Memory and Music

← Back to Blog

November 11, 2015

We are what we remember, and as individuals or societies we are in a constant struggle against the erosion of memories, against forgetting. Because it’s through our memories of life’s events big and small, and our subjective understanding of these events, that we define our personal and our collective sense of being and identity.

From the first cave drawings I believe, the will to leave a mark, remember and be remembered, say “I was here and this is what I experienced”, was the lightning strike that ignited the human artistic endeavour. And over millennia, as this endeavour has stretched its different branches into the heavens, keeping a personal record of the human condition – not solely reflecting upon it – has remained at the heart of man’s creativity.

The experience of art in itself is practically dependent on memory. It gives us context and comparative depth when approaching the visual arts, but with the flowing art forms of music and literature it is even more at the essence of the process. After all, understanding the transformation of a character in a novel depends on memory, whilst the modulation of a musical theme into a new tonality, and its motivic development, are meaningful only if we remember its past forms and original identity. There is an expressive tension that is the result of the past and present manifestations of an idea, and without memory that layer of a musical or literal work is lost.

For pianists, memory is first and foremost a practical concern given that performing any work of the endless piano repertoire begins with memorizing it, and it was in that mundane spirit that I opened the score of Beethoven’s Tenth Piano Sonata earlier in September, wondering how much of it had remained in my memory. This was a piece on which I worked intensely for half a year at the age of twelve, but had not touched since.

But as I played through the work, something quite extraordinary happened. Beside the fact that much of the music was still preserved somewhere deep in my physical and musical brain, I was overwhelmed with scenes, sensations and memories from the childhood period when I worked on it.

I think the fact that I hadn’t reworked the piece on any occasion over the last twenty six years was what preserved the purity of that specific connection. Furthermore, it made for a recollective path quite different to the usual act of passive remembrance in which we categorize and label events in our lives, creating verbal tags for them such as, “The concert where I broke a string” or, “The anniversary dinner with the rude waiter”. Or, “Great bottle of wine” for that matter. Instead, the associative triggers of musical sound and specific finger movement sent me back directly to the scenes, sensations and feelings, not their verbal summary; I saw myself sitting at the conservatory stairs waiting for my piano lesson, the sounds of my “competitors” emanating from the windows. I felt the sense of anxiety before the lesson, and the tinge of jealousy as I heard someone play a difficult piece I still couldn’t. The orchard surrounding the old Palestinian Haifa stone house-turned-conservatory also came rushing back.

It was recollection of a different intensity; my personal version of the famous and much discussed Proust Madeleine, where the taste of the cake crumbs swirling with tea in his mouth transported him back to childhood visits to his aunt.

The interplay and relationship between life and art is intangible and one that doesn’t always lend itself to linear definition. Quite often artists draw on life at the service of their art, for instance when actors draw on their personal past experiences in order to create emotional depth for their characters. However, in this curious episode of mine the memories came involuntarily, the Beethoven sonata opening up a path to hidden corners and to memories that I would not have otherwise reached. Music capturing time; art at the service of life.