No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, April 01, 1998

A Gap in the Landscape

This piece first appeared in Banana Wings #11, 1998, eds Brialey / Plummer

Learning to Love Brahms

I'd always assumed that other peoples' memories worked in much the same way as mine. Recently, though. I was discussing music with a friend of mine, Maggy, who is a keen amateur pianist and singer. I was waxing lyrical about Brahms’ second Piano Concerto, which she's heard several times. She even owns a recording of it.

"You know that bit in the second movement? Where it sounds almost like a peal of bells?" I asked her. (There is probably a technical term for this effect, but I don’t know it. I rely on raw enthusiasm.)

Maggy frowned and shook her head.

"You played the CD earlier," I reminded her.

A look of complete ignorance.

"I’ve got a tape somewhere here," I said, and proceeded to put it on and play it again.

"Ah, I know that bit," said Maggy with relief, and went on to explain to me about '2 against 3' time – where the left hand is playing to a different beat than the right – and other technical difficulties. I wondered what she meant by ‘know’: she didn’t know the piece in the same way as I did, because she apparently lacked the mechanism by which I could play through a piece of music in my head – just as I played the tape – and listen to an approximation of what I’d heard before.

I have entire symphonic movements in my head, although it doesn't take much to distract me from 'hearing' them. The orchestration isn't always accurate, though: there is a great deal of detail in an orchestral piece that I simply don't retain, and which seldom fails to surprise me when I hear the piece again. If I know a piece of music well enough, it can become a soundtrack to my dreams - in the sense that I wake up with a Beethoven finale half-played in my head, and have to play the CD in order to resolve the dream.

Later in the afternoon, Maggy played me a piece – possibly Bach – that she'd been practising for weeks. She only glanced at the score occasionally while she was playing, so I assumed that she knew it fairly well. "Now do it without the music," I said. She couldn't, although she admitted that the printed music was mainly an aide-memoire. She wasn't using it to determine which note came next – but without the music, she couldn't play the rest of the piece. I lost the ability to read music somewhere in my teens, when it became a useless skill (compare that to the nineteenth century, when the ability to read music was a standard 'accomplishment' among middle-class girls, and not being able to play a pretty little accompaniment while singing the latest popular ballad was a social faux pas). I do, however, remember relying more on the shape of the music than on the actual notes. Apparently, Maggy didn't have a visual memory of the music either.

My memory for music is not note-perfect. I was impressed, and astounded, when I first saw someone play Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto, in front of an audience, without music. That's forty minutes of music, and lots of notes. On the other hand, when I listened to that performance, I could distinguish the original notes from the grace-notes and decorations added by the pianist. That indicates that somewhere in my memory I do have a note-for-note version of the music – or at least a sensory image of its shape. When I try to hear it in my mind, though, it's always incomplete.

Burnham Wick

I started thinking about music and memory after hearing the world premiere of a piece called 'Burnham Wick', by David Matthews. I usually avoid twentieth-century music: I find it difficult to listen to, because I can't seem to make sense of it. I didn't switch the radio off when they announced 'Burnham Wick', though, because Burnham-on-Crouch is about three miles - as the gull flies - from the place where I grew up. (It's thirty miles by road: the first bridge over the Crouch is ten miles upriver).

Burnham Wick is east of the town: a loose cluster of farmhouses, with single-track roads linking them, and all the land below sea-level. The highest point on the eastern horizon is the sea wall, against the top of which waves lap at the peak flow of spring tides. In 1953 the floods reached as far as the railway line, three miles west of the sea. It's very quiet, and the flatness of the landscape makes the sky seem wider than usual. The fields are nicely squared, and drainage ditches run between them. The next town to the east is Zeebrugge.

David Matthews was there: apparently the piece was inspired by a Sunday walk in spring. His music, which is of the kind I politely term 'abstract', uses a violin (apparently playing the highest possible notes) to emulate a skylark. There's a sense of stillness and suspense. "No", I thought, "that was not it, at all."

For one thing, he seems to have missed out the river entirely. The Crouch estuary is wide and muddy. Recently someone has laid on boat trips 'to see the seals' on sand banks nearer the sea. There is always a plaintive sound of seabirds, and of cables chiming on aluminium masts. (Burnham-on-Crouch is famed for having two major yacht clubs). And the light … with so much water to reflect it, and so few obstructions, the light is a tangible thing. Near sunset there is a peculiar glow to everything, and it's the slow river, not the sun, that seems the source of it. Pale things, like dead grass and sea lavender, look as though they're illuminated by spotlights. Cuttlefish bones seem luminous against the dark bladder wrack on the sea wall. The churches at Canewdon and Ashingdon are haloed on their hills.

