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2007-07-12 12:24 a.m.

ņ la recherche du temps perdu OR musings on music and memory

I got Fiona Apple's Tidal for Christmas in 1997, after my first semester at college, and sometimes when I listen to it I'm taken back to that time in a way my brain would never be capable of on its own. There aren't necessarily any specific memories that arise, but somehow I'm immersed in a nebulous emotional aroma that some part of me unmistakably recognizes as my state of mind at that time. (I do recall playing Myst 2 that Christmas and visiting a friend who had returned from the MTC with a fresh diagnosis of CFS. I was supposed to comfort him or something, but I didn't have much comfort to give.) Music does this to me quite regularly (certainly more regularly than madeleines or other flavors and scents do), which is one of my favorite aspects of a lifetime of music.

I know that Good Apollo... by Coheed and Cambria will always remind me of watching the sunset on a boat from Osaka to Shanghai; that "By the Side of the Road" by Ben Folds will always remind me of riding a train from Omsk, having no idea where my luggage was or what I was supposed to do when I got off, knowing only that I was going to get kicked off the train at Ishim; that Liberation by the Divine Comedy will always remind me of a spectacular day spent wandering the Rock alone and watching the sea; that Prolonging the Magic by Cake will always remind me of driving to Salt Lake for a doctor's appointment in the spring of 1999, that War by U2 will always remind me of the time when I had an unhealthy fixation on Rachael Leigh Cook and only got out of bed at all so I could watch Sailor Moon; that Gran Turismo by the Cardigans will always remind me of driving across Nevada towards Modesto with my sister; that The Noise Made By People by Broadcast will always remind me of early 2004 when I first got really upset about the concept of Peak Oil; that Mezzanine by Massive Attack will always remind me of driving with my dad from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City for Thanksgiving as I worked on finishing NaNoWriMo in 2003; and, well you get the idea. This list could go on for a long time.

Sometimes the memory connection has to do with wherever I was or whatever I was doing the first time I really came to appreciate the music in question, but other times it was the event or state of mind itself that was memorable, and whatever music I happened to be listening to at a certain peak moment somehow got connected to the memory. A lot of the memories seem to be connected with travel, and I think there are two reasons for that. One is that I'm more likely to listen to music while traveling than at any other time. Another is that I've had a lot of memorable travel experiences.

I've thought about such things before, but it was only today while listening to Fiona Apple that it really dawned on me: my personal history is encoded in my music collection. However, I'm the only person who can decrypt it, and even then it's not really in a format that I can put into words. If it could be expressed in words alone, the music wouldn't be necessary.

What a wonderful thing.

Lately, however, I haven't been listening to music as much as I used to. I've gone for up to a week without really listening to anything. Sometimes I don't think I'm as passionate about it as I used to be. Is this another sign of approaching middle age? I don't know, but still, somehow, it seems I've had a lot of experiences over the past year where music has affected me as powerfully and as deeply as it ever has in my entire life. I'm very grateful for that, for the ability that music has of infusing my life with magic.

Epicurus once said something along the lines of "If there is any pleasure that you think you absolutely cannot live without, you should remove that thing from your life immediately. Once you have realized that you are, in fact, perfectly capable of leading a full and happy life without that thing you once thought indispensable, you may return to it, and you will find the joy you take in it is much more pure and sincere than it ever was before." (Sounds like something a Buddhist would say, doesn't it?) For a good swath of my life music was indeed something I felt I couldn't live without, and at times my love for it was something like what a shipwrecked sailor in a storm must feel for the driftwood he clings to. Sometimes I think my music-less periods lately have been an attempt to follow Epicurus's advice. And sometimes I think it is turning out exactly as he said it would.

Music is better when it is what it is, when I let my responses to it flow naturally, as opposed to when I try to possess music and use it for self-medication, "novocaine for the soul."

Or maybe I'm just trying sound Zen. Is it really bad to try to use music to make yourself feel better (or different, or at all)? I don't know. And isn't this process of infusing memories into music a way of taking possession of it? I suppose it might be, in a way. But not in particularly bad ways, because it's not something I do of my own volition. It just happens. I know it wouldn't work as well if I tried to force it. And if I got to the point where I was overly attached to the nostalgia-inducing effect that music provides, I probably would try to force it. And that would just ruin everything.

And somehow I no longer think of myself as a (wannabe) pop-music scholar. Somehow I think I'm happier to just like what I like these days. I feel like I'm less prone to defining myself by the music I listen to. I don't really want or need to be "that guy who's really into music (even though he knows there are legions of people out there who are more knowledgeable and more into it than he is, people who make him look like just another mindless bandwagon joyrider)."

In passing, Pythagoras wouldn't let his followers eat falafel. And Caucasians have three joints in their pinky toes, but Asians only have two.

warm and golden like an oven thatís wide open,