45: Remembering the words
Hello, I hope you’re well.
Welcome to Border Crossing #45. Hopefully, as spring leans in, this finds you with some optimism, amidst the nonsense.
This time, I’ve waffled about the form and functions of memory, especially in performance. There’s more ‘me’ in this email than usual. It’s very me-ish, I hope that’s okay.
First, a big thank you to Martin Searle, Reg TCM, Sean Carroll, Anna Madeleine and Alistair Fitchett for your kind feedback about the annotated lyrics, which was very useful and has shaped the draft.
More about that project soon.
Please stay safe, as we start to emerge and it gets warmer. I glance up, it’s a gorgeous day and busy out there. Later, if the sunshine holds, time for cheesy shades and a light jacket, two firsts for the year.
Look after yourself and your people.
From March, I host The Hudson Records Mixtape, a fortnightly narrated Spotify playlist for the excellent Sheffield folk label.
Yesterday I released a second EP of electronics by Mærcstapa, called ‘Saint Ninian, Across’, containing five tracks. Here’s Bandcamp and Spotify. If you subscribe, you should’ve had a download code. If you didn’t get it, drop me a line.
On 30th March, I’ll be a panelist at The Bright Green Debates, Bright Green magazine’s series of Tuesday night Zoom discussions. Think Question Time without the gammon gantry. See the panel and register here (Eventbrite link).
The Golden Globes were roundly mocked last week, for 2021’s dismal nomination choices (and absences). Then Los Angeles Times published Stacy Perman and Josh Rottenberg’s investigation into chaos behind-the-scenes at the cabal-like Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which runs the awards. Heady stuff.
Writing on her blog, Natalie Ann Holborow picks her Top 10 final lines in poetry.
Helena Smith in The Guardian on the discovery of a 20 million year-old, 19.5m tall, perfectly preserved prehistoric tree.
San Fransisco author Meg Elison’s extraordinary science fiction short story for PM Press, ‘The Pill’.
Two weeks ago, Chris Packham’s Wild Justice group launched an investigation into the lead shot content in Sainsbury’s game meat. It’s too early yet for conclusions — but worth knowing about the story now, it may unfold into a significant food scandal.
Obviously this week’s potato news was dominated by gammon outrage, after Hasbro removed the word ‘Mister’ from its Potato Head toy. This resulted in 1,000 stupid articles and one interesting article in Forbes about the sexing of tubers that are both male and female at the same time.
Remembering the words
— Do you think you’ve forgotten how to play guitar? she asks, not altogether seriously.
Last month, a clip of film from 1999 did the rounds online — again — of the opening two minutes of an orchestral performance by concert pianist Maria Joao Pires. It first went viral back in 2013. Pires was in Amsterdam to perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, conducted by Riccardo Chailly. As Chailly starts the orchestra going, Pires instantly realises that she’s practiced an entirely different piece of Mozart. It’s the wrong concerto. With orchestra and audience now smoothly sliding through the opening section of a concerto that she knows but has not rehearsed, Pires has a panicky whispered conversation with Chailly. But then, when her moment arrives, Pires just plays it. It’s a wonderful tiny drama and resolution. Famously, Maria Joao Pires performed the concerto without dropping a note, from her memory of past performances.
If you’re an actor playing King Lear, you have almost 900 lines of dialogue to memorise. That’s not even Shakespeare’s biggie: the character Hamlet has nearly 1,500 lines. Luckily, we are pattern-forming, pattern decoding creatures. Remembering lines with meaning and context, interconnected with other lines spoken by other players, is vastly easier than reciting, say, a string of random numbers. According to Wikipedia, in 2019 at the World Memory Championships, which are a real thing, memory athlete superstar Ryu Song I from North Korea broke the world record for the most ‘hour numbers’ — that is, the longest sequence of digits remembered in one hour — by achieving 4,620 digits. The competition was held in Wuhan. Hamlet’s dialogue in Hamlet is way longer than that (though I appreciate it’s not a fair comparison, until actors are given just sixty minutes to learn the play before opening night). The North Koreans dominate competitive memory contests at the moment, which is a slightly icky thought.
No critic went nuts simply because Daniel Day Lewis (at the National in 1989) or David Tenant (at the Courtyard in Stratford in 2008, though he ditched his West End run early, after hurting his back) or Maxine Peake (at the Royal Exchange Theatre in 2014) remembered all the words. Yet, at the same time, for the rest of us normals, it probably is a big chunk of why we’re so daunted and impressed by actors who can perform a weighty theatre role like that. They’ve done something ‘big’, even before they suspend our disbelief and transport us from ourselves and into a 400 year old political tragedy.
