The Art of Memory and Music/Text
As we prepare for Perfect Lives Manhattan, the task of memorization of the text has been the greatest concern and challenge (as has been discussed throughout this blog). To help prepare for the task, slightly procrastinate, and research, I’ve been reading Frances Yates’ “The Art of Memory,” mentioned in Robert Ashley’s notes on Perfect Lives.
“The Art of Memory” is a historical study of the classical (and beyond) art of memory and its relationship to the printed word, invaluable in this Information Age of ours where not only can we store printed words, images, sounds, and every combination thereof but this age wherein we have almost instant access to all of the above! As I read, I can’t help but wonder what the usefulness of the ancient art of memorization is to remembering not only “words” and “things” but music as well. Especially the memorization of both music AND words at the same time.
The ancient art “discovered” by Simonides of enhancing natural memory by coming up with a subjective “place” in which to store all the information one needs to be able to recall. There are images of a lone student of rhetoric wandering a deserted building muttering, developing the “place” where they will return internally while memorizing and reciting for ever after. The “place” is meant to contain several place-markers that are easy for the student to remember, examples include blood-stained shirts, golden hands, ram’s testicles, etc. This seems useful for one medium at a time, but when two mediums must be performed at the same time, things become more complex and problems arise. For example, I will be performing “The Bank” while at the same time playing the guitar, how can I reconcile the act of accessing the text through my subjective “place” while simultaneously making precise finger movements which must also be remembered?
Up until this point I have been using what the anonymous author of the seminal textbook on developing artificial memory would call “natural memory” to memorize the text. If I decide to “cheat” and use the techniques analyzed by Yates to enhance my natural memory, where does music come in?
It might be useful to build the “place” as is recommended by the Romans but include a stage somewhere where a band akin to Louis Armstrong’s “ideal band” (Armstrong often mentions when asked how he always seems to play perfectly no matter who he’s playing with that he pictures a fantastic band playing along with him in his head whenever he plays) might play while the text is memorized/recited. For The Bank I might place Blue Gene Tyranny playing the keytar (to evoke my proposed arrangement), Peter Gordon on drums (like Music Word Fire (I would do it again)), David Byrne on guitar, and Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem performing the chorus parts on the stage in my imaginary memory place. Then while I memorize the text they would be constantly playing in the background, providing an accompaniment that I could then draw from during the performance while I try not to forget lines that sometime seem to drop when I recite (often on the subway platform, apologies to MTA customers and employees).
This might confuse things, but it’s worth a shot, and worth considering in the context of “Perfect Lives,” itself a result of these ancient ideas of memorization and performance.
– Brian McCorkle