4 April 2010

Episodic Memory: Typewriter as Percussion

I’ve heard that smell is the sense most closely linked to memory, but it was an audio experience that recently elicited recollections from many years ago for me. Music, for many of us, can instantly recall associated memories—typically of the nostalgic, sweet-summer-love-in-the-grass variety. But my experience last week was a new one—it wasn’t the specifics of a particular song or artist, but rather, the syncopated clicks and clacks of a typewriter set to piano that induced this knee-buckling moment.

The title sequence of Atonement opens on the first track of Dario Marianelli’s score. We peer over her shoulders as Briony Tallis, an ambitious and imaginative 13 year old writer, briskly taps out the final words of a new play. Not long after, the first few notes of piano beckon—tentatively at first, before swelling to a richly layered crescendo that includes a vigorous string accompaniment.

In high school, a small group of my friends and I observed a regular Friday night ritual by driving a half-hour to hang out with friends from a neighboring school district. We’d inevitably end up at Hunter’s; he lived in what our friend Morgan explained was a Cooperative Community. Large, modern houses were shrouded by a dense cover of leafy trees; a glimpse behind the doors of the community center revealed grown men dressed and dancing in kilts. For those of us accustomed to the inescapable scrutiny of parents and the malaise of suburban malls, this was our version of Twin Peaks—a surreal and extraordinary utopia where adults were scarce and Cheez-Its, cigarettes, and caffeinated jitters flowed with abundance.

Morgan was a prolific writer who, on occasion, chose to abandon his yellow legal pad in favor of the typewriter. Our friend Brooke was a talented classical pianist. On one such Friday night, each was relentlessly immersed in his or her own creative pursuit—but what emerged was one of the most maddeningly beautiful musical pairings I’ve ever been fortunate enough to witness.