Sidebar: separately, long before we before we knew each-other, Rifa and I both got to see Day Lewis’ monumental Hamlet at The National, in the weeks before that infamous night when — as he was meant to encounter the ghost of the dead king — Day Lewis instead saw the ghost of his own real-life father and walked offstage, never again to return to theatre. Judi Dench was playing Gertrude. It says something about how patchily information flowed back then, that I never knew Day Lewis had done his runner, until years later. Rifa has a cool-as-shit signed 8x10 photograph of 1980s Daniel Day Lewis. She’s also got a signed mullet era Ben Elton in his shiny suit. I wish she’d get them framed for the wall. But I digress.
Clearly, for actors, character and context support the memory work, intertwining the processes of learning words and developing character. It is a collective effort too, since most dialogue is conversation. Similarly, musicians use melody and rhythm to nail the parts and the lyrics. That convivial collectivity of ‘playing together’ is the same thing in both disciplines. I promise you, it’s vastly harder to remember the words if you attempt to just speak them plainly, without any rhythm or cadence, than if you sing them as they should be heard.
Meanwhile, when memory fails, it doesn’t follow logic at all.
In Spring 2017, my final year touring, I played a little town hall at Trowbridge, in Wiltshire. Afterwards, I remembered the gig having a good atmosphere, with a real piano and a friendly crowd arranged informally in a wide semi-circle, some perching themselves up a grand looking staircase to create accidentally raked seating. But I also remembered it not being a great performance, on my part. In a year of special shows, when I often took my very best self onto the stage, knowing that I was leaving that life behind, this wasn’t one.
Then, in Summer 2020, I was emailed a live desk recording of that gig. Now, with the benefit of two years’ distance, suddenly I could hear precisely how it had unfolded. I could pinpoint my cognitive dissonance; look at exactly where my memory differed from what (I could now hear) actually took place in the show. And it turned out that my singing voice and playing were fine, better than I’d remembered. It turned out that the glitch was I talked too much between songs, even more so than usual. I constantly disrupted the ebb and flow with schtick. It was okay but slightly hijacked the show, yet I didn’t remember that as being the problem. It had coloured my memory too.
Towards the end, another provocation of memory occurs: I’m singing old songs and begin to strum the zippy guitar intro to ‘Drink Beer’, a rabble rouser originally from The 253 album, more than 15 years before. This was still a song I played regularly. I lean into it with this snarky joke introduction. I say: ‘this is the song that invented Beans On Toast’ — name-checking the festival favourite troubadour (and old friend) Jay, who goes by that stage name. Then, halfway through the first verse, I forget the words.
Prior to listening back, I’d scrubbed this from my mind. But on the audio, I can hear — or I can feel — my onstage thought process. There are options when you forget a lyric, which serve a primary function of buying yourself time: you plough on, or you restart, or you improvise. But listening back, as I bantered for time, I can hear myself mentally wrestling out the worst case decision, within a few seconds: that I must abandon the song. This is extreme measures and the road least travelled with a forgotten line. But somehow, in the room, I already knew. Even if the lost lyrics reappeared, even if I clawed them back, more lines would go later in the song — I knew with absolute clarity that I had to lose it. So I laughed and moved along, quickly. Nothing to see here.
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I’ll remember the words to ‘Drink Beer’. Right now, having not sung them for more than three years, I can recite them at my laptop screen. It was the daft aside that killed it.
As people laugh, my brain instantly re-frames to respond (or not respond) to that new context. I go from being present in one space (the song itself) to another space (the room and the wider ripples of the thing I’ve just said). At the same time, as the guitar strums relentlessly onwards, now I’m out of sync. Somehow I have momentarily re-slotted my hippocampus into a ‘different gear’, a different neurological groove, which screws up whatever was in the queue to spout next, out of my mouth. So, two or three lines later, the song collapses. It’s gone. I believe that’s what happened, anyway. God bless guesswork pretending to be amateur neuro-science.
Later, on that same run of ‘farewell’ shows, in a church in the Cambridge suburbs, someone called out a request for another old song, ‘Tendon’, from the same 2001 album as ‘Drink Beer’. But this one was not part of my regular set; I hadn’t sung it live at all for over a decade, hadn’t practiced it, or even thought about it, for years. Normally I’d dodge the request. But by then, the show was already won. We’d had a great time, so it didn’t matter. I find myself going for it: sellotaping down an ‘A’ bass note on a small keyboard to produce a drone, plucking out a rudimentary two-note pattern on electric guitar and singing ‘Tendon’, pulled from the deep dark, without putting a note wrong.
I do appreciate it’s not a Mozart piano concerto.
Apart from the final T-T show, my longest gig was a solo concert at Hebden Bridge Arts Festival, a week after the town had been brutally flooded, once again in a small municipal hall. That gig lasted two hours and twenty-five minutes, not counting the interval. They still wanted more, I swear. Earlier that day I’d played an A.A. Milne show for families, which was another 45 minutes of different material. So at that point in my working life, I could easily dredge up three and something hours of stuff from memory. If the band showed up, add to that another hour of different songs. And yet, still, when they go, they go.
