Sunday, August 7, 2016

Of Music, Memory and Mystery

A decade ago, or, to put it more accurately, in another lifetime, I completed the equivalent of a Bachelor's degree in Hindustani classical music. Stretched between completing college applications for my Master's studies, psychology lectures, practicals and five music lessons a week, I didn't so much give my final music exam as slowly implode through it. Later, I gingerly lifted myself from the wreckage, found all my vital bits intact, and walked away, never to look back. 

Not true. I still love music. But somewhere between the second year and the very demanding fourth and fifth years, between the twelve and fourteen raga syllabus, between the memorization of dozens of intricate internal aural structures, between the development of an ear for sur and taal and the infinite variations of each, between the eight hours a week of classes, music became less a labour of love and more plain labour. It was one more subject added to the long list of those I was studying for my (actual) B.A. degree, one more sphere of knowledge to condense into handy byte-sized bits, breathlessly exacavated at exam time. 

But music is the ultimate abstraction, and it is never so much learned or studied as absorbed. You grow your knowledge of music, you nurture it, you make space for it temporally, physically, mentally and, some would say, spiritually. Music isn't a lifelong pursuit. It is a life-long meditation. 

Which might be why my superficial knowledge of ragas, acquired over the fraught and frantic last two years of musical schooling, simply evaporated over the course of my Master's degree and career in, well, nonmusical things. I'd attend concerts, identify the occasional raga, maybe even a bandish, if I was lucky, but draw a complete blank regarding its formal, theoretical sub and super structures. The finesse was gone. All I had was clumsy recognition. 

What's more important than what I have lost, though, is what I have gained and retained. Years of learning from the most generous of teachers have honed my listening skills. I know, instinctively, whether a musical performance has genuine quality. I have been taught to look beyond musical showmanship and attend to a performer's depth of understanding. The things they tell you about listening well being a joy? They're true.  

And then there are the memories of the music itself, living, thriving trace memories. There have been times when I've heard a raga at a performance, and hours or days later, begun humming something at home that I thought I'd forgotten years ago - interestingly, a fragment of the same raga or a sister raga from the same thaat. An echo, almost, belatedly responding to the call of sound. 

Sorting through my bookshelf yesterday, I stumbled upon my second and third year textbooks and was delighted to find that I remember almost every bandish from those more relaxed years - note for note, inflection for inflection. 

How do musical memories work? It's incredible, and incredibly mysterious. After all, as I mentioned earlier, music is the ultimate abstraction. Listening neither depends on, nor leaves behind, bio-chemical markers. We can all claim to have been moved by music, to remember exactly where we were, how we felt, what we were doing when we heard a particular song. But the music itself? How do we remember it? Isn't recollecting music, playing it back to ourselves in our minds, hearing it without the stimulus of sound - the abstracting of the abstraction - the ultimate illusion? 

We never got around to studying musical memories that one year I studied cognitive psychology. And while I'm sure the research in this area has progressed by leaps and bounds, I've never bothered to investigate any of it for myself. It's laziness, for sure. But it is also a certain pleasure in the idea of mystery and magic, in the sense that the intangible, the ineffable, is as much a part of me as the tangible. Is as alive, if not more.  

Not all those who wander are lost. Not all that can be explained, should be. 
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