This week I had a rare chance to see a piece of mine performed from memory. It was exhilarating on many levels, one being the lack of distracting music stand. But it was also rare to hear some performers whipping through a piece of mine, thinking to myself, “These people know my music better than I do right now.” Of course I wrote the thing, but having since moved on to other pieces my exact memory of every bar remains vastly inferior to a group that has just committed the music to memory.
This prompts me to wonder: how normal a reaction is this among composers? Are there those among us who retain a very clear aural imprint of every compositional effort on the minute level? At the other extreme, has anyone ever forgotten having written a piece? I have definitely forgotten the exact notation for some of my own highly-textural passages while at the same time remembering the music seemingly in full. Does someone like George Crumb have a photographic imprint of every one of their scores, or is it more general than that?
These kinds of questions interest me because while we composers are alive, it’s basically up to us to be the chief advocates for our music. We may encounter others that support this journey, but the buck stops with us, especially as far as the intent of the score or other defining record is concerned. As Frank J. Oteri wrote some weeks ago about a very nearly lost composition from his youth, our methods of preserving such archival materials outside our own skulls can prove just as fragile as our imperfect and frequently treasonous memory. We can buy a lot of USB backup sticks or backup utilities, or even send our scores to the Library of Congress. But this week I realized that whatever the form of data storage, there’s something magical about that data’s retrieval and performance by another person with another mind. When I hear a group of performers “download” my own coded compositional data and for a few hours or days incorporate that data into their own mental circuitry it absolutely sends chills through my spine. It is the simple connection of meeting someone who knows your work as well as you do (or at least, as you once did).