I’ve always found sense memories to be terribly interesting phenomena.
My most intense sense memory involves the texture and flavor of pancakes with butter and apricot syrup at a Perkins somewhere near what I think was Omaha when I was somewhere around the age of 7ish. I think we were coming home from a funeral for a great uncle and got caught in a plains blizzard on the interstate but in particular the warmth and sweet/tart/sweet/buttery flavor of those pancakes in a warm room at a table with my family is one of my most enduring and cherished memories. I often wonder if that is what I am trying to recreate when I go out with friends and family for dinner as an adult. There is something significant about the feeling of comfort, joy, and connection with my family in that memory that I can almost put into words.
While I have other taste memories (sweetbreads at Cosmos with Lauren) and certainly many visual memories (the synaesthetically “noisy” red backdrop to an exhibit at the Minnesota History Center with Heidi), many of the most emotionally intense sense memories are essentially audio cues centered around music. It’s pretty obvious to me that one of the reasons why music is associated with such strongly emotional memories is that for as long as I can remember I have always used music as a sort of proxy to structure my thoughts.
My brain, like almost anyone else’s as far as I can tell, is a fantastically active place. Thoughts do not occur in isolation so much as they occur in chains and groups alongside other chains and groups and emotion can be a component of those thoughts or sometimes more of a medium that the thoughts are moving through. When it is working well it’s a lot like a big pot of boiling pasta with the varying textures of the vaporizing water and the bobbling pasta shapes dancing around at the top of a startlingly clear medium that siphons off easily and quickly through my hands and mouth and body to manifest in the world. At it’s very worst it seems more like an impenetrable pool of magma that is painful to handle and flows exactly like the fire that it is. Searing and destroying everything in it’s path. Music allows me to sift the particulates in a cloudy medium and settles the roiling boil so that I can actually see what is going on rather than simply having to guess at the contents from the random stew at the surface.
My first music focused sense memory involves sitting in my dad’s car in the parking lot of Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids on a cool fall day with the sort of intense sun that makes it impossible to keep at a comfortable level between baking and chilled. We had just arrived but we were taking a few minutes to finish listening to one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos on the radio before MPR had separate classical and news stations. It was one of the remarkably rare times I remember my dad sitting with the car off and the radio on with the volume up. I don’t know why we where there that particular time, though at a guess it was almost certainly to visit one of his parishioners who was in the hospital for one reason or another.
That example aside, it feels like many of the music memories are related to relationships, and romantic relationships more often than not. They Might Be Giant‘s album “Flood“, the song “Birdhouse in your Soul” in particular, for the interminable week it took me to call my first girlfriend up for a first date. Public Image Limited‘s song “Rise” and The Godfather‘s album “Unreal World” punctuates everything about the relationships with old friends during the summer between high school and college and the implicit and explicit transitions that where happening. Enigma‘s album “The Cross of Changes” for the new friends found at college shortly thereafter. Morphine‘s album “Cure for Pain” as the intensely stereotypical soundtrack for the breakup with my girlfriend from college. Midnight Oil‘s song “Been away too long” and the rest of the “Capricornia” album when Betsy left me that also signaled ends and beginnings to so very, very many things.
I think I can count myself lucky that it has happened often enough that I actually come to recognize that the memory is being formed while it is happening. It’s not a conscious effort, it just seems to be something that I do. Since I use music to organize the screaming mess in my head it is a very natural event for me. This has the obvious upside of proving that I have at least a glimmer of self awareness but also has the accompanying stark terror of the absolute unknown since I do not know what will end up being frozen in that crystal of amber when the moment has completed.
At this point I think the inherent advantage of acquiring recorded music solely through the means of traveling to a brick and mortar storefront, perusing the incredibly over complicated system to locate likely albums that I might like to purchase, physically bringing the stack of shiny plastic to the cashier with my own hands and whatever other means I can come up with in the moment, watching as each barcode or price sticker is laboriously tallied, and finally handing over a suitable bundle of paper or small plastic card which may or may not be returned with a large bag containing the shiny plastic I took such pains to collect is that is is not an easy process. I have to have the time and energy to get the store. I have to have enough patience to be able to defeat whatever myopic intelligence designed the system to hide the items that I want from me. Most importantly I have to think about the entire process as I go through it which makes me more likely to think about things like, “Can I afford this?”.
It is that last bit that worries me the most with Amazon.com‘s new MP3 Download service. So far I’ve only purchased three albums and I wonder if that isn’t just the taste that I need to go wildly into debt if I don’t keep my wits about.
I have experimented with various music download services at various points and had highly varied experiences with the multitude of them. There is something about the simplicity of Amazon’s execution of the concept that has finally gotten through to me that this is really finally possible.
