Saturday, January 7, 2023

DEJA BLUES – The Emotional Interplay of Music and Memory

There’s this song I discovered long ago on the Putamayo album, Acoustic Africa. It’s called "Baro," by the Malian singer Habib Koité. I’m sure I liked the song the first time I heard it, but gradually it’s become not just my favorite cut on the album, but one of the dearest pieces of music I know.

Now, when I listen to Baro, the music—the sweet layering of Koité’s silky voice with chorus, guitar, the marimba-like balafon and some gentle percussion—brings me to tears. So what happened since that first time I heard it that has loaded that song with so much emotion?

         It taps into…that dimly-lit corner of my
         consciousness where many nameless,
         placeless scraps of emotion reside.


There are two distinct ways in which music might move me. The first is with its sheer intrinsic beauty. Beauty that resides in the sound itself—the sublime melding of melody, harmony and tempo that, like a beautiful painting or stunning piece of architecture, simply delights my senses.

Reynaldo Hahn’s operatic "L’Heure Exquise" is an example. It calls up no part-
icular emotional association for me, but even the first time I heard it I found it achingly beautiful. 

Even more personal than music’s intrinsic beauty is its evocative power. Its ability to recall moments or periods in the past. Sweetness or sorrow; pleasure or pain; gladness or grief—or any combination of those emotions.

It doesn’t have to be one particular experience or feeling either; sometimes it simply taps into that dimly-lit corner of one’s consciousness where many nameless, placeless scraps of emotional memory reside.

Of course, this kind of appeal is subjective. To one person, the music that recalls emotion might be a gentle, romantic-period pastorale; to another, a tender ballad; to yet another—don’t ask me why—it’s the harsh scolding of gangsta rap.

      John McVie said that song would “make
      grown men weep.” Turns out I’ve become
      one of them.


Often, the appeal grows over time. The first time I heard Christine McVie’s (of Fleetwood Mac) "Songbird," I was below decks on a 32-foot sailboat, crossing North Carolina’s Pimlico Sound in a gale. I was hunched over a plastic bilge bucket, barfing my guts out.

McVie’s ex, John McVie, once said that song would “make grown men weep.” Turns out I’ve become one of them. How could the most obvious of associations—the sheer misery of that bilious day at sea—have given way to such tender, weepy allusions?

I have a pretty good idea what those allusions are, but I'll spare you the TMI violation.

Aaron Copeland’s "Fanfare For the Common Man"—all three magnificent minutes of it—stirs entirely different feelings. Instead of melting me, this piece makes me stand tall and feel invincible.

While "Fanfare's" sounds themselves are undeniably thrilling, I’m not sure what the emotional association is, unless it’s a cultural one. A meaning derived, I suppose, from this type of music’s use in grand ceremonies and their depiction in film.

Oh, and don’t get me going on Puccini’s "Nessun Dorma," from Turandot. To me—admittedly far from an opera aficionado—it’s easily the most stirring aria I’ve heard. Especially in the hands of Pavarotti, whose performance takes the emotion to the next level.

This intrinsic/associative duality brings to mind something I used to tell clients during my graphic design career about the value of a good logo. 

The design, I explained, should be thought of as an empty vessel. It has to be unique and pleasing to the eye, of course. And the really good ones employ devices to make them especially memorable (like the the illusion of movement, or an interplay between positive and negative space).

But filling the vessel with meaning, connecting the visual appeal with feelings that build a positive impression, occurs over time. It comes from repeated association of the symbol with customer experiences. It’s the way the receptionist answers the phone, the quality and pricing of the organization’s products or services, the integrity of its personnel.

Isn’t this what happens with music? Some pieces appeal to us simply for their beautiful exteriors; others, the ones that not only appeal to us, but grow on us, get “filled,” over the course of many exposures, with intensely personal emotional associations.

Let’s make this a conversation. Do you agree that music taps into some well of emotion in nearly every human being? What musical works do that for you? If you hear them too often, does the intensity of the feelings diminish?


Chas said...

Beautiful job, Jeff, loved all the pieces, especially Baro and Pavarotti. And barfing with McVie. I love music too. And I associate so any songs with good times and sad times. Oh blue angel don’t you cry. And singing BeeBopA Lula in the Boundary waters at the top of my lungs. Your descriptions of each piece are evocative. Thanks for doing this. You made my day.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks, Chas. Really appreciate your comment. I know you've always loved music (and you're not all that bad at performing it). I love your references to those two songs, which also hold memories for me.

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