Did you ever play the memory game?

It was a feature of birthday parties, before the days of trampoline parks and bouncy castles. In between the 3-legged race and the cake, a tray with assorted objects was briefly presented for the guests’ viewing and memorizing, the winner being she/he who could remember the most items. What I remember is never winning!

Paying attention is an important skill, one that requires openness and practise.  It is just as true for hearing as for observing.  You think you know what your friends’ exasperated sigh means because you’ve heard it so many times…until it doesn’t mean that anymore, and you have to pay attention again.

Music goes in one ear and out the other, until we realize we might have missed something, and need a double-take to confirm.  It’s the feeling you get when you hear backmasking, the technique of recording music played backwards, made famous by the Beatles (“Paul is dead…Paul is dead”), but actually started decades earlier.

Listen to Ólafur Arnalds’ “re:member”, and what initially sounds like a pretty song with static piano intervals and chords starts to strike you as something different…what’s going on with the piano?  What are those strange other sounds, like echoes but…not like echoes. It’s actually software creating separate streams of the same sounds, almost there, almost not there, which lends a touch of otherworldliness to the piece.
Being receptive enough to remember, being open to sounds as they wander into your ears, means they will make an impression on us.  We will remember them.  I remember hearing the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit” for the first time.  It took my breath away.  The raw authenticity and power of it completely obscured the foul language (foul language has never been a problem for me).   It moved me and I will never forget it.
“O you, who have been torn from me…”

Frank Bernard Dicksee – Yseult – Public Domain

These words from Friedrich Rückert’s poetry were used by Schubert in his song “Sei mir gegrüsst!”.  He used the song again in his Fantasy for violin & piano (op. 159, D. 934), recorded recently by Duo Concertante.  As beautiful as the poetry is, the violin and piano convey something far more profound:
When we pay attention we can hear the strands, the sounds, the emotions that are in every compelling piece of music.  And we can never forget.