In the course of reviewing Oliver Sacks's recent Musicophilia in the New York Review of Books, the philosopher Colin McGinn, taking stock of how the music we hear nestles deep inside our neurological pathways, wrote that "[M]usical memory connects with our sense of self, since musical taste and experience are closely linked to personality and emotion. The music we remember is, without exaggeration, part of who we are." It's strange and a little unsettling to think of our personalities being shaped by the music we listen to, and yet, as I sit here effortlessly calling to mind the slow horn chorale near the beginning of Mahler's First Symphony, I know that it's true.
But as easily as that is conjured up, it's there, in my brain, without a lot of associations tied to it. I remember the different times I've heard it live, and the cities I was in, but when the piece starts it doesn't send me back to the first time I heard it. I sometimes wonder if this is what people really mean when they say that classical music is "timeless." It exists in a state that isn't fixed, that isn't final, and that performers are always trying to capture. Mahler's First Symphony doesn't live on an mp3 or a CD, despite what the CD's cover says; the symphony only exists when it's actually being played. The notes in the score symbolize Mahler's thoughts, and every performance is the orchestra's best attempt at realizing it. It's "timeless" only to the extent that, if orchestras still exist in 200 years, they will be no closer to giving an entirely true performance of the piece than at the premiere in 1884.
Contrast that history with my ongoing relationship with R.E.M. I can pinpoint my exact location for each time I first heard one of their CDs, which brings back, say, the smell of my first dorm room, or who I was with when I bought the CD. What's more, every time I listen to one of those discs, the associations come back with great intensity, and it's as if I'm 16, or 18, or 23 and living in Muncie, Indianapolis, or Bloomington all over again.
I bring this up because R.E.M. released Accelerate in March, and I of course went out and bought it.
It got me thinking back to when I was traveling with my dad through Illinois on a college visit. We were driving home, it was dark, and we stopped at a McDonald's. He dashed in to grab the food (I don't know why we didn't use the drive-thru), and I got out of the car with my Walkman. I had Out of Time in the machine, and "Country Feedback" came on. That twangy, relentless song, with Michael Stipe calling out "It's crazy what you could've had/I need this" with more remorse than I thought was possible at that age, did such a number on me as I contemplated my future, staring out into the dark night overlooking a cornfield, that I was basically speechless when my dad came back to the car.
I won't surprise anyone with the banality of this observation, but "Everybody Hurts" will always have a special place in my heart. About that consoling anthem, guitarist Peter Buck wrote that "This song doesn't really belong to us anymore; it belongs to everybody who has ever gotten any solace from it. The reason that the lyrics are so atypically straightforward is because it was aimed at teenagers." It got me, and it got me good, and it helped me get through high school.
Where it starts to get interesting is that Buck wrote those sentences in the booklet that accompanied the 2003 collection In Time. A now-ex bought that for me - in the deluxe version, sweet thing that she was - but the effect was incredibly jarring. With all the songs gathered from several different albums, I was whipsawed from reminiscing about one album to another with every single track. The matter was confounded by the second disc, which consists of remixes (remices?) of other songs, so that the effect on a die-hard R.E.M. fan is to listen to the new versions while running a tape in your head of the original, and then you start thinking about what the original actually is, if it's what came out on CD, or what they play in concert, and before long it's on to the next track and all the accumulated memories you've piled on to that one. Someone will probably tell me that this is much easier to take with the aid of drugs.
This is a self-serving way to talk about music, I know. But it is how I listen to this band, and how they've become a part of my life. This isn't necessarily timeless the way that my experience with the Mahler was; it isn't that way at all, actually. R.E.M. serves as bookends and benchmarks in my life in extraordinarily specific ways. (The place I bought Up? The Barnes & Noble on the north side of Indianapolis. The first time I remember listening to Document? Driving back from a high school swimming meet in Indianapolis.) I remember individual performances of my favorite classical works, and I vividly remember the first time I heard the classical artists whom I admire. But the music that they played and that I heard doesn't seem tethered to the experience in the same way. Maybe it's not that it is timeless, so much as out of time.