All songs involve time, because music depends on time. Time’s a song against the clock.
— Ali Smith, Artful
The mind tends to find congruencies and links where none previously existed—not just in music, but in everything.
— David Byrne, How Music Works
We can also appreciate why pop music is time-bound and an occasion for nostalgia … Hearing a pop tune can take you back to a summer, or an evening, or an emotional state … Pop music, even the best and most enduring, dates itself, not just in the sense that you can read off its date, but in the sense that pop music directly engages sounds, looks, attitudes that are specific to a time and place.
— Alva Noë, Strange Tools
In the 1980s of my mid-to-late teens, there was a surge of interest in the music of my infancy spanning the late 1960s and early 1970s. This extended well beyond the Motown revival fuelled by Levi’s advertisements. My friends and I were discovering the music of The Doors and The Velvet Underground, albums like Hunky Dory and Sgt. Pepper’s, songs like ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and ‘Walk on the Wild Side’.
This is all music I still listen to on occasion, but to do so is not only to experience pleasure in the moment but also a double form of time travel. On the one hand, I am transported back to a period I can recall in only the most fragmentary of ways, the snippets of toddlerdom, which in the living I failed to entwine with music. On the other, to hear a particular song can carry with it a rich assembly of schoolboy era information about time, place and people: the context in which I first heard the song, the people who I enjoyed it with, films seen, gigs attended, appreciative discussions.
Re-hearing later music is more fixed in the personal timeline that takes shape in my mind. A song may draw to it an accumulation of subsequent memories, orbiting around it like electrons circling a nucleus. But there tends to be a primal association too. To hear Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ or Elvis Costello’s ‘Oliver’s Army’ is to return to my pre-teen self pulling those first vinyl purchases from their sleeves. To hear New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ is to find myself