Before the beginning was the memory

Normal, Weekender

The National, Friday, 27th May 2011

IF musical sounds permeate a certain awareness or apprehension of the world around and within us, what role do our memories play in such a situation?
We know that music sets a mood (for shopping, for drinking, for thinking, for crying etc); music marks and measures ritual; music incorporates subcultures; music is protest, anthem, jingle, game, and prayer. Music plays so many roles that it is hard for us to know where to begin. However, the common element throughout our experiences of music is sound; without an adequate understanding of the nature of sound, any study of music rests on shaky foundations.
Sound, especially musical sound, does not generally arise spontaneously but is generated through certain techniques and by using certain technologies. The materiality of music weds it to technology, which enables its production and dissemination.
The garamut beats display sounds that have symbolic codes therefore they carry a particular meaning to those who understand it. On other occasions, the same garamut beats would not be regarded as symbolic but are integrated into a wider ensemble of musical sounds such as in a ceremonial context.
The question is how do people recognise these sounds as music and what is the point at which sound becomes musical? What separates noise from the kind of sound that defines the musical and how is sound or music connected to our memories?
Sound is always articulated, punctuated, it starts and stops. However, a sound does not go away when it stops nor does it begin without dragging its genesis along. It carries a particular memory with it. How does sound become inflected with the musical?
Inflection has diverse meanings in language, in the modulation of the voice, it indicates an angle or a bend and also appears in geometrical curvatures. In music al inflection is usually a change in pitch, which can be expanded to include alterations of all sorts in a sound. Not just pitch, but timbre, rhythm, voicing, tempo are all inflections. Sounds must be inflected to compose, perform, or hear a piece of music. Inflection shapes words to express gender, number, mood, and tense, twisting their vowels, prefixes, suffixes, so that they point to the words and world around them.
Even this broad definition is too restrictive, for every word is inflected by its context; else we would need a different word for every difference of meaning.
Inflection makes language possible in speech. Meaning becomes sonorous only by virtue of the articulation of sound; and sound must be bent to invite the listener to share in its meaning. In her turn, the attentive listener must bend her hearing just so, in concert with the sound she hears. Every sentence, every sound is thus an instruction, a set of directions to follow as best we can.
We bend our listening according to the inflections of the sound. We do not all follow directions the same way even if they are the same directions, and it may take a few different attempts, different ways of inflecting one’s understanding before the instructions become effective.
The difficulty of understanding is linked to a fundamental ambiguity of inflections; inflection is never articulate, it can never instruct conclusively, because in language as in sound generally, inflection inflects innuendo. You don’t always begin to speak without knowing exactly what you will say; you begin with innuendo and then you inflect. Do you express an idea by anticipating its entirety in thought before articulating it in speech or writing? Do you speak a sentence only after first choosing each word? Before you utter a word, have you planning each phoneme, each motion of lips, tongue, lungs, jaw, cheeks, throat?
No, idea, sentence, and word all begin in innuendo, and to inflect that innuendo is to invent a sound that may surprise the speaker as much as the listener. The speaker does not reveal a prior private knowledge to the listener but articulates the sound between them. Listener and speaker share the innuendo to the inflected, and the difference between them is not a matter of an understanding already held by the speaker and lacking in the listener but a matter o attitude; the speaker inflects sound spoken, the listener inflects sound heard. You will by now realise that the discussion thus far is inflected towards a comparison between the soundfulness of words and meaningfulness of sounds as an excuse to think about how meaning and sound are connected to music and memory.
We all need a memory to listen to music or make intelligible a particular kind of sound as either sound or noise. Noise can be any difference between an input signal and the corresponding output signal; or it can be a background level of sonic energy in a room or in a machine; or it can be any unwanted, annoying, or unexpected sound; or it can be the constant vibration of the air at a given point in space; or it can refer to any sound whatsoever.
Noise makes sense or gives sense to sound by providing sound with its direction and by bringing it to a point of clarity. In other words, noise inflects sound with an intentionality or sense of direction and a direction is of course, where it is coming from and where it is going to. Without memory, how would we know what to feel next, why would we feel anything without a sense of what has come before? All musicians would agree that no note or chord would have a musical significance if it were not for a preceding of following event.
The previous note, the previous chord, the previous phrase, the previous section, movement, piece, performer, composure etc are the previousness to which musical memory draws upon to make itself musical. Memory is not called on to compare large sections with each other. Instead, memory attends to the immediate, comparing each sound to itself, to its neighbours, and to whatever sound there is. Simply put, before the beginning was the memory.
Memory is so indispensable not just to the achievement of a musical performance, such as in a recital, but also to the internal dynamics of music itself such is in the idioms of rhythm and tempo. This relationship between music and memory could also be visible in the way in which music creates its own sense of time and space through sound. Sound is where time and space collide, where a room is mapped into compressions and refractions when sound translates space into time in an ambience of music.
PNG Museum celebrated the international museum day with the theme ‘Museums and Memory’ which is reflected through an exhibition titled: “Music and Memory” currently on display at the Sir Alan Mann gallery. Visiting hours are Monday to Sunday from 9.30am to 3.30pm and on Sunday from 1pm to 3pm. The public is invited to view the exhibition.