Saturday, April 07, 2007

Hard to recall

I was in London this past week, for just a bit of unashamed tourism. As it happens, I looked at a lot of theatres, not really for performances and not a single one of them in any depth, but the impressions were vivid and comparisons were unavoidable -- a Punch and Judy player near Covent Garden, that opera house itself, the reconstructed Globe Theatre, the construction site about the South Bank complex, and the commercial theatres all about the center of the city -- and thinking about theatres turned my mind to the classical notion of a theatre of memory (about which Frances Yates has most famously written), a technique of memorizing some material by analyzing the material into bits and associating each bit with a location in a real or imagined physical space -- rooms in a house, niches in a temple, plots in a garden, etc..

Architecture was especially well suited to theatres of memory because real buildings offered at least three dimensions of organization and each of those dimensions could be summoned easily by imagination. When the material you wished to commit to memory was not reduceable to a single list or a two-dimensional matrix or table of relationships, then sometimes such added dimensions of relationships could come in handy. London offers a particularly rich variety of real architecture from which to borrow for memory-work -- from the Punch and Judy stage, upon which the figures only enter or exit, and in a sequence of characters defined rigidly by tradition (i.e. a Punch and Judy play is structured like a simple list), to the Globe, a theatre in which the audience spaces are rigidly classed, and the stage can be parsed simply (left/right or inside/outside, or upstairs/down) or in more complex combinations of spaces, or even theologically (heaven, earth, and hell), or cosmologically (sun, moon, planets, and figures from the zodiac). The Globe clearly offers a number of ways to structure a two or three dimensional matrix of information. But perhaps the largest potential theatre of memory available to a Londoner is the map of the Underground system -- representing a network of extreme complexity with lines, branches, stations (including a number of rather mysterious discontinued stations), junctions, and a naming system that is so often divorced from immediate connections to the places near lines or stations that one sometimes wonders if the Underground is itself a theatre of memory for some long-forgotten text of indeterminate dimensions of complexity.

One measure of the complexity of a bit of music is the amount of difficulty required to commit the music to memory. This is not necessarily the best measure -- certainly not with a memory as poor as my own -- and may sometimes even be misleading. I am able, for example, to write out the score for Steve Reich's Clapping Music or Piano Phase, with a combination of memory and a bit of logic, but those scores hardly represent all of what one would want to recall about the music as experienced. Steven Schick's description of the process of memorizing Ferneyhough's Bone Alphabet might be another counter-example, in that the piece as learned and performed was quite something quite distinct from the piece as a compositional performance.

But this form of measurement may still have its uses: a lot of music strikes me as being assignable in memory to a list of Punch and Judy-like single dimensionality and relatively little music demands more than two dimensions of classification. I am altogether uncertain that there is any music with the complexity of the London Underground, unless we move from bits of music to considering entire repertoires (Javanese Karawitan is a useful example, in that the better musicians are continually assimilating repertoire and making material connections between pieces in the repertoire with each performance; the entire repertoire can be heard as a single work of continuously growing dimensional complexity).

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