Memories Are Better Off Sung

[Ed. Note: In one of those fabulous moments of synchronicity, at the end of our talk with Matthew and Eleanor Freidberger, which appears as our August 2007 Cover, Matthew mentioned to me that composer David T. Little had written an analytical essay about The Fiery Furnaces's album Rehearsing My Choir. David, of course, is no stranger to this site, and the fact that he had written such an essay was even further proof that The Fiery Furnaces were part of our musical universe at NewMusicBox. When we first launched NewMusicBox eight years ago, we would always pair our main conversation with a large analytical essay further exploring the same ideas from a different perspective. It's something we haven't done in quite a while, but after tracking down David's essay, it seemed a perfect compliment to our already-posted Fiery Furnaces discussion. – FJO]

The Functions of Memory in The Fiery Furnaces’ Rehearsing My Choir

Rehearsing My Choir

Issues of memory play an important role in the music of siblings Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger’s rock band, The Fiery Furnaces. Although memory is suggested in much of their prolific output, nowhere is it more focused than in their 2005 release Rehearsing My Choir (RMC). With a narrative spanning seven decades, RMC tells the life story of the siblings’ then-83-year-old grandmother Olga Sarantos, a former church choir director. Featuring Olga in the leading role—with Eleanor serving as an additional commentator—the songs of RMC travel freely between eras, as the stories told flow in a non-chronological linearity.

Supporting this narrative, the album’s musical materials draw broadly from different historical eras, forming a strange yet appealing blend of sounds from the past and the present. Like a child in a candy store, Matthew, the group’s primary composer, picks and chooses genres and eras to suit his needs, combining them accordingly. The specific influences that I detect are minstrel shows and ragtime of the 1890s, radio dramas of the 1930s, American musicals from the 1930s through the mid-1940s, and rock operas of the 1970s. Coincidentally, these eras correspond to a forty-year socio-historical cycle, that I, for the purpose of this discussion, have termed “nostalgia waves.”

According to historian Michael Kammen, “the 1890s, the 1930s, and the 1970s were marked by…wave[s] of nostalgia because these were periods of grave self-doubt accompanied by concern for the future.” These waves often follow periods of struggle or tragedy; e.g. the Great Depression and the Vietnam War. In this light, the general sound of Rehearsing My Choir could be described as meta-nostalgia: adopting the sound of each past nostalgia wave from what could be considered an anticipation of a fourth nostalgia wave in the 2010s.

However, the stylistic references that create this feeling of nostalgia, and consequently meta-nostalgia, are fake ones. Unlike what one might expect in a work of Berio or Rochberg, the Friedbergers’ stylistic references are drawn with a broader stroke. In this, they engage our collective memory. Collective memory, according to Kammen, is “a living image of the past [...] or the collective representation of an event as it has been refashioned over time.” More than the “accumulation of individual memories,” it is the shared and mutable popular image of an historical entity. Collective memory dictates a portion of what we “know” as a culture, and therefore what and how we will remember.

Collective memory can be problematic, as it is often inaccurate. One wishing to reference the 1920s, for example, faces a dilemma. Far from the age of flappers and the Charleston we know as “The Roaring ’20s,” the 1920s were a rather dull time for the majority of Americans. What we know as “the ’20s” represents the experience of only a small, elite portion of the population. Therefore, in order to communicate their intentions, one wishing to reference the 1920s, must actually reference “the 1920s,” the era as it is understood in collective memory.

The Friedbergers understand this. Styles referenced in RMC are neither quotations nor accurate stylistic reconstructions. Rather, they are references to styles as they appear in collective memory; ragtime becomes “ragtime,” and so on. (It is interesting to note that, according to my conversation with Mr. Friedberger, Olga is actually a composite character, telling stories from the lives of her mother, husband, sister, etc. In this sense, she is not Olga, but a character: “Olga.”) Although certain technical musical elements are utilized—stride piano figuration, for example—this is not what really sells the reference. What does sell the references is instrumental color, which in this case corresponds interestingly to the world of photography.

