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Musings on the Leading Edge of Time….

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In several of her novels that explore time travel, Sheri S Tepper develops the idea that the boundary between the now and recent history is unclear. Nobody really knows exactly what has happened when it has only just happened; it takes time to settle down. In The Family Tree it is this uncertainty that makes time travel possible: you can slip through time where it is still soft, before it has solidified. In Beauty, it creates ‘the present horizon’ which means that it takes a lot of energy to power your time machine through all the turbulence of what has just happened into the recent past, but much less to travel from there back through the centuries.

There is an intriguing message in there about the relationship between the reporting of current affairs and the writing of histories of recent times. The former is a mish-mash of competing voices and unfurling event, all trying to weave it all into a narrative, but confounded by the actors in the story with their conflicting agendas as much as by the different perspectives of the commentators. When the memoir is written, the events themselves have stopped happening and the commentator can weave their story from material that has stopped moving.

There are also resonances here with Marilyn French’s aside in The Women’s Room on one of the purposes of art:

Anyway, that is a thing art does for us: it allows us to fix our emotions on events at the moment they occur, it permits a union of heart and mind and tongue and tear. Whereas in life, from moment to moment, one can’t tell an onion from a dry bit of toast.

I have been thinking about this image recently in relation to how music gets into the regular performing repertoire. My colleague at Birmingham Conservatoire Peter Johnson was wont to remark that the way the then Research Assessment Exercise recognised the ‘research value’ of premieres over previously-performed music was arguably topsy-turvy relative to the musician’s quality of work.

Performers give a lot more depth of thought to preparing their Beethoven or Bach cycles, he’d contend, than into rehearsing a new work. And even with new music, you’d be better off drawing conclusions about its quality after its 5th or 6th performance than after its first.

The musician’s understanding of a piece grows and deepens as they live with it over time. And you learn things about it in performance that you don’t discover in rehearsal. The audience’s understanding also develops as they hear it repeatedly – something we take for granted today since the invention of recording, but which took significant investment back when Adolph Bernhard Marx took the innovative step of programming repeat performances of the works of Beethoven to help music-lovers in Berlin discover their depths.

On a more immediate scale: how often do you come off stage and have your choir ask, ‘How was it?’ They were there with you, but don’t seem to have any clear idea of how the performance compared to what you had prepared. Unfortunately, at that moment, neither does the director. It’s not unreasonable to ask us – after all we were out front and so had a better vantage point for listening – but we were there in the moment with them. We had the physical vantage point for listening, but not the external mental vantage point for making global judgements.

But then after a bit, we all start to reflect on the experience and develop a sense of what happened. And we talk about it, reinforcing and inflecting our own memories with the accounts of others.

The thing that I keep coming back to as I think about Tepper’s notion is the way it conflates personal memory, socially-constructed narrative, and what actually happened. And this is maddeningly both illogical and valid. We all know that not only is memory imperfect, but that history is selective, and the narratives of what happened can be distorted quite significantly by those who have the power to define them. And yet we have no other access to knowledge of the past than through the aggregate of human perceptions, whether those are contemporaneous accounts or post-hoc examination of evidence left behind.

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