It certainly has it’s downsides. It currently only runs on Windows, not that I run anything else right now and by the same token it should not actually be too difficult for them to port their client application to just about any OS given how simple it is. Relatively small selection of “only” 1 million tracks (or there abouts) which sounds like a lot but really means that only a small number of the many songs that you might want to buy may be available. Still has a couple of quirks being fairly early in beta though there has already been one client update since release which fixed the only problem that I’ve run into personally.
About that problem: As I mentioned I have purchased three albums from the service. The Cinematic Orchestra’s “Motion”, Skalpel’s self titled album, and Sufjan Stevens’ “Illinois” which turned out to be my first and only cause to contact Amazon’s tech support. I initially sent an email message through their web interface but did not get any reply after 30ish hours so I used the web interface to have them call me (neat trick) and talked to someone very nice who couldn’t quite help me because the tech support for the download service wasn’t quite open for business at 7:30AM CST on a Tuesday. When I finally called them a half hour later a very nice person fairly immediately re-authorized the download links for me and I was able to finally get the album and I’ve been listening to the audio CD I burned immediately all day since. Turns out the new client was likely the reason why I could download the album this time, though neither I nor the tech support guy had any good reason why that might be so. I suspect it has something to do with the rather whimsical and extensive names given to the tracks of this particular album since they’ve been giving some of my other applications some trouble too.
Some of the people who might read this might think that having trouble with one third of my purchases so far is a good example of how new and untried the service is, but I would actually say quite the opposite. The first attempt was utterly perfect and gave me good reason to try it two more times. The client setup is relatively painless, even in Vista with UAC enabled, and the neat little touch of automatically adding the downloads to my iTunes library meant that I could start listening immediately without having to go look for what the client had done with the files. I’m a savvy enough computer user that really that isn’t actually a problem for me, especially given how difficult it can be from other services, but not having to worry about little details like that makes me really think this is ready for everyone, not just those who sometimes wander over near the bleeding edge.
Supposedly they are marking the downloaded files so that if the files show up on a P2P network later they know where they came from, but I’m not honestly worried about that since I don’t participate in any of that. Otherwise they are pure MP3 files with appropriately pre-populated tags and even embedded cover art. I can, and have, used them any of the multitude of places that I use mp3 files.
I honestly think this is finally it. Give it a try.
FYI – If you install Adobe Reader 8.1 from the Adobe website, it will automagically install “Adobe Photoshop Album Starter Edition” without prompting to accept.
If I wanted the software, I would have asked to download and install it.
Assholes like this give people like me a bad name.
As a birthday present for my sister this year I got tickets for her and I to go see the Barenaked Ladies play at the Xcel Center in St Paul last night. The show was pretty good, though I have to admit that I was a bit more excited about (and happy at the performance of) the opening act than I was was of the headliner. Mike Doughty was in fine form and did a great job warming up the crowd with some of his solo work as well as a couple of Soul Coughing tunes, though no one sitting near us really seemed to know who the heck he was. I really need to make more of an effort to see him do his own show the next time he’s in town.
Anyway, Barenaked Ladies also had a very good show and I did enjoy it very much. My sister and I have had an on-going strong discussion (because it’s not serious enough to be an argument) about whether BNL was as fun on stage as their fellow Torontans, er, Toronto-ans, um, band from Toronto Moxy Fruvous. Well BNL does a good show, but they’re nothing close to Moxy Fruvous on stage. Definitely fun, don’t get me wrong, but not nearly the quantity of digressions, ad-libs, and other wacky types of stuff that happens at a Moxy Fruvous show.
They also didn’t sing any songs in French. What kind of Canadian band is that, eh? ;-P
The really cool part of the show for me though was that while perusing the merchandise table prior to the show they had a sign up the “Barenaked on a Stick LIVE!” USB key for $25. The details are this: They record the entire show off of the boards and dump it to an MP3 file. They they copy that MP3 file and a PDF with the set list off to fifty USB keys and hand them out as soon as duplication is complete after the show. The two very, very tiny little issues that I have with this:
- There is exactly one MP3 file that has the entire show so it can be a bit unwieldly to listen to. So I’ve spent a bit of time today listening to the file in Audacity and spliting out tracks as I come to them. (Thus the post title…)
- It doesn’t include the opening act. Completely understandable but it would have been nice.
Overall it’s a really cool idea and it’s been fun to listen to. I’m trying to decide if it’s a good idea to get the albums they have available in this form or not though.
