Alicja Gescinska – At Home in Music
We are the memories we have. More than by the things we experience and encounter, we are shaped by the echoes they leave in our minds. Each memory is a dot in the pointillistic portrait of our personality, painted by our senses on the canvas of our soul. We remember with all our senses: smells, images, tastes, touches settle in our brains. And so do sounds.
I have a sharp caesura in my recollections of the past: the things that happened before our flight to Belgium in 1988, and those that happened afterwards. The memories of the first seven years of my life are scarce and not always very sharp. But they are poignant nonetheless. I can still see the primary school before me; the playground with an iron jungle gym. I remember that the drawings we made were hung in the school’s entrance hall, where our mothers came to pick us up. I was usually immensely proud of my little works of art, in particular of a drawing of an oil lamp. I often drew flowers that reached to the sky. They arose from a tiny strip of green grass at the bottom, and their colourful petals touched the blue sky at the top of the paper. Those drawings are among the few material things that remain from our years in Poland.
A very vivid auditive memory from those years dates back to 1986. I was five when the nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl happened. My schoolmates and I had to queue for an iodine potion. I think I can even vaguely remember its taste. A few weeks after the catastrophe Pixi died, my grandmother’s dog. We were at my grandparents’ place when it happened. They lived in a flat in Zeromski Street; in front of which now a huge subway station stands, also named after the great Polish writer. My grandmother was convinced her dog died of radio-active poisoning. I sharply remember Pixi’s high-pitched squealing, right before she died. My grandparents had locked themselves up in the bathroom, together with Pixi, as they probably didn’t want to expose us to the view of the dying dog. They could spare us the view, but not the sound. I remember the sound of my grandmother’s sadness; the sound of her tears. I hear her lament for the dog, the background noise composed of the showering rain, and the roaring thunder of a summer storm. I also remember the cold, meager words my grandfather spoke. Grandmother should not make such a show of herself and her sadness, he thought. After all, it was just a dog.
A substantial part of the sounds of my childhood are the quarreling drunks in the staircase of the communist apartment block in Bielany, the north western corner of Warsaw, where we lived in a kawalerka of 24 square metres. The flat had been assigned to us by the communist authorities. The tram that drove to and from the city center had its own sound; very different from the sound of trams in Ghent or Amsterdam, as I later learned. The words ‘This is BBC…’ are also among the sounds that settled in my mind. I don’t know how and when, but my father sometimes listened to the BBC. Since that was forbidden, he had to do it secretly. I remember the voice of a presenter, and his British accent. Up to this day my father is in a strange way present when I hear those words on the radio.
There was also the slightly squeaky radio that belonged to my grandparents on my mother’s side, on which we could sometimes hear the medieval melody of the hejnał or a fragment of Chopin. But music did not play any significant role in the first years of my life. I can’t remember that my parents ever put on a record; they didn’t play an instrument, didn’t sing, and didn’t seem particularly fond of any artist or musician. Of the first years of my life I have many auditory memories, but no musical ones. The absence of music in my youth contrasts sharply with the role it was later to play in my life. As a teenager I did listen to music, and it happened more than once that I lost my voice after having sung too enthusiastically some kind of pop or rock song. But I did think classical music belonged in another world and to people with whom I did not belong. But I was taking lessons in poetic diction at the local academy of arts, and at the graduation ceremony the music students too were allowed to demonstrate their abilities. A girl of seventeen played Chopin, and I felt pinned down on my chair, not as much by Chopin’s music as by the awareness that ordinary people were capable of producing these magnificent sounds; that you don’t have to be a professional pianist to sit in front of a grand piano. Two months later I signed up for music lessons and bought a digital piano. At first I only played songs that consisted of four notes, but I experienced an indescribable joy each time my hands touched the keys. Since then I try to fill each of my days with music. Some pieces have become such a familiar part of my life, that they seem to have become a part of me. Perhaps it is because of the contrast with my youth, from which music was absent, that I am so strongly convinced of the enormous significance of music. Sometimes you have to lack something to know what it truly means and what it is worth.
Thinking of my childhood memories tells me how strongly sounds, smells and images are connected with each other. They make me who I am. A voice, an accent, a shriek can instantaneously provoke a chain of thoughts and feelings. This has been quite often on my mind recently. Now that I am a mother myself and can somewhat determine what can be heard in our house I often think about what will last in the minds of my children. People often wonder whether their young children will remember the weekend spent at the seaside, or the summer vacation. But I find myself more often wondering what sounds of this present time will murmur henceforth in the background of their minds. From 2013 till 2016 we lived in the US, and when I think back to our American adventure, I think of our first evening on the other side of the ocean. A sultry August evening which, for us Europeans, was so muggy we had to open all windows and doors of our house in Kingston, New Jersey, hoping for some cooler air to blow in. But what came in and intensified as the evening progressed, was the sound of crickets. It seemed to come from everywhere: a surrounding sound through all opened windows and doors. Have the children also remembered that? Or will they remember the peculiar sound of cicadas in the garden of our house in Amherst two years later, which fascinated them so much at the time?
That might seem a trivial question and a trivial concern. One can plausibly wonder what on earth it matters whether they will remember the sound of an insect. Perhaps I am just being a burden to myself, when I reflect on which music I should listen to while I’m cooking in the kitchen or driving the car. Does it matter what my children hear? It is not just my childhood memories that make me suspect that it does matter, and that it matters much. So do the stories of others, as for example collected in neuroscientific research on music and sound. That research is still in its early stages, and the things we don’t know dramatically surpass the things we do. Whoever hopes that brain research will provide the answers to the main questions in life is likely to be disappointed. The brain is not the machine that can crack the code of the mystery of man, nor the mystery of music. However, that does not imply that neuroscientific research on musical experiences cannot offer us insightful information about the role of sounds and music in our lives.
In his book Musicophilia Oliver Sacks describes several cases of people who hear the sounds and songs of their childhood and how these sounds and songs sometimes suddenly begin to play a central role in their lives. One of those cases is that of a Sicilian woman, who begins having seizures whenever she hears Neapolitan songs. Out of the blue, she starts to react very heavily to songs she has been familiar with since childhood. These songs are connected to numerous memories, but only now to they take her into the abyss. Research on musical memory and dementia too show how deeply the sounds of our childhood are anchored in our personalities. Music has a demonstrable therapeutic effect on patients. What is perhaps most striking, is the fact that musical memories can still be relatively intact while the memory for verbal information is already severely damaged. Music can flare-up seemingly long-forgotten memories in a brain that is slowly dissolving in the mist of dementia.
The things we hear in our childhood matter greatly. The things that enter our consciousness and memory through our ears fundamentally determine who we are. That applies to the accidental and constant noise that is part of our daily lives, as well as to the music we listen to. That is the topic I want to touch upon in this essay. Writing about music is almost doomed to be unsatisfying. Countless are the great philosophers and great musicians who have stressed that the essence of music cannot be expressed in words. It is ineffable. Music is such a fascinating phenomenon and such a substantial subject that it is not merely a topic, but an entire field of philosophical research. One can fill a library with books addressing the apparently simple, but appallingly difficult question of what music is. An essay cannot unravel the mystery of music. But it can clarify a small part of it. The small – and yet immense – part that is central to this essay is the role of music in our personal and moral development.