Music and memory

The pianist Hélène Grimaud has just released a new record called Memory.  There is a trend for classical musicians to make concept albums: Grimaud’s last album was called Water, Igor Levit’s next album is called Life.  Daniil Trifonov’s next one is called Destination Rachmaninov: Departure.

On the surface, Memoryis a 51 minute collection of 15 short, haunting pieces that you could play late into a dinner party – if your guests were in the right mood.  It mixes up well-known classics (Debussy, Satie, Chopin) with less popular pieces (Silvestrov, Sawhney).

The power for music to invoke memory is of course almost supernatural.  Debussy’s first Arabesque conjures up my student bedroom, the CD player on the small desk spinning Zoltan Kocsis’s Debussy disc.  Most of the pieces on Grimaud’s disc have a ‘sticky’ personality that lingers in the mind.

Our memories are what make us human.  They catch reality as it flies past to help us in the future.  We know that our memory for music works differently to phone numbers or even faces.

I think music preceded human language, and that music and movement are the primary mechanisms that we use to communicate our feelings. I think music is coded differently to abstractions like phone numbers and facts.  Music that we enjoy when the emotional/social aspects of our brain are growing fastest (i.e. when we are teenagers) affects us for the rest of our lives.

So let’s look briefly at the relationship between music and memory.

First, we use our short-term memory in making sense of a piece.  If music is too complicated at the micro- or macro-level, then our memory buffers give up.  If it is too simple then the piece fails to hold our interest.  Most of the pieces on the disc follow simple, graspable forms with repeated motifs, melodies and chord progressions.

Secondly, pretty much every piece of music reminds you in some way of another piece – either intentionally or not.  Within this disc, there are many resonances across the 15 pieces.  Debussy was a big fan of Chopin.  Satie sought to strip away the sentimentality of much music and in doing so he produced timeless works of austere beauty.

Thirdly certain music reminds you of people and places.  For me, popular music is linked to the social – people, small groups, or larger groups.  Classical music is mainly a private affair.

Fourthly I think you remember a piece of music the way you remember you a personality – the overall impression (gestalt) as well as certain details (but perhaps not all).  You code it as an emotional whole.  Listening again to a good piece of music is like meeting an old friend.

So is the album any good?  Yes – I really like the choice of pieces and the concept.  Grimaud plays well in a good acoustic.  Overall I’d prefer some darker music included, but that would have dinted sales.

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