Within the course of this month, I find that I have used the world “withdrawal” on my national site for Examiner.com in two separate articles, one having to do with Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung and the other with the repertoire of Johann Sebastian Bach (with, perhaps, some emphasis on his sacred music). In both cases I know that I was being a bit prankish by indulging in some rhetorical hyperbole. Nevertheless, there are ways in which music can work its way into one’s consciousness, taking root in memory long after the sensory signals themselves have passed. I suppose I have been thinking about this lately, since I have been rereading James Joyce’s “The Dead,” whose plot depends on memories triggered by a particular song.
There is also the protagonist of the play Good, by C. P. Taylor, whose unconscious mind is always stirring with memories of music while his conscious self is witnessing the rise of the Nazi Party. I know the feeling (at least of the former). I could not shake the constant presence of music from the back of my head, even if I wanted to do so. However, when I am on the road with limited (if any) access to recordings and usually no access to actual performances, this ghostly presence can be both a blessing and a curse.
The blessing is that it continues to exercise my capacity for listening. I tend to subscribe to those who believe that the mind requires exercise to stay in shape as much as the body does. Thus, there are many who engage in exercises in memory, rather as if they were the mental equivalent of running through several pages from Hanon at the keyboard every day. Reconstructing the listening experience of a quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven may be a bit like a mathematician reconstructing the proof of a theorem in his head when his books and papers are not at hand.
The curse, on the other hand, lies behind my use of that adjective “ghostly.” The music is an “auditory apparition,” rather than a “phenomenal presence.” As such, it is a somewhat saddening reminder that “music itself” is not present. One is haunted, as one might be by the memory of a deceased friend or mentor. On the other hand this is also the mind’s way of “playing with the cards that have been dealt,” which, as I recently observed, is the best we can ever do in any situation.