That Strange Thing Called Memory

That Strange Thing Called Memory

By Frank J. Oteri
Many years ago I realized that I was more likely to remember a passage of my own music if I didn’t write it down than if I did.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

Reading Kevin Puts’s emotional account of his memory lapse during his performance of his own Piano Concerto at the 2010 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music (which I was in the audience for) brought back many memories of that edge-of-the-seat experience. But it also reminded me about a peculiar quality of my own memory that I thought would be worth sharing here to find out if others have this same quirk. Perhaps I’m not so peculiar after all.

Many years ago I realized that I was more likely to remember a passage of my own music if I didn’t write it down than if I did. It’s as if my memory has a built in protection mechanism to guarantee I won’t lose information I haven’t yet gotten around to committing to paper (pixel or magnetic tape), and that I subconsciously know that it’s O.K. to forget stuff as long as there’s a permanent record somewhere else in the universe. This has been something of a blessing and a curse, since my memory of a piece doesn’t automatically return if, years later, I can’t locate what I had written down, as I discovered earlier this year. Yet I’m floored at my ability to recall details of things—sometimes decades old—that I never bothered to commit to some tangible corporeal form.

During a recent talk with Henry Threadgill (the October Cover here on NewMusicBox, so stay tuned), he lamented the catastrophic memory loss we all experience as a result of being overly reliant on computers, cellphones, etc. For example, could you dial your parents’ phone number from memory if you had to? In societies ranging from the Mandinka peoples of West Africa to the Kyrgyz of the Caucasus, bards can recite tens of thousands of lines of verse that have been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. Nowadays we’re considered to have extraordinary powers of recall if we can remember what we ate for dinner last Wednesday night.

Sure, I’m thrilled by the prospect that artifacts I leave of my own thoughts—a humble musical composition, this essay—might prove worthwhile to someone else who chances upon them whom I’ve never met. But I also fear that all of contemporary civilization’s transmission shortcuts (from Gutenberg to the internet) have had deleterious effects on our mental capacity and therefore the very artifacts that we hope to share with others might somehow be less worth sharing.