, that's perhaps why Eggheads is such a smash hit TV show - how can they remember so much and seemingly recall it at will?

On a more sublime level, memory plays a huge roll in making music. Not only for every rehearsal and concert do you have to remember to take music stand, music, instrument, loose change, route map, remember timing and what to wear (and, nota bene, hand your music in again after the show), but there is all that musical notation to remember, too. When reading a piece of music that has been well practised, the process is of using the written notations as memory prompts enabling recall of all that musical information from the unconscious mind.

It's what goes on in the unconscious which is the significant factor. Musicians talk of "muscle memory", embedding technique into the fingers and letting them subsequently do the talking. That takes hours of practice. Describing it as muscle memory is a way of interpreting what it feels like when playing, recalling music spontaneously, as if ones fingers held the memory, but in fact it's the unconscious mind, the mysterious brain that is doing this work. Having done the practice, performance becomes a mind game, of allowing the unconscious to speak, unfettered by any thoughts of self-doubt or distraction. This is the inner game of music. It is the same hobgoblin brain game as when that forgotten name pops back up effortlessly and of its own will. You can't do it; it does it to you.

I have been creating a music studio in my basement which was originally one of those storage dumping grounds for household memorabilia and useless but potentially useful objects. As part of this process I've dusted down my collection of LPs both classical and rock. I discovered first of all a treasure trove of memories, but also that sleeve notes are a fantastic source of potted information. The cover I picked up first was a recording of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik". Apparently, there is a forgotten, missing movement, the manuscript leaf containing the first Minuet and Trio is lost. Detective work by musicologist, Alfred Einstein, suggests that this might well be supplied by the posthumous Piano Sonata in B flat (K.498a). My recording has five, rather than the usual four movements. Fascinating.

Incidentally, as part of developing my teaching role, I'm setting this studio up to accommodate string trios and quartets. The first regular "tutorial" quartet is up and running, so if you fancy joining one under my guidance, let me know.

Because all this memory stuff has been in my field of mental vision of late, my attention was caught by one of the current Three Choirs concerts on 4th August, a new one-act opera called "The Bargee's Wife". There are several points that stood out: the creator being John O'Hara a recent member of legendary folk-rock group, Jethro Tull; Barbara Dickson taking the lead roll; interesting percussion and a fascinating libretto subject by Karen Hayes. The libretto has been created from people's fragmented memories of a particularly painful incident involving the death of a child on the Gloucester and Sharpness canal in the winter of 1963. These memory perspectives include those contributed by dementia sufferers to whom the past, significantly, can seem clearer than the present.

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