Saturday, January 23, 2010

Do you remember?

... if you should see him once, you would forget what he looked like, but if you should see him twice you would forget to forget what he looked like, and that would be quite fatal. — from Tajar Tales by Jane Shaw Ward

He thought he saw an Elephant,
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
"At length I realise," he said,
"The bitterness of Life!"
— from Lewis Carroll, The Mad Gardner's Song

Combating insomnia (again) last night, I turned on the tube and watched a bad movie. It was about five men who wake up, in various states of physical injury and/or bondage, in an industrial building apparently sealed off from the external world. None of the men knows his own identity and no one can remember how they ended up there and in the particular configuration in which they woke. A tank of gas, with a verbose warning message on the side, mentioning a "loss of memory" risk, was the device used to explain this group amnesia.

How convenient for an author to be able to control the memory of her or his characters so precisely and uniformly! All composers have got to be envious of such a state of affairs. Music — and not only tonal music — is so much about memory and fading memory and tricks of memory and the play of expectations and conjectures which musical memory invites. Every composition is, in its audition, subject to all of the individual variations in capacity and agility that each individual listener, at any particular moment of listening, brings to the experience. Some of my colleagues talk about composing for an ideal listener, presumably with a perfect memory. I think that's silly: aside from those pieces you reserve for your most private audiences, you have to compose for audiences who will bring totally unpredictable combinations of memory and forgetfulness to their experience of music. I'm not entirely certain of my logic here, but I suspect that the optimal response of a composer to this diversity is to go to one of the extremes: either that of minimal contrast and extreme continuity or that of maximal variety and eventfulness.

In any case, I can't remember, for the life of me, how that dreadful movie turned out.

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