Photographs are memory aids, documenting our pasts and preserving the images of people or special events so that we may more successfully, completely, and accurately remember them. Naturally, photographs taken at different times have different qualities: size, shape, tint, etc. Because of this, regardless of the content of the photograph, one can get a general sense of when the photo was taken. For example, a Daguerreotype from the 1850s has a much different hue than a Polaroid from the 1960s. Of particular interest to this discussion is the hue of the photo, a result of the process and materials used in its production and development. Just as the hue of a photograph can suggest when it was taken, so too can a sound’s color suggest the era from which it came, as filtered through our collective memory.

Photographic hues
Photographic hues

In RMC, a tacked and out of tune upright piano brings with it the color of honky-tonk and ragtime of the 1890s. An electric organ, with hearty vibrato, evokes the radio dramas of the 1930s as well as the domestic life of the ’60s and ’70s, when this instrument was a fairly common household item. When drums are used, they are tuned and miked to suggest the rusty hue of the 1970s. Other times, drums are electronically programmed, with beats reminiscent of disco. Additionally, the autoharp, electric-harpsichord, toy piano, imitation-Theremin, and imitation-Mini-Moog all make appearances. While each instrument offers a sonic snapshot of the era from which it came—and they are often used this way—they are also combined at times to form a veritable orchestra of nostalgia, as in the beginning of “The Wayward Granddaughter.”

The basic unit of music that a listener remembers is, arguably, the motive. In RMC, the use of motives engages memory immediately, adding a series of internal cross-references to the work, suggesting relationships between movements we might otherwise not realize. Friedberger simply and effectively utilizes the idea of the motive both as idée fixe and as developing object, as he combines motivic fragments into larger thematic units, such as what I have called the “memory theme”.

“…Listen to this tune that sounds like a condolence card, bought at the last minute for someone you can’t stand,” says Olga as we hear the “memory theme” for the first time, as the second half of “The Garfield El.” A binary theme, both parts are actively developed throughout the piece, although both also occur frequently in their original form. Musically straightforward, what I find so touching about the theme in general—and in the first part in particular—is how it can’t quite find a point of rest.

It begins with concurrent, unprepared 4-3 and 9-8 suspensions, moving from dissonance to consonance as suspensions do. In the next measure, however, the same pitches in the melody are placed over a G/D dyad, reversing the pattern, which now moves from consonance into dissonance (5-4 and 3-2). This failure to resolve perhaps suggests that the story we are about to hear is bittersweet, like most memory, and that subsequently not everything will work out the way that it is supposed to. Olga’s reference to a condolence card reinforces this, as we are reminded of loss; a poignant preface, as we will see.

This emphasis on strong-beat dissonance is retained in Part B, where a similar pattern of mostly-unprepared suspensions intensifies the feelings of loss. In “The Garfield El” iteration of this theme, Olga sings along on “La,” when Part A returns. This leads to the text: “Listen to this tune I’m playing now kids. Does it seem sad? Does it remind you of when?” With this final question, the last line of which returns as the title of the very last movement, we are propelled into Olga’s world.

Showing itself to be the seminal material for much of the piece, this theme—developed in whole or in part—also returns at dramatically significant moments in its original form. Like the opening motive of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, it recurs so frequently, that before long we hear it as a part of our own memory. Similarly, when the motives and themes of RMC recur, they often feel like recollections as they surface, then vanish again under the local texture.

At one such moment in the title track, the “memory theme” returns amidst the story of a misogynistic, Robert-Mitchum-obsessed Bishop. Accompanying the music is the text: “That next Sunday was my late sister’s Namesday,” after which Olga sings a single “La, la, la” along with Part A. Unlike its previous iteration, she doesn’t sing the melody to which we had become accustomed, but rather harmonizes it a fourth above, alone and unsupported by any instrumental doubling. Through this one musical addition, Friedberger brings the listener into the world of negative memory.

Harmonization of memory theme
Harmonization of memory theme
Aschrott-Brunnen” width=”150″ height=”200″ border=”0″ valign=”bottom”>
The original Aschrott-Brunnen

Negative memory is a concept often associated with the work of German artist Horst Hoheisel. The idea is to activate negative space so that the absence of an object’s one-time presence will be felt more strongly. Although there are many examples of this in Hoheisel’s work—and elsewhere, to be sure—it is most clearly articulated in his 1987 “negative-form” monument in Kassel, Germany, Aschrott-Brunnen (Aschrott Fountain).

