That Strange Thing Called Memory

Reading Kevin Puts’s emotional account of his memory lapse during his performance of his own Piano Concerto at the 2010 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music (which I was in the audience for) brought back many memories of that edge-of-the-seat experience. But it also reminded me about a peculiar quality of my own memory that I thought would be worth sharing here to find out if others have this same quirk. Perhaps I’m not so peculiar after all.

Many years ago I realized that I was more likely to remember a passage of my own music if I didn’t write it down than if I did. It’s as if my memory has a built in protection mechanism to guarantee I won’t lose information I haven’t yet gotten around to committing to paper (pixel or magnetic tape), and that I subconsciously know that it’s O.K. to forget stuff as long as there’s a permanent record somewhere else in the universe. This has been something of a blessing and a curse, since my memory of a piece doesn’t automatically return if, years later, I can’t locate what I had written down, as I discovered earlier this year. Yet I’m floored at my ability to recall details of things—sometimes decades old—that I never bothered to commit to some tangible corporeal form.

During a recent talk with Henry Threadgill (the October Cover here on NewMusicBox, so stay tuned), he lamented the catastrophic memory loss we all experience as a result of being overly reliant on computers, cellphones, etc. For example, could you dial your parents’ phone number from memory if you had to? In societies ranging from the Mandinka peoples of West Africa to the Kyrgyz of the Caucasus, bards can recite tens of thousands of lines of verse that have been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. Nowadays we’re considered to have extraordinary powers of recall if we can remember what we ate for dinner last Wednesday night.

Sure, I’m thrilled by the prospect that artifacts I leave of my own thoughts—a humble musical composition, this essay—might prove worthwhile to someone else who chances upon them whom I’ve never met. But I also fear that all of contemporary civilization’s transmission shortcuts (from Gutenberg to the internet) have had deleterious effects on our mental capacity and therefore the very artifacts that we hope to share with others might somehow be less worth sharing.

4 thoughts on “That Strange Thing Called Memory

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Clarence Barlow once told me this is the compositional property of “flushing” — once it’s committed to some other form, it’s flushed away like so much body detritus.

    Dennis

    Reply
  2. pgblu

    It takes all kinds to make a world, but sometimes I wish you weren’t quite so melodramatic about things, Frank.

    I wish I had been at this Cabrillo festival event, because I am really having trouble understanding what is so incredibly riveting about a person having a memory lapse — it may have been an unusual social situation, perhaps titillating because of its rarity, but nothing more. I feel bad for Kevin Puts, and can only imagine he wants to put the experience behind him.

    As for our inability to remember 10 telephone numbers, I can’t say that’s terribly tragic. When the electric grid collapses forever (G-d forbid) we will regain those skills when we need them. I can’t accept the idea that the technology that gave us speed dial also robs us of the ability to remember meals from last week. Memory can take many forms, and we store these different forms in different ways/places in our neural network.

    Reply
  3. Frank J. Oteri

    pgblu wrote: “I wish I had been at this Cabrillo festival event, because I am really having trouble understanding what is so incredibly riveting about a person having a memory lapse — it may have been an unusual social situation, perhaps titillating because of its rarity, but nothing more. I feel bad for Kevin Puts, and can only imagine he wants to put the experience behind him.”

    What was riveting was the ground swell of support from the audience for Kevin during the memory lapse which did not relent until the piece ended. You could feel the energy throughout the auditorium. Although I have been taken to task on these pages for my sometimes less than generous attitudes about sports, I have to say what it reminded me of is one of the things that I have found totally compelling about watching a sports game live: the intense audience focus on wanting one person to hit a home run or score a touch down. Witnessing such a complete group mind meld, and in fact being a part of that group mind meld, is quite an ecstatic experience. Of course, it’s also an experience that demagogues in the political realm have capitalized on far too many times over the course of history; but when it’s part of a contemporary music concert it’s pretty extraordinary. All the naysayers out there who think that audiences cannot have such a thorough communion with a performance of a piece of contemporary music should have been there!

    As for the accusation that I’m being unduly melodramatic, I’m not sure how to respond. All I can say is that I’m all too aware of how extremely dependent on my PDA I have become in order to recall things I used to be able to just spew out from the top of my head. I’m glad the batteries have stayed charged so far. And Philippe, your claim that “we will regain those [memory] skills when we need them” seems unduly optimistic to me, but as you’ve said, “It takes all kinds to make a world.” But as always, thanks for your provocations.

    Reply
  4. pgblu

    More evidence of my tendency to react rather sensitively to things that make me uneasy. I am concerned that making too much of this will end up haunting Mr Puts who’d surely rather people know him for his music than for what happened at Cabrillo 2010.

    I will turn around now and say the empathy which audiences have for virtuoso performers who are “only human, after all” is indeed a heartwarming thing. Especially, though, because such reactions are evidence that that empathy is always there under the surface. Not amongst all audiences, sadly…

    Reply

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