Saturday, July 14, 2007

Back from the past

We're back from our second trip in as many months, both journeys to escape the southern Arizona heat. While the first vacation was future-oriented, as we went to a new location (Sequoia National Park in California), our more recent trip was oriented around significant places in my past. Our first stop was Lake Placid, New York, where my family vacationed during my childhood and where I attended high school. The flood of memories was positively Proustian, as I revisited my mother's family's summer home and my high school (dodging current residents at both locations). The photo is Heart Lake from the top of Mt. Jo, an excellent short walk in the woods. From there, we went to the southern coast of Maine. My father's family spent the summers there in his childhood, and two of his siblings still have houses in their families. I saw my aging aunt, as well as some of my cousins whom I hadn't seen in decades. We stayed with my sister, who had rented a house for a week and brought her family. The evenings were spent sitting around after a few cosmo punches, playing cards and word games. One of the most interesting parts of the trip was trading stories with my sister's family about significant events in my own past, hearing perspectives on my own life and how it looked from the outside. At these moments, nostalgia gave way to a more objective, almost historical, outlook, as I put the events into a broader context and came away with stronger family ties and a sense of my own place in the family history.

I see a parallel between the vacations and music. Future music is the (infinite) set of music I haven't heard yet, something I'm always seeking out. Nostalgia in music is a little harder to identify, other than the obvious set of music that was significant in my younger days. There is a standard cliché that we all have "our songs," recalling some largely imaginary halcyon days from long ago. Certainly those exist — I remember a long night with no music other than Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony, and listening to it over and over again. It's still probably the symphony I know the best, although Beethoven's Seventh is close (largely because it was my father's favorite piece — another sentimental remembrance). Music can produce a feeling of nostalgia through recognizable sonic images, such as rain sounds (which can wrap everything in a blurry, Sunday-morning sort of ambience). But I wonder how many works can evoke a sense of nostalgia simply through musical materials.

Such a nostalgia requires many years to establish its history, operating on yet another time scale in addition to the usual ones inside music. One of the few pieces that successfully evoked nostalgia was the closing moments of King Crimson's 1974 album Red, which was the seventh and final album of a series that started with their first, still classic, In the Court of the Crimson King from 1969. These seven albums had four completely different sets of personnel, with guitarist and leader Robert Fripp the only common element. In a smaller context, Red was recorded in summer 1974, and is the third album in a series with Fripp, John Wetton on bass and vocals, and Bill Bruford on drums, pared down from a quintet on Larks Tongues in Aspic (1973), a quartet on Starless and Bible Black (recorded in January 1974), to a power trio. But, at the climactic moment of Starless, the longest song on the album and the end of side 2 (days of vinyl, remember), Fripp included wind and keyboard players from the first Crimson incarnation and brought back the mellotron sound of the earlier groups, otherwise almost completely absent from these three albums. It was an incredible moment for me when the album first came out, summing up all of the turbulent years of Crimson's early existence as well as my own coming of age. I knew the instant I heard it that it was Crimson's last album (as indeed it was until Fripp put together another incarnation in 1981, with a completely different sound).

But Crimso continued, and so do we all, looking forward to other opportunities to connect with precursory times, anterior places, and former selves.

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