Thursday, August 4, 2011

Listening to Illumination

                “…everything is illuminated in the light of the past. It is always along the side of us, on the inside, looking out.”

                On one of those nights that closes a day of doing absolutely nothing, I took advantage of our valuable three month preview of HBO. I’m currently reading The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, and, coincidentally, the movie version of her husband Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Everything is Illuminated was on. No, no, I haven’t read the book. Yes, yes, I know I should. And I will. But this movie, while not necessarily staying entirely true to the book, is one of those instances where it has made its own impact. It definitely did on me.

                The story is about a young man named Jonathan Safran Foer who goes to the Ukraine to find a woman named Augustine who saved his grandfather in the war. He is a collector, but not of bottle caps, stamps, or the like—he collects everyday objects that have to do with his family and ancestors. Glasses, photographs, letters, dentures—anything that is slightly significant to him he seals up in a plastic Ziploc bag and tacks onto his wall next to the relative’s name and photograph. He sets out on his journey, and guiding him is a young Ukrainian man, Alex, and his grandfather (and his grandfather’s deranged “seeing eye” dog named Sammy Davis Jr., Jr., though he isn’t really blind). Along the way, the viewer is clued into the fact that the grandfather was almost killed in World War II and saw many of his friends and family die. Flashes of these memories occur throughout the movieFinally, the band arrives at their destination, a place called Trachimbrod. The woman they meet there is also like Jonathan—she collects the objects people buried at the river of the village and stores them in boxes around her house. She lives among these memories like they are living, breathing people. The woman (who—in the movie—is Augustine’s sister), takes the men to the site where many men were killed during the war. When Jonathan leaves the Ukraine, Alex sends him a copy of his account of the “rigid” search along with a letter that includes the above quote.
                I hope I haven’t lost you in my painfully-shortened synopsis. The point is, I completely agree with this quote, and I think it explains the reasons for many different things. Each small moment in our lives becomes a memory that could eventually become a major part in our existence. Whether we know it or not, the smallest memories, like the sand Jonathan collected in a Ziploc bag from the river bank in “Everything is Illuminated,” can represent something larger. Technically, every single thing we experience becomes a memory. Therefore, each sound we hear becomes a memory. Sometimes, sounds themselves are memories. But other times, sounds merely contribute to memories and can trigger the remembering of an event or image. For example, as I was writing notes on this subject after the movie, I muted the TV. Because of that absence of sound, I was more focused in my thoughts, so my memory of that moment will be more attentive.  Because I happened to mute the TV during commercials, maybe I don’t know about the latest bathroom cleaner or brand of crackers. See? That small change in the sound around me changed my life. Yes, it was insignificant. No, that moment most likely will not influence what college I go to or who I marry. But it happened because of sound.
                Now, music, one could say, is the highest level of sound. It’s purposefully created and is usually willed to happen. We all know that music affects us in different ways, and I bet it makes us look at the world differently in the future. But I think Alex puts it best: “…everything is illuminated in the light of the past.” If, ultimately, everything we experience becomes a memory, music could be called an intended memory maker. A composer might not sit down at the piano thinking “I’m going to make a memory right now,” but that is at the end of the day what they are doing.
                When I was around 4 years old, I watched a VHS tape called “My Many Colored Days,” based off of Dr. Seuss’s book of the same name. The video was one of the first computer animated movies I had ever seen. It follows the book, which is about a boy describing how colors fit his certain moods on specific days, with music composed by Richard Einhorn and performed by the Minnesota Orchestra. Not only did the movie tap into a child’s different emotions paired with sound, but it showed many clips of the orchestra and individual instruments.  The memorable pieces are paired up with images of shining brass of the horns, a celesta, oboes, and many others. I’ve been wondering about it for a while now, but I do think that, in this case, everything I love now is illuminated by the past. If I had not watched that video, sure, I could definitely still be into classical music today. But seeing an orchestra in action, seeing the nuts and bolts of the process along with the aural results, definitely could have planted a seed.
                 Isn’t this what all music does? Each piece we hear as a listener creates an instant memory that lives along side of us for the rest of our lives. Sometimes, memories like this are never recycled. But the majority of the time, the music we have heard aides us in choosing what recordings to buy, what concerts to go to, or possibly what instrument to learn or to compose for.
                Maybe this is one of the things that make music so valuable. Sure, we can dance to music. The cultural accompaniments to music are invigorating. Music creates jobs. Music allows for unimaginable creativity. These are all true and important. But, maybe, behind all those other reasons, is an archive filing those sounds you’re heard in that Haydn piano sonata last night, waiting to use them again to influence your later life. And, the good part is, we don’t have to use Ziploc bags. 

Store those memories
photo by Michael Flick 


  1. Read the book, Elena. It is far better than the movie.

  2. I am definitely planning on it! Thanks, Elaine.

  3. I like to think that the great works in your future will be illuminated by dancing to Chemical Brothers Setting Sun.