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A Proustian Moment

December 8, 2008

In his book This Is Your Brain On Music, neuroscientist/music producer Daniel Levitin discusses the way in which music, even snatches of pieces that we may not have heard for many years, serves to stimulate our memories: "When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives," writes Levitin. "Your brain on music is all about...connections."

Ever since I attended a concert performance of Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols on Saturday evening, I've been following a long breadcrumb trail into the dusty recesses of my memory. The performance itself wasn't all that remarkable. The Berkeley-based choral ensemble in question -- Sacred & Profane -- sang Julius Harrison's arrangement for mixed, SATB choir competently and with concentration. The sound was light but lacked energy and warmth. Nevertheless, I came away from the experience with Britten's music ringing in my ears.

The first thing I did was buy a recording on iTunes when I got home. I listened to many recordings, discarding some for using piano rather than the more authentic and lyrical harp accompaniment, and others for sounding too ethereal or warbly. I settled in the end on a 2003 Toronto Children's Chorus recording which to my mind struck the perfect Christmasy balance between snowy lightness and a fireside glow.

Then, as I listened, the thought seeds that were planted in my mind during the live concert started to grow into full-bloomed memories. I found myself thinking back to being 14 again and singing the work in the East Kent Girls' Choir, a chorus of girls aged between 11 and 18 based in my hometown, Canterbury. I found myself picturing our choir director, Mr. S--, an imposing and rather silly man with protruding nasal hair who doted over his favorites. Mr. S-- was given to frequent fits of distemper. He kept slamming down the piano lid in the draughty rehearsal room that once served as part of the city's prison every time we failed to give "Wolcum Yole!" (the salutation in the second number of Britten's Ceremony) the right level of attack, which was very often.

Then, as I listened to "That Yonge Child" (track 4) my mind drifted to thinking about one of Mr. S's favorites. A-- was the prettiest girl in the choir and had the most dazzlingly pure voice. A-- sang that solo. I was about six years younger than A and I remember being in awe of the girl's poise and the sweetness of her singing. Thinking back to A's performance made the recent news I'd heard on the grapevine about her recent mental collapse all the more poignant. Funny how life turns out.

As I listened on, more and more thoughts and feelings ebbed through me. I'd never bothered to look up my old music teacher, Ms. P, up since I left school or checked out out the school's website. By the time Britten's glittering yuletide processional had ended, I had found old friends and acquaintances online and learned all the latest news about my music school and high school.

It's amazing how one piece of music can trigger so much stuff. On the other hand, it doesn't take much to set me off into a Proustian idyll these days. Perhaps I'm just getting doddery and nostalgic in my old age.


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