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Music’s power and McEwan

This post has been in process for a couple weeks. Ian McEwan’s Saturday brought it to fruition.

I am continually amazed by the exceptional power of music. I’d love to find an explanation of how a song can produce goose bumps. Or why certain ones (a specific portion of Springsteen’s Rosalita and, of all things, part of the call and response in Meat Loaf’s I Would Do Anything for Love, for example) almost invariably produce that reaction, regardless of how often they’ve been heard.

The other thing is its extraordinary impact on memory. I’m not talking about how you can recall the words to a song you haven’t heard in months or years or how often you can recall the first time you heard a particular song. What strikes me is how certain songs invariably take me to specific moments in my life. For example, Pink Floyd’s Us and Them puts me on Highway 1 north of Monterey, Calif. And Springsteen’s Born to Run revives a memory of trying to wake up one spring morning at a friend’s in Brookings with a large, hot cup of coffee.

What I find remarkable about this is that these particular moments are so unremarkable. They do not deal with any notable events in my life but common occurrences. And, for example, the Highway 1 memory is of an event some 20 years after Dark Side of the Moon was released. Despite having heard the album countless times before, the song is now perpetually linked to that particular moment. Perhaps the ordinariness, more than anything, illustrates how music so suffuses and informs life that even snippets of everyday life can be rendered memorable.

One thing that impressed me so much about Saturday was that McEwan often seemed to put my thoughts into words. He highlighted another impact of music with this passage:

There are these rare moments when musicians . . . give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of yourself. Out in the real world there exist detailed plans, visionary projects for peaceable realms, all conflicts resolved, happiness for everyone, for ever – mirages for which people are prepared to die and kill. Christ’s kingdom on earth, the workers’ paradise, the ideal Islamic state. But only in music, and only on rare occasions, does the curtain actually lift on this dream of community, and it’s tantalisingly conjured, before fading away with the last notes.

McEwan is describing a state of nirvana that music has the rare ability to produce. Whether it comes from emotion, physiology or a little of both is immaterial. The fact it can and does occur is what is so wondrous.


And the angels had guitars
Even before they had wings.

Meat Loaf, Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through

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