New Milestones: Time (Stillness, Movement, and Memory)

April 8, 7:30 PM

Episodic Memory

When we have a new experience, it can trigger a replay of specific past events from our lives. If we hear a new performance of one of our favorite string quartets, we might be transported to the very first time we heard that piece, reliving that initial encounter. But our episodic memory can be tricked—prompted to identify something as corresponding to a past listening experience even when it’s something completely new. In Seo’s #three, in the midst of her “little jazzy snippets,” we hear a Beethovinian cadence (Clip 1).

There is a similar, jarring experience later on, with a burst of Rachmaninov (Clip 2). In such moments, it’s hard not to think “where have I heard this before?” These gestures aren’t direct quotations. But their specificity, and their suddenness in the context of the musical stream, prompts a deliberate attempt to place them in time and in our memories of past listening experiences.

Studies have shown that most listeners can identify the style of a particular song in less than a second.

Semantic Memory

When we hear a familiar tune, we don’t always think back to the first time we heard it. We might just think “that’s Greensleeves.” Once we have learned a concept through extensive repetition, we recognize its typical features, its patterns, and we can rely on more generalized, semantic memory. Our ability to recognize the characteristic features of a particular composer or style depends on such memory. In her piece, Seo triggers expectations and associations with jazz styles by using the instrument combination of a jazz trio: piano, percussion, and double bass (Clip 3).

Combinations of instrumental sounds are extremely powerful cues for our musical memories. Studies have shown that most listeners can identify the style of a particular song in less than a second. In such a time frame, where we don’t have the chance to recognize melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic features, we must be relying on the timbre of what we hear. The passage heard here in fact also employs melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic gestures that intentionally evoke jazz style; Seo uses such elements throughout. But the composer manipulates the expectations engendered by these powerful cues to semantic memory. She never lets the music settle into a groove, instead playing with an interplay between our automatic expectations about musical style and the deliberate searching through our episodic memory that takes place when we think we are hearing something else.

Working Memory

When we encounter brand new music in a fairly unfamiliar style, there are still many musical elements that we latch onto and start to remember over the course of that listening. Often, we store these elements temporarily in our working memories, the same mental space where we might hold and repeat a new password we need to memorize. At the beginning of a composition, a composer often presents us with a repeated musical idea (Clip 4).

We hear this rhythmic gesture many times, giving us the opportunity to rehearse it, to internalize it, and to develop dynamic expectations about the music that is to come. All of these kinds of memory interact with one another: what starts as a short phrase held in working memory during a first listening could become part of an episodic memory that is triggered the next time we hear a piece. After a few more hearings, we might be able to automatically identify a snippet of the piece, without reference to specific experiences. The dynamics between these and other kinds of memory contribute to the extraordinary diversity of experiences different listeners have when encountering the same music.

Patrick Castillo's Incident for Violin and Piano

Patrick Castillo’s Incident begins with a pre-recorded phrase in the violin. Alexander Sitkovetsky listens as the recording is played and then enters by echoing it. The piece gradually builds off that phrase, the initial incident of the work.

The Passage of Time

Music challenges our sense of time. As it unfolds, music shapes our experience, creating an ever-evolving moment that is the product of all we’ve heard plus our expectations of what’s to come. From the sweeping spectral landscape of Gérard Grisey’s Vortex temporum to the poetic musings of Jeffrey Mumford’s in the community of passing hours, this playlist provides one hour and six minutes of music about time.