Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing | Aphantasia

France, memory and live jazz

Once, in real time, without a rehearsal

Two weeks ago, I posted “I think I’m finally over France” in which I looked at my tendency to try to relive episodes and events that have already happened to me, presumably because I’m not able to remember them as vividly as someone who doesn’t have SDAM might do.

Among the things about the time I lived in France that I’d like to be able to recall, but certainly can’t now relive, are the childhoods of two of my nephews, one of whom is also one of my godsons. They’re now 16 and 17, and were 7 and 8 when I left France at the end of 2011. Since that experience is not relivable, I’d like to think instead about an aspect of my time in France where the relationship between memory and repetition is a bit more complex.

I’ve never been a great one for going to live music performances. Around about 1980, I went through a bit of a phase, during which I saw Elvis Costello twice, Joe Jackson, The Radiators [from Space], The Police and a handful of other new-wave-type acts. Later in the 80s, during my marriage, I went to quite a few concerts in the National Concert Hall, Dublin. My then wife’s brother played in the RTE Symphony Orchestra, and gave us a steady supply of free or cheap tickets. In 1988, I moved to London and effectively gave up concerts in favour of theatre. I don’t think I went to hear live music again until 2006.

A couple of years before that, I’d rekindled a liking for jazz piano, initially as a result of hearing the Esbjörn Svensson Trio on Paul Gambaccini’s Jazz FM chart show and buying a few of their albums as a result. Shortly after I moved there, I realized that France provided no shortage of opportunities to hear EST and similar acts live. In fact, at the time, there were many subsidized jazz festivals in France. I started to go to some of them fairly regularly.

In jazz, live performance is particularly valued. I thought I remembered a quote from someone famous to the effect that a jazz performance is something that happens just once, in real time, without a rehearsal. (Unfortunately, I don’t remember it accurately enough to use Google as an aid to attribution.) As someone without a vivid episodic memory, I might not seem ideally placed to enjoy live, largely improvised music. And, in many ways, I’m not; but it’s a bit more complicated than it appears.

Most people who have aphantasia find that it’s not just their visual imagination that’s missing. The imagination related to their other senses tends to be affected similarly. That’s true of me too, but my auditory memory is relatively active. I can’t voluntarily recall a smell or a taste any better than I can an image but I can remember sounds. I tend to recognize voices rather than faces, tunes get stuck in my head, I can imagine the sound of a particular instrument, solo or in a group with others, and so on.

But, while I’m much better at remembering what I heard than what I saw or felt, I’m far from being able to reconstruct a live musical performance in memory. The experience of attending a concert consists of much more than the audio element. I’m not going to remember what I was wearing, where I was sitting in relation to the stage, how well I could see the musicians, how close the instruments were to each other, what the light was like or any of a large number of other factors which will have affected my perception of the performance. Given all this, it’s not all that surprising that, for most of my life, I haven’t shown much enthusiasm for attending gigs or concerts.

The period from 2005 to 2011, in France, was the longest exception to that rule. Not all of the performances I went to were in France itself, though most were, and France became a handy base for quick trips to some neighbouring countries. I went back to London to see the Marcin Wasilewski Trio at the Pizza Express in Dean Street, Aaron Parks in Ronnie Scott’s and Stefano Bollani in Kings Place; to Amsterdam to see John Taylor, Enrico Pieranunzi and others play solo in the Bimhuis, to the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia in 2009 (which I think is the first time Chick Corea and Stefano Bollani played together). I was ready to go to Hamburg to hear John Taylor’s superb trio with Palle Danielsson and Martin France, but the concert was sold out by the time I heard about it. (The trio was supporting Jack DeJohnette.)

I don’t remember any more than brief flashes of any of the performances I attended. Even the Brad Mehldau Trio in the Theâtre de la Mer, Sète, in July 2008, which I then thought and still think was the best concert I ever attended, has left only vague traces in my memory.

Most of these concerts were events that I travelled to. From Bordeaux to Antibes, Capbreton to Vernoux-en-Vivarais, Paris to Sète and Marciac to Vitrolles, I generally took a combination of bike and train to get to the venue. Even for events in nearby Toulouse (whose Jazz sur son 31 festival made October worth looking forward to), I often cycled the 60Km each way, rather than hop on a train, partly to make it seem more of an expedition. I now think that the travel helped me to build up a sense of anticipation, which in turn enhanced my enjoyment of the concert.

