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The Moment is Now: Oliver Sacks on Memory and Creative Performance

The Moment is Now: Oliver Sacks on Memory and Creative Performance

Marsha Dunn's picture
Marsha Dunn
December 3rd, 2015

Hit pause.

Where are you? What happened today? Yesterday? Last week? Last year? The last 20 years? Who was there? What did you do? Feel? Love? Laugh at? Think about?

Select all.

Delete all.

Repeat every five seconds.

Such were the instructions hardcoded into Clive Wearing’s brain by a devastating neurological infection. Desperate, he filled journals with the phrases “I am awake,” “I am conscious,” “This time finally awake.” Affirmations and negations entered minutes apart. On and on.

And yet….

Seated at a piano, Clive could play—elegantly, movingly—the pieces he’d memorized years ago as a musician and composer as though he suffered no amnesia at all…“his musical powers were totally intact.”

Why? What mysteries of mind, body, memory, and music are revealed in Clive’s story? How can we think about Clive in the context of our series on “The Aesthetics of Change”?

Clive Wearing’s wife, Deborah Wearing, describing what life is like for her husband. The interview with Deborah and the music being directed by Clive are taken from the documentary The Mind: Clive Wearing, life without memory.

The late neuroscientist Oliver Sacks grappled with the implications of Clive’s story and other fascinating tales of “music and the brain” in his bestseller from 2007, Musicophilia. As always, Sacks employs equal parts compassion and scientific rigor to unravel the mysteries human life. He also employs his love of music, which ends up being key.

Sacks begins to analyze Clive’s case with strict neuroscience. Could it be that Clive’s amnesia leaves his musical powers undiminished because “procedural” memory (anything involving “sequence or pattern of action”) is located in a different part of the brain than “higher-level” processes, which reside in the cerebral cortex? Sacks notes that Clive has also retained other kinds of procedural memory: the ability to groom himself, to use language, to walk home. This sounds like a good explanation.

BUT, Sacks, ever the humanist, probes deeper, bringing neuroscience into conversation with aesthetic theories of music. Can Clive’s musical prowess—“his beautiful playing and singing, his masterly conducting, his powers of improvisation”—be reduced to a mere “procedure”?

“For his playing is infused with intelligence and feeling, with a sensitive attunement to the musical structure, the composer’s style and mind. Can any artistic or creative performance of this caliber be adequately explained by “procedural memory”?… Each time Clive sings or plays the piano or conducts a choir, automatism comes to his aid. But what comes out in an artistic or creative performance, though it depends on automatisms, is anything but automatic. The actual performance reanimates [Clive], engages him as a creative person; It becomes fresh and alive, and perhaps contains new improvisations or innovations.”

To get to the bottom of this case, Sacks realizes he must grapple with the very nature of music itself, its internal “momentum,” the “dynamism” that is “built into the nature of melody.” Consider the way each part conjures the whole: after hearing Beethoven’s Fifth just once, you never hear the first four notes as individual tones again—you always experience them in relation to the whole, as Marvin Minsky observes (cited by Sacks).

In contemplating the way that a small part of Beethoven’s arrangement can conjure the whole, Sacks arrives at a second paradox, which allows him to crack the case: Playing music is about remembering, in a sense, but it is also about being completely, emphatically in-the-present. Or, rather, the specific kind of “remembering” involved in performing a piece of music is activated by each successive “now”, rather than being something that is dredged up from the past, and thus totally inaccessible to Clive. He has lost the past, but retained the now. And the now is all that music demands.

“It may be that Clive, incapable of remembering or anticipating events because of his amnesia, is able to sing and play and conduct music because remembering music is not, in the usual sense, remembering at all. Remembering music, listening to it, or playing it, is entirely in the present.”

And so it is better to think of Clive’s ability to “remember” music not as an exception to his amnesia but as in continuity with his exceptional ability to exist in the moment. Clive’s got—and never lost—what all great performers have. The now.

“The rope that is let down from heaven for Clive comes not with recalling the past, as for Proust, but with performance—and it holds only as long as the performance lasts. Without performance, the thread is broken…”

This is, no doubt, part of what we all seek when we go to a musical performance. To witness a fellow human being who exists tremendously in the present moment. To witness and to partake. To hope that some of that ability rubs off on us. To find ourselves caught up in memories that are not of the past but of the present. In this sensory moment, reason and logic are temporarily held in abeyance. We see things differently, engage things differently, and this is exactly what we need for ch-ch-ch-ch-changes to occur.

Remembering, so to speak, the theorists who framed our series on “The Aesthetics of Change”—William James, S. T. Coleridge, Kant, David Bowie—we should not be surprised to find these many connections between music as an aesthetic experience and transformation. Music—like the other artworks we have discussed—grounds us in the sensuous immediacy of the present moment, in the particularities of what is in front of us, focusing and heightening our attention. But, at the same time, art broadens our attention to that which lies beyond our existing categories, habits, and frameworks. By harnessing the power of art in our work, we make change happen. 

While Oliver Sacks travelled in the concrete realm of neurons and synaptic gaps, and while our philosophers roam in a more intangible space, and while we at Collective Next trade in the art of scribing and the performance of facilitation, the power of aesthetic experience moves us all.

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The Aesthetics of Change