Perhaps playing an instrument is as much like chess as it is riding a bike. You don’t forget the technical basics once you’ve learnt them. But how does that basic functional ability connect to the more slippery-to-define skillset of musical craft, if you abandon it for a long time? I do wonder, now, am I less able to compose, perform, improvise, play old songs, make new songs, because I haven’t done so for three years? My music making now is so entirely different: I learn fixed parts for other people’s songs. I mess around with synths, construct the occasional podcast theme on commission. It’s a profoundly different set of tools and actions.
Practice makes people better at a craft — but how does that chime with making art? So often — so often — I felt deeply that it was harder to attain ‘art’, as my crew of music making pals got better and more experienced at doing our ‘craft’. It was like a barrier to touching the creative divine, rather than an enabler.
During coronavirus we’ve lost so many older people. Historic debates around poor resources and scant attention paid to the elderly are laid bare, during an end-game of horrific outcomes. Now we’re looking. Too late. We’ve also found heroes among the very old, which was a rarity, before. The man walking around his garden to raise cash for the NHS. The nation’s cultural gatekeepers turning him into a unique celebrity icon of kindness. The statues and songs and outpourings of eulogy. Suddenly, a long, ‘normal’ life is publicly re-examined. Hageographic, yet modern culture comes at him from all angles, deifying, as well as — in an online backlash after he took a holiday — demonising. And then he passes away at the very moment it meant most.
Normally I’d think about all of that in the broader context of judging and criticising our media diaspora, and how they manipulate us. But beyond that, the man became a cultural conduit and a signifier; a kind of living, human channel for all our complex feelings about service and charity and abandonment, and such. I bet some children out there know his life story, better than Gran’s.
One topic I think about a lot but I haven’t seen discussed, arising from the appalling loss of elderly life, is the parallel loss of a vast repository of informal, social and cultural memory. For example, many, many older people, still alive and healthy today, will have known personally and spoken first-hand to people who were themselves alive in the late nineteenth century, under Queen Victoria. A direct first-hand human connection, back into a different universe.
When I was young, I knew personally people who’d fought in the First World War. That’s nothing exceptional, as an encounter. But if I live to be eighty-five and speak to a fifteen year old, and tell them about that, we’ll have our conversation in 2060 and that kid has a decent chance of surviving into the 22nd century, to retell it, if they can be arsed.
When I was in residence at The Workhouse in Southwell, local visitors (this happened often) would have their interest in their own backgrounds completely shaken up and reinvigorated, by recognising their own surname among the inmates of the workhouse, 150 years earlier.
Through 2020, when a right-wing media commentators repeat that ugly soundbite about old people with Covid “only having a couple of years left anyway”, my mind would go straight to these ideas — and to the memory-filled conversations elderly people have with younger relatives, particularly during final months and years.
It may be a forgotten corner of our civics and our culture but it’s so important in shaping us: to connect forward the thread of living memory of a society, through time and a changing world. And for many folks who’d disengaged with the lives of their elder relatives — just visiting occasionally and keeping the chat light — it is a precise moment when they might re-connect, intellectually as well as emotionally, as death becomes imminent. Especially when it’s known about in advance. Finally, the Big Conversations take place. Not always, of course. Dementia is cruel. Some people prefer to stay silent. But for many, Covid has denied a crucial tipping point of shared reflection and of time travel back into older worlds, which they may not even be consciously aware that they’ve lost.
I don’t mean big emotional reconciliation, by the way, or everyone apologising to each-other, or family secrets revealed (though that’s all great too). It’s less dramatic. It’s not the chords or the rhythm or the singing voice, it is just remembering the words. Reaching back into our past, for a perspective of history that only life-long memory can impart, as an eyewitness. I keep thinking: those recollections are precious, even as our culture chronically undervalues them. Now, we’ve lost a thousand, thousand stories, the lack of which will resonate down generations.
Death is re-mechanised and re-ritualised — re-imagined — in a horrible expedient fashion, via the necessary requirements of the medical world, to try to keep us safe from the virus.
Luckily, a solution is obvious and not even difficult: we simply re-engage, now, with those kinds of memory. Sooner, before it is necessitated by mortality. We rebuild convivial remembering.
As in so many other ways, we take the warning of coronavirus seriously: we go to our oldest people. We ask them to reach back, do their own deep dive and tell us about, for example, what important, influential people they met, what they said to them, when they were young themselves. What their world looked and felt like. What objects and events they remember that have gone. We ask them for places and situations and feelings, as far back as they can go. We listen. We remember the words. We focus on stretching a first-hand spoken link through history, as far back through time as possible.
Mogwai — As The Love Continues (Rock Action Records)
How unexpectedly joyous to find Mogwai at the top of the album charts, almost 25 years after first seeing and adoring them.
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Loads of love, as always. Comments welcome. Be well.