Matthews may have put all that in his music: I didn't hear it. What I heard was someone else's perception. I felt that his was a different landscape, one far from the sea, where no one had thought to look up at the sky.

A Gap in the Landscape

Sometimes one notices something only by its absence. Where I grew up there was a small wood, visited by occasional birders and hunters, and by me. The wood was old, if not technically ancient, and tangled. There were a few paths, but they never came out quite where one would expect. At some point a huge tree had fallen in the centre of the wood, but most of it had decayed long before my time: the clearing it left was at the centre of the wood, hedged in with hawthorn and bramble. Most of the trees were oak or elm: the elms were dying, because of the advent of Dutch Elm disease, but the oaks seemed immovable. I'm sure the wood had once been much larger. In a more populous setting, it would have been no more than a copse, full of litter and rope swings. Here, it was allowed to sleep. When the paths became overgrown, no one came to clear them.

A cold day in January, sometime in the early 1980s. I paused on my way downstairs to look out of the landing window. I could see clear to the river, three miles away: I could see sunlight reflecting from the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club in Burnham. Not until I was sitting at the kitchen table did this strike me as odd. There was something wrong. Something missing. A gap.

They had taken away the wood. Where it had been, there was not even a heap of timber: just a bulldozed patch, and a few ashes. Someone had been shooting rabbits, and there were orange gun cartridges like embers. The ground was cold. The farmer had regained perhaps three acres of arable land. He left it fallow for years.


Music is now how I tie down my experiences. If I'd had more music - and especially portable music - when I grew up, I might now have a recollection of the wood as precise as the one I have of the patterns of snow on Wandsworth Common. I call up that memory by listening to an otherwise undistinguished song called 'Ukraine Ways', which was what was in the Walkman when I went out in the snow one day.

It would be inconvenient, to say the least, if this mental recording occurred every time I listened to music. How many clear and precise memories of my living room do I need? How can I stop myself listening to Beethoven's Ninth now that there's a memory tied to it? Will listening to 'Ukraine Ways' on a sunny beach destroy the evocation of winter and snow? It's partly an involuntary process (which means there are pieces of music I can't listen to casually, in case they awake unwanted memories). Sometimes, with an effort, I can force it to happen, though seldom with a piece of music that I already know well. I certainly can't play a piece of music on the Walkman with the intention of capturing my surroundings, as though I were simply a device for recording sensory impressions.

(Incidentally, it's not just classical music that I can use to evoke memory. Rock music is more difficult, though, not least because there are intelligible words to get in the way. One of the joys of opera is not being able to understand a word of it, and thus being able to treat it simply as music.)

Of course, there's no way of guaranteeing that the images thus evoked are true ones: memory plays false, and I wonder how many lacunae I plaster over each time I remember something. Does this matter? I don't know. These images work for me, in a way that David Matthews' "clearly defined emotional progression" does not. He was not seeing, or feeling, the same thing. It may have been the same physical place, but it was another country.


The mental event that is triggered when I listen to a significant piece of music (as opposed to one that I simply think sounds good) is a complicated melange of image, sensation and emotion. Needless to say, there is no sound: I have already overdubbed the backing track, simply by linking the occasion to the music. Like my musical memory, my visual memory seems perfect until I try to think about the gaps. I can visualise the entire view from the landing window at home, but there are some parts of it on which I can't focus. Similarly, when I try to hear a piece of music in my head, I'm not hearing the full orchestral version. Quite often the music edits itself, so that when I next listen to the piece I am disturbed by whole sections that seem shockingly new.

There is a familiarity to some of my memories which makes me wonder how much of them I have constructed, or inserted, involuntarily. I can recall standing next to the hollow tree on the south-east corner of the old wood, listening to a wood pigeon. If I think about it, I can remember the smell of rotting leaves. But I don't know if that memory comes from spring or autumn: if it was spring, the rotting leaves are inappropriate, and the memory false. I don't suppose that this sort of memory is ever entirely reliable – unlike a concert pianist's perfect recall of a concerto – but I fear the gradual substitution of imagination for recall.

My father's memories are patchy but distinct: he is suffering from something that may simply be old age. He remembers events that, for all I know, never happened. His focus, when I was a child, was so different to mine that I can't check any of my memories against his. And yet – which gives me hope – his strongest recollections are of long hot summers between the wars. I have clearer memories of a nameless wood that was destroyed than I do of the view from my bedroom window, which I saw this morning. But if I look out of that window tomorrow morning and something has gone, I'll know. I think I'll know.

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