The Memory in Memoir

Time it was and what a time it was

A time of innocence

A time of confidences Long ago it must be

I found a photograph

Preserve your memories

They’re all that’s left you.- Simon and Garfunkel- Bookends

There’s something supremely egotistical about attempting a memoir. I’m balls deep in mine and I can tell you the whiny tone of my voice on some of the pages that unspool out of my fingers on the keys—they’re not pretty, these diatribes. Fortunately, the reportage of my victimhood is usually that—I’m exploring the past with the brain on my neck today and able to summon a semblance of journalistic integrity about it. That’s saving me—allowing me to continue without throwing up in my mouth not a little.

I read the other day in the New Yorker about an art installation made from vessels and containers of antiquity and today. It turns out that empty space has its own music. The artist, Oliver Beer, created a giant organ of sorts by miking these functional art pieces to create a Vessel Orchestra. Composers are writing music for it—and they are using ancient pottery that captures a tone (a natural D was particularly hard to find) without doing anything.  The artist had to go down to the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among its thousands of pieces that are not on display and creating what the New Yorker called, “the most eccentric and original keyboard instrument in the history of Western music.”

Um yeah. “Every empty space sings if you listen.” The artist reports there aren’t that many objects that “sing in the Western scale” –his D-natural is a seven-thousand-year-old ceramic jar from what is now Iran. Here’s the heavy-handed metaphor—you knew it was coming, right? If empty space has a song to sing, what about a human body? A human being, every human being, resonates in a completely original way. Some of them are on different scales, all of them are worth listening to, as long as they make sense of themselves in a song.

Why isn’t the ambient sound of each echoing soul okay on its own? The answer is—it absolutely is—but it gets less interesting unless the meaning of the sound is coordinated and organized into a “song”—a coherent narrative of art, creativity harnessed, into something the rest of us can absorb. Check this out:

“You can control the decay by choosing how fast or slowly the microphone turns on and off.” Mind duly blown. Obviously, I’m not a music major or I would have known that notes decay—the pedals on a piano control the decay of those tones. The keys on a keyboard have a finite decay unless you intervene. Is the song we sing with our lives decaying—can we modulate the rate of decay by the act of remembering the actions, emotions and unwinding of events? I’m trying to find out. The act of remembering is an attempt to control the decay of the self. The act of creating a text with an arc of meeting aims to stave off the inevitable decay of my person, myself, my attendance on the planet, to leave something behind besides ashes and memories in people who themselves will likely decay in only 80 years. Making you care about my particular song is the challenge but I promise—I’m trying to keep a good beat you can dance to.

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