A Case Study in Musical Memory and Past Lives

Piano yeah

[I just made this giant tech post on the eleVR blog about audio for VR film, which got me in the mood for a post with actual audio included in it. Sorry for neglecting you, regular blog!]

This is a story about two piano pieces.

Memory is weird. Things change fast and I change fast and sometimes I come across some evidence that I was a person in the past, evidence stronger than words or pictures because it’s in the language I know best.

I might come across a bit of music that I composed, or that past-me composed, and say, like an outsider to myself: “huh, I guess I’m a person. I bet I have feelings and stuff, inside me.”

Here’s a recording I made, trying to remember a piece I’d written and immediately forgotten about three years earlier.

The above recording was created in a literal act of self-preservation. I was out at dinner and found that the above piano piece was in my head. It played inconspicuously for a bit, and then I noticed it was there, and at first I didn’t recognize it as something I myself had written.

Written years ago, in another life, before I had any hope of success and was planning to starve to death as a composer, trying and failing for years to get into a graduate school and unable to come up with any livable plan for myself. I wrote it in under an hour, a throwaway doodle I hadn’t thought of it since.

I didn’t know if I’d ever made a recording of it. I’ve made hundreds of quick recordings of quick compositions, but even more go unrecorded, and sometimes I get something stuck in my head that I know I’ve never saved anywhere, and I wonder if that is the last time it will ever enter a human brain, and I will forget it and it will be dead.

Yet this one came back, for no apparent reason, during dinner at a place I’d been before, eating my usual. The shape of things was somehow right, and having been there before was part of that shape. And the topic of dinner discussion was not unusual, but also fit into the other shapes in just the right way that when you put them together they had the same shape as the song, somehow. The same outline. Just filled with different stuff.

I tried to grab what little bit of my past self I could.

And then, after recording the above, I found that I did have a recording of the piece from years earlier.

Later I’d feel stupid and inadequate at my awful recreation of a much better original, but the first thing I felt was wonder and joy. I was listening, as if for the first time, to something that had literally been made just for me by someone who knows just what I like, someone who exactly speaks my language. Someone good, really good. I was glimpsing into the mind of someone who is like me, but better.

When the inversion came in, something I’d completely forgotten in my inferior recreation, I laughed out loud. How clever of past-me. And what self-control, what perfect editing, to plow right through the inversion the first time though and go back to that awesome invertedĀ cadence, just a taste before later coming back to it and spending the amount of time I expected the first time, as if I were inverting not just the melody but the form. And I wish I myself could play piano so artfully!

I, current me, know the piece, can reconstruct past-me’s thought process and feel as if I’m the composer, in the same way I can play Brahms and feel I know the piece, understand the necessary place of every note, feel I am Brahms for a moment. I feel equally a stranger, and equally close, to my own mind and many others. I don’t listen to Beethoven, I become him. I’ve been possessed by Schoenberg, I’ve been the brief reincarnation of Bach. Sometimes I even feel I am myself.

I’ve sacrificed something, by not starving to death as a crazy artist. I absolutely do not miss being the person who wrote and recorded that “doodle”, yet, listening to my past self, I can’t help but feel I’ve lost something. I don’t know if I really have.

Here’s where the plot thickens.

All the above happened about a year ago, and I’d thought it would be interesting to write up a blog post but got distracted by whatever. Too many things. So, seeing as it’s been so long, I thought it would be interesting to try recording the piece again, with only a year’s gap this time, and see how it came out.

My first attempt came out like this:

Now, savvy listener, you’ve probably noticed a certain discrepancy earlier than I did. After recording that much of it, I got stuck, and it took me a bit to figure it out.

I knew it was supposed to go into the inversion that I’d forgotten last time. I remembered it being good and clever. Yet I could not figure out what came next! The melody is so simple, and the inversion just didn’t make sense. I didn’t recognize it. I thought I must have been really extra clever, if I’d actually come up with something good. Maybe in the left hand? Still doesn’t seem familiar!

I poked the keys with a frown, until eventually I realized I was playing the wrong piece.

It’s interesting that somehow the melodic information and form information are stored separately enough in my brain that I could accidentally mix and match.

But this incorrect piece was not chosen arbitrarily. I’d written both pieces the same day, perhaps in the same hour, and the two are supposed to be together. They capture the same feeling, though they say different things about it.

Two pieces, written and forgotten together, and also originally recorded together:

Sometimes I feel a pull towards seriously doing music again. I am a much better composer than mathemusician.

Economics wins though: there’s millions of musicians working hard all day every day for years, while almost no one puts that kind of work into making youtube videos about math. The game I’m playing now isn’t easy, but there’s not much competition.

And music is terrifying. You can hear in the above piece how fragile it is, could accidentally tear apart with the slightest touch, a thorn through a dragonfly’s wing. It is my past self telling me to stay away. She’s lovely, but I wouldn’t want to be her.

No real music allowed! Stick with bagels and snails and laser bats and tiny throwaway doodles.

Memory is terrifying too. The only thing that has any real power over me is my own brain.

Music eats you up. It’s easy to get stuck in a piece. I made another attempt and my mind wandered and I got stuck

Research shows that contrary to our perception, the more we recall a memory the more inaccurate it becomes. It changes, warps. We feel as if the more we rehearse it the clearer it becomes, and while it may seem clearer, it’s further from the original. The most accurate memories are the ones that pop up out of nowhere after years without thinking of them.

There’s parts of music that are like that. How a performance of a piece went. How its supposed to be played. How it felt to play it, the energy in the room, the quality of the instrument. The non-compositional details are the ones that fade and change like normal memory. But the thing itself, unlike memory, truly exists. A piece of music is a real thing. It is the part that does not change or fade no matter how often you assert its existence.

There’s other similar pieces I wrote just a week before the originals of the ones above, and I kept up with them, remembered them through the years, playing them now and then. Those I recall perfectly and accurately. Unlike memories, the music that suddenly pops up after years is the one that has lost something.

The two original piano doodles above were written the day before I started working on “Doodling in Math Class: Snakes and Graphs,” which was released just a few days later, and was the first of my videos to go viral. It’s no wonder I dropped those pieces entirely from my consciousness for three years. The gulf between who I was that day and who I was the next cannot be reconciled.

If I wrote this piece now, maybe instead of getting distracted and stuck, lengthening, same-ifying, I would immediately become bored of perfect crystal forms and crush it swiftly:

I have so many tools now.

You might have noticed the key keeps changing. The memory I had of the original piece was purely musical, no mechanical muscle memory, no visual where-my-hands-go memory, and I don’t have perfect pitch. And so the original, in g minor, was recreated in a minor a year ago, but for the above version it wanted to feel bumpier to the fingers, and without remembering what the previous keys were, b minor felt right.

B major, on the other hand, would have been the correct original key for the other piece, which I recreated in D major while intending to recreate the other piece that had been in g and a.

Now I am tired of writing this post. Thus ends the story of two insignificant pieces.

[All music in this post is free to download and distribute under a creative commons noncommercial share-alike license.]