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    Friday, October 31, 2008

    Music tagging -- or, voluntary involuntary auditory memories

    No, not that kind of music tagging, the kind where you add tags/labels to your mp3 collection. What I want to discuss is a phenomenon that I've tried to be conscious about for quite some time: the act of deliberately forming strong associations between certain pieces of music and a particular place. You're all familiar with what is known as olfactory memory, smells that suddenly take you on a journey down memory lane - in particular childhood/adolescent memories of certain perfumes and foods. The same holds for certain tastes, as described in the now famous Madeleine cake episode in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time:
    No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place
    The same also holds for music, be it particular sounds or particular sound tracks. These phenomena are sometimes referred to as involuntary memories. What I've been doing on occasion is to try to make these voluntary.

    The phenomenon first occured to me when I read Stephen King's Pet Sematary as a child. This must have been back in 1991-92, because every time I picked up the book, I would listen to Metallica's then recent Black album (you know, the last good one before it all went downhill). After having finished the novel, I noticed that every time I listened to that particular album (in particular, the "Sad but true" song, for some reason), I would be instantly transported to that path leading to the pet cemetary (misspelled Sematary) -- or to the gruesome scene of Zelda.

    Interlude: In writing this I went to search for the Zelda scene and found it on Youtube. I don't know why, but it still sends shivers down my spine and I just very reluctantly finished watching it. Incidentally, Zelda is played by a man, which just makes it even creepier. I still think this is one of the most haunting horror characters invented. Please watch at your own discretion.

    Anyway, after having experienced the tagging of Metallica's Black album onto the Pet Sematary novel, I got curious. Could this phenomenon of involuntary memory be made voluntary? And of course it can. Since then, I've tried to consistently listen to one particular album whenever I travel to somewhere new. Last week I went to Copenhagen, and I consistently listened to Klaus Schulze's Mirage album (a true masterpiece) every day when I walked from my hotel to the conference venue. The result: Now, whenever I listen to Klaus Schulze, memories from Copenhagen will come up. To be fair, it doesn't really bring up explicit memories, but it brings up this undescribable je ne se qua feeling of there-ness (wow, sorry about the collapse into obscurism there). This has become my way of taking photos; my own harmless means of tagging a city. Sadly the snapshot cannot be conveyed, but in some sense, that just adds to the value of it.

    I would really like to come up with a name for this phenomenon. I guess the most precise would be 'voluntary involuntary auditory memory', but I think I'll just refer to it as 'music tagging' for now. 'Music tagging' nicely catches the way in which a city can become tagged by music (although invisible to others), but also that the music itself becomes tagged (labelled) according to its associations. Recommendations for other neologisms (or, indeed, already existing terms) are very much welcome. Until then, happy music tagging.