Further issues with the Zune software:
- No dynamic play lists. While I occasionally will listen to a particular album or artist, my primary method of listening to music is a modified shuffle of the entire library, slightly culled by dropping any tracks that I’ve played in the last 1-3 weeks (My full library at home gets 3 weeks, my smaller library at work gets 1 week). This means that I really do often hear stuff that I haven’t heard lately which usually makes up for the other quirks in the default shuffle play systems of both iTunes and any version of Windows Media Player I’ve toyed around with.
- Media updates will stop playback of that media. So after figuring I would at least try and listen to something in the interface, despite the aforementioned lack of dynamic playlists, so I queued up a recently acquired album (You Are Here by Banco de Gaia, which is really quite good world beat electronica) and started listening. Six minutes into the first track (which clocks at nine minutes and 15 seconds) the music suddenly stops. Somewhat mystified I pull up the player and notice a little banner at the bottom saying “Updating You Are Here…” or something similar. While that banner was displayed I could queue up other music, but not the one that was being updated. Again, iTunes and Windows Media Player don’t have this issue.
- Does not minimize to system tray. I tend to keep a lot of windows open while I am working during the day and so being able to remove one item from the taskbar to reduce clutter actually makes quite a difference to me. Unlike iTunes and Windows Media Player, I cannot find a single option that allows me to minimize to the system tray.
I think the strangest thing about all of those points is that otherwise the interface looks and behaves almost identical to Windows Media Player 11, which I spent a fair bit of time playing around with over the past couple of weeks. Playback works okay and audio quality isn’t an issue that I can tell, but I see absolutely no compelling reasons to keep this installed on my computer.
I had also honestly been considering the possibility of getting a Zune, but until at least the minimize and dynamic playlist issues are fixed it’s just not an option for me.
I think my only complaint with the album is that it is kind of front loaded. I usually don’t have quite this much trouble remembering what I just heard after the middle of the album when I listen to it straight through. The early tracks on the album are really, really incredibly good and the last half of the album is only really good but for some reason slightly less memorable.
Still, excellent listening for anyone who enjoys Second-Line Brass Bands or New Orleans style Brass Bands, whichever we are calling them this week, and actually a decent introduction to this style of music if you have any interest in finding out more. Mama Digdown’s has consistently been more easily progressive than some of the more adventurous bands like Rebirth Brass Band or Youngblood Brass Band. I think part of that is, as a friend put it after listening to Youngblood’s “Center. Level. Roar.”, that Mama Digdown’s is consistently more “tight” than many of the other bands doing relatively similar music. (Though, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve asked him to give Mama Digdown’s a listen so I don’t know that he’d agree with this assessment.)
The “tight” component of this style of music I find to almost be related to how much hip-hop influence is present. The more hip-hop influence the less “tight”, or really loose I suppose, and when it really works the song sounds like an utterly beautiful accident. A sort of musical embodiment of serendipity. The problem is that when it doesn’t work the song can sound just plain sloppy. As much as I really enjoy hearing them and think they are a pretty decent local party band, Jack Brass Band can kind of epitomize the sometimes heard habit of letting the lack of talent be heard as that lack of being “tight” and really what keeps them from being really good. A hard line to walk some times and I think going for “tight” first and then working for the “loose” sound is a generally better plan.
I’m playing with a new music social network web toy right now called Qloud. It’s very similar to Last.fm which I have been playing with for a couple of years now, but in some ways the service might have a better outlook.
So far the service is pretty rough. Searching from the main page can be painful. The interface is… difficult. The iTunes plug-in needs some very serious work (Advice: Whatever you do, try not to accidentally put a ‘\’ in any of your tags. I can’t use the plug-in at work anymore because I’ve got a tag with that in it and it crashes iTunes withing seconds of launching and there does not appear to be any way to remove tags outside the plug-in.). The track information database they have is problematic with some tracks having entirely wrong attributions, many albums not existing at all, no way to input new information, and horrible handling of non-english character sets.
But it’s interesting and different, and has some potential.
If you do decide to take a spin with it, sign up using this link and I get points for the referral.
[Listening to: Magoo by Drums and Tuba from the album Mostly Ape]
I don’t think I’ve posted recently about how much I like the band Drums and Tuba. I’m reminded of it since the track Magoo from the album Mostly Ape came up in my usual shuffle mode listening. Finding myself typing in time to the music while writing some code is kind of an odd experience. It is exactly the sort of song that grabs hold of your lizard brain and begins to reprogram you to move and breathe in it’s own time until the first horn solo comes through and sets you free to figure out what the hell is going on before the capturing riffs come back just like a fairytale piper to lead you back out of your own head.
While quite a bit of D&T’s music can be quite impenetrable to those who don’t like to be challenged in their music listening, this track in particular shows off exactly how well composed, challenging, and yet so incredibly listenable their music can be.
Experimental? Hell yes. But approachable. Appreciable.