Hoheisel's sketch
Hoheisel’s sketch for his 1987 monument

The original Aschrott-Brunnen was a 12-meter tall fountain donated by Jewish entrepreneur Sigmund Aschrott in 1908, and designed by architect Karl Roth. Under the Nazi regime, it became known as the “Jews’ Fountain” and during the night of April 8, 1939, was destroyed, leaving only its circular base.

The reconstructed <I>Aschrott-Brunnen</I> pyramid
The reconstructed Aschrott-Brunnen pyramid, on display and awaiting burial

In 1984, the project of memorializing Sigmund Aschrott and his fountain was awarded to Hoheisel. He proposed that the fountain’s destroyed pyramid be rebuilt, sit in public view for a few weeks, and then be inverted and buried. His insistence that the reconstructed pyramid sit on display was significant to the work and its process. It reminded present-day viewers of the fountain’s original presence that, once buried, would again be rendered absent through amplified negative space.

Horst Hoheisel's <I>Aschrott-Brunnen</I>
Visitors view the flowing water of the inverted fountain through the glass base of Horst Hoheisel’s Aschrott-Brunnen

Once inverted and buried, the hollow sculpture was to be flooded with water—re-creating the lost fountain, but now underground. The whole monument was then to be covered with glass at street level so that the buried fountain could be viewed—and heard—from above. The sound created by the water reinforces the work’s sense of negative-form and loss: we hear the fountain, but see only its absence. One could argue that what Hoheisel accomplishes in his Aschrott-Brunnen, Friedberger accomplishes in parts of RMC.

In RMC, by activating the space above the melody as we have known it, three things occur. First, whereas the original melody moved at this point from dissonance to consonance, the new pitches move from consonance to dissonance, nullifying the resolution normally heard here. Second, once the single iteration has stopped, we feel its sudden absence, as the melody continues as usual. Third, it re-contextualizes the material, as we realize that these added upper notes—representing Olga’s late sister—had been missing from every other iteration of the theme. As with the pre-burial display of Hoheisel’s Aschrott pyramid, large-scale absence in RMC is amplified through this well-placed, local, and temporary presence.

Slightly shifting focus now, I would like to explore a particular harmonic characteristic of the piece: what I’ll refer to here as “regression” which should not be confused with the Schenkerian use of the word. I use “regression” here simply to mean the opposite of “progression.” E.g. The clearest occurrence of this type of “regression” occurs in the second song, “The Wayward Granddaughter,” in which the following lines bring the movement to a close over numerous repetitions of the progression.

Well, we could talk about it Connie /
but often memories are better off sung. /
Remember when you were young… /
Remember when I was young… /
La la la / la la la.

Harmony and the hold of the past
Harmony and the hold of the past

The move to a second inversion d diminished chord in the third measure transcribed above, and subsequent moves like this in progressions throughout the piece, recall the “plunge” in the first movement of the Schubert String Quintet D. 956, at the entry of the second theme. Having begun in C Major, the Quintet suddenly shifts keys to a nostalgic E-flat Major. As Scott Burnham observed in “Schubert and the Sound of Memory” (Musical Quarterly, Volume 84, Number 4; Winter 2000), this “plunge into the flat side of the main key draws attention inward rather than onward.” Rather than inward, I prefer to think of this move as a pull backward. Like a hand reaching from the past that prevents one from moving ahead, the listener is jarred into a different time and place. It’s like having the rug of time pulled out from under you.

Aside from its presence on the local level of the progression, this sort of regressive harmonic shift also functions structurally, accounting for many of the relationships between movements, relative to their location along the era spectrum. Upward harmonic shifts—for example from Bb-centric music to C-centric music—tend to accompany a move into the future—from the 1960s to the 1990s, for example—whereas harmonic shifts downward generally indicated a move from the present to the past. This explodes the harmonic implications to the structural level. One could argue that this—along with the aforementioned hue of instrumentation and other devices—further places the listener in the era appropriate to the era at hand within the larger narrative.

Key scheme/era relationships
Key scheme/era relationships throughout the work

Ultimately, the structure of RMC interacts with memory in various ways, depending on the level at which it is analyzed. On the largest level, of course, it is a rock album which is a collection of songs performed by the same group. When we probe a little deeper, however, its form begins to resemble a musical with two acts of five songs each, introduced by an overture, “The Garfield El.” The two-act form is supported by silent lead-ins added in post-production: there is a three-second lead-in after “The Garfield El” (before “The Wayward Granddaughter”), and a one-second lead-in before “Seven Silver Curses,” which I am proposing as the beginning of Act II. All other movements progress attacca.

