…to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music…John Donne (1572-1631)
The above quote is from a sermon by John Donne and it is about what waits after death. It’s something that I’ve found very reassuring, even though I also find it incredibly emotional, as the last times I have heard it aloud were at my mother’s funeral and at my great aunt’s funeral.
While it’s about a belief in an afterlife, I first encountered it in An Equal Music, by Vikram Seth. I read this novel (published in 1999) in 2004 when I was in Ghana as a medical student and it stuck with me. The novel itself is about music, yes, and musicians, and a love affair that probably should not happen but does. The descriptions of the music really stuck with me and one of my best friends gave me the soundtrack to the novel (yes, it exists) for my birthday.
I’ve been thinking about music a lot, lately, and how specific songs can transport me to specific times. It’s not always about the beauty of the music or the profundity of the lyrics. I am no musician, although I fancy myself as a bit of a writer, from time to time. No, it’s about how memory can tie into one song, like the time I fainted during a life performance of A Design For Life by the Manic Street Preachers, at the then Point Depot in Dublin, and how, the first time I heard it in a shop a few weeks later, I had to sit down because I felt dizzy. It’s like the time when the lights went out at the Navy Memorial Stadium in Annapolis during the outdoor game between the Washington Capitals and the Toronto Maple Leafs and, among many other songs, Apache (Jump On It) by The Sugarhill Gang was played, and now every time I hear that song, I smile, and I think about Andre Burakovsky and TJ Oshie pulling some dance moves on the bench.
Now, I would like for this to be an ongoing series because there can never just be five significant songs in a life but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to talk about five pieces of music. Actually, that’s a total lie. I’m not going to talk about the music. I’m in no way qualified to do so. I’m going to talk about what and when they remind me of.
These are not my favourite songs. Some of them are songs I’ve listened to too much and some of them are songs I’ve hardly listened to since.
“Waltz #2 (XO)”, by Elliott Smith
This one will always take me back to the academic year of 2001-02. The album itself was released in 1998 but I am seldom up to date with music. I was in my second year of medical school and it was the first year I lived away from home (a year at boarding school excepted). I was living in a halls of residence attached to a college I didn’t attend but I was deeply fortunate to be know many of the people living there, including my very best friend from primary school.
I hear this song and I’m a little melancholic (just listen to the song), but I’m also calm.
‘The Ring Goes South”, by Howard Shore.
The Lord of the Rings movies were a pretty integral part of my college life. They still are incredibly important to me, if I’m honest, but this, the eleventh track on the Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack will always and forever remind me of walking with my friend and classmate, Bernadette, up to Mansion House, for a pharmacology exam. Now, I failed that exam, as I had a tendency to do when it came to pharmacology in med school, but that doesn’t actually affect this memory in any way, as we sang it rousingly, if not entirely tunefully, on our way up Dawson Street.
I hear this piece and I am so motivated, even if I am more fool of a Took than Ranger of the North.
“Laura”, by the Scissor Sisters
Yes, my best friend is called Laura but this is not about her. I hear this and I’m walking to the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital for my ophthalmology rotation. I wasn’t ever destined to be an ophthalmologist and I’m pretty sure it was springtime and so much of my brain was caught up with writing, which absolutely was not conducive to passing exams (although I did pass them, that year).
I hear this song and I am, honestly, happy.
“Supermassive Black Hole”, by Muse
It was my intern year, I had a car and I was working anything from 50, to 70, to 100+ hour weeks. I played this song loud in my car, driving to work, driving from work and driving the length of the country on the rare weekends in Limerick that I had off and felt the need to get back up to Leinster.
I hear this song and, okay, my heart rate speeds up a little but I am so ready to sing along.
“Over and Over”, by Rachael Yamagata
This is probably one of the toughest songs to listen to. It features on Elephants… Teeth Sinking Into Heart, Yamagata’s 2008 album, and it was the only album on my Nokia smartphone when my mother was in hospice.
My mother had asked me to stay that night, for the first time, and so I did. There were a lot of pipes clunking in the hospice and I was trying to get an hour’s sleep in the visitors’ room. I put in my earphones and this song came on (I think, or maybe it didn’t and I’ve just persuaded myself that this is a real memory) and the lyrics have always stayed with me: But when I woke this time/There was nothing to take me back to sleep.
When I hear this song, it’s the early hours of the 24th of August, 2009.
So, what are your five songs? Or your ten, or your twenty, or your hundreds of songs that bring you to a place, or a time, or a memory that may or may not have happened?