A sense of anticipation is something I tend not to experience spontaneously. The prospect of going to an event — a concert or dramatic performance, a party or celebration, least of all a sporting fixture — does not, in general, get me worked up to a pitch of excitement. I can’t say I never get excited about something that’s about to happen — of course I do — but usually not in the same circumstances as other people seem to. (Naturally, I can’t call to mind a particular occasion before which I felt excited, and so can’t examine what the differences were between that and a more humdrum “event”.)

I’ve often been puzzled by other people’s apparent ability to feel an anticipatory excitement. I used to wonder how they did it (or if they were faking it) and to some extent I envied their spontaneity. Since I’ve learned about aphantasia, I have (rather obviously) come to suspect that my inability to “picture” future events or incidents is at the root of my reduced capacity for excitement. I’ve written before about not having much sense of the future (any more than I have of the past, and for the same reasons). It’s not easy to get excited over something you can’t imagine visually.

So, it occurs to me that I may have been using certain incidental aspects of going to jazz performances in France — the relative unfamiliarity of the country, the language and the venues, the distances to be travelled — as a kind of counterbalance to the recognition (based on experience but not fully understood because I didn’t yet know about SDAM and aphantasia) that these performances would almost immediately fade from memory, leaving nothing behind but an inert, unevocative ticket stub?

Some live jazz performances are still taking place during the current pandemic, but I have no intention of going to any of them. At the beginning of the restrictions, the Sunside/Sunset venue put up a notice on their website saying that their survival was threatened by the suspension of live performances. They reopened as soon as they could, inviting their audience back in June:

Venez nombreux et masqués faire la fête du jazz …

The Sunside is one of my very favourite venues, and I certainly would hate to see it go out of business. But it’s very small, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable sitting in it for an hour or more as part of an audience that outnumbered the band.

Perhaps the pandemic and its attendant restrictions are providing the necessary opportunity to think again about the way I listen to jazz. People who know about jazz, as I’ve suggested above, believe that this is music that should be listened to live, in the moment, as it is created. It’s played by improvisors who, as they play, bring into existence a unique, new work. Its audience should likewise be experiencing, in the moment, something that has never been heard before and that can never (even if it’s recorded) be heard again in the same way.

If this opinion is correct, I’ve never remotely resembled the ideal listener to jazz. Rather than pay full attention to a one-time-only performance, I listen constantly, repeatedly and with a fluctuating level of concentration to recordings of such performances. It’s not unusual for these to be live albums. Even when they’re not live, they’re very often single-take, unedited studio recordings with no overdubs. The tracks for individual instruments may be remixed, the sound balance adjusted, echo removed and other sound engineering techniques employed, but the notes, chords, rests etc are those actually played by the musicians. So, I’m listening to a recording of a performance that really happened, not an assemblage of clips and edits.

But, unlike the performance, the process of listening happens over and over and over again. I’ve occasionally felt obscurely guilty about that, as if I were a kind of fraud. (But on the other hand, why would anybody buy an album with the intention of listening to it only once?) It’s likely that the way I listen to jazz from now on will not change very much. But, because of a combination of the pandemic restrictions and the recognition that my unresisted impulse to return to France was probably caused by my deficient episodic memory, I expect that the way I feel about how I listen to jazz will change fundamentally. I’ll certainly continue to listen to albums, both live and studio, many times each.

At some point, when I’m convinced it’s safe to do so, I’m sure I’ll start going to live performances again. Maybe not in France and probably, now that Brexit is a reality, not in London. But I’ve wanted to go back to the Bimhuis since the first time I was there. And though I’ll never have another opportunity to hear John Taylor play live, I’d still like to visit some of the well known German venues sooner or later. The difference is I’ll know that my memories of these events will soon afterwards fade from “episodic” to “semantic”. I hope that, now that I know a bit more about how my mind works, I’ll resist the temptation to go back to somewhere I lived before, in futile pursuit of these elusive recollections.

Posted by Art on 02-Oct-2020.