Unlike a typical overture, in which musical themes are introduced, “The Garfield El” introduces disjunct narrative fragments, many of which, though not all, prove prefatory. For example, the phrase “I found a skeleton tooth in the junk drawer and I mean to open to the folding green and white door and take a late train to my lost love,” anticipates “Seven Silver Curses,” in which we hear of “the silver teeth of a man killed by a jealous wife!” “The Garfield El,” like a box of memory-laden trinkets, is opened for the first time in years to reveals its contents, preparing the listener for the stories we are about to hear.

Musically, “The Garfield El” consists of two parts: the memory theme, and, preceding it, oscillating chords—appropriately train-like—clanging on a tack piano. In an example of Friedberger’ prose which is at times reminiscent of Christopher Knowles’ text for Einstein on the Beach, Olga compares the strings of the piano to train tracks, suggesting that through music-as-transport-device, we can travel with Olga into her past:

“Spin, steel, tick tack on three little strings made three little rails made one note clunk. Three rails squeaking and sputtering down the West Side.”

The structure of the multifarious stories told throughout RMC suggests an ancient Greek mnemonic device called a memory palace in which texts would be memorized through a visualized structure: a palace. Portions of texts would be placed into specific “rooms” of the palace in a specific order. When the memorized material was to be recalled, the rooms of the palace would be revisited in the mind, in the order they had been visualized. The text stored inside that room could then easily be recalled.

While one can view RMC as an album with 11 songs, or as a musical in two acts, this is not the work’s most interesting structural feature. More interesting are the smaller units within each song, their relationships to each other—supported by motives—and the paths between them. It is in this that the structure of RMC begins to resemble the memory palace in which each room contains a story—or story fragment—from a different era.

While listening to RMC, one is constantly reminded that the past is everywhere. Guided by loose stylistic references, relying on instrumental hues, the listener is given the responsibility to make the leap from the 1920s to the 1960s in the blink of an eye. The only indication as to the order in which these eras occur appeared a press release issued by Rough Trade Records at the time of the album’s release from, which is something that most listeners of the album would never have access to and which itself charmingly confusing:

Tracks 3 and 4 take place in the 40′s; tracks 5 and 6 in the 20′s and 30′s; track 7 in the later 50′s; track 8 starts in the very early 40′s; track 9 goes back and forth; track 10 takes place in the early 60′s; the final track takes place in the early 90′s. Track 2 takes place a few years ago; track 1 took place when it was recorded. [all punctuation sic]

For a recent project, I had the opportunity to interview several individuals about their lives. Consistent throughout these interviews were two elements. First, the individuals to whom I spoke remembered the events, names, places, times, and often dates that they were describing in great detail (or at least thought they remembered). Second, their recollections tended to follow a non-chronological linearity, letting their memories connect naturally as they spoke. Jumping from era to era as needed, they each traveled through their own memory palace in telling their story. In fact, the way these individuals told their stories is precisely the same way that RMC unfolds. We hear Olga’s stories the way she would have remembered them—non-linearly and in fairly significant detail.

Supported by melodic, harmonic and narrative-based devices, RMC not only tells Olga’s stories, but also explores many aspects of memory. And it does so by utilizing and updating time-tested techniques found in Schubert, Mahler, Berio, and others. Not only does this enhance the narrative—proving Friedberger’s skill as a musical storyteller—but also makes RMC something more than just another rock record. Although Rehearsing My Choir has divided listeners—much like Lou Reed’s 1974 Metal Machine Music—it has similarly shown Friedberger to be an artist capable of things greater than what the rock world and its critics might want. What is reassuring is that, like Reed and others of his ilk, Friedberger has proven that he is not afraid to stretch the boundaries, and break them if necessary.


David T. Little

David T. Little is an East Coast-based composer and performer. He is the founder and artistic director of the rock band/ensemble Newspeak—for which he sometimes plays drums—and is co-founder/co-director of Free Speech Zone Productions. Currently a Ph.D. candidate in composition at Princeton University, Little’s research deals with issues of musical activism in the 20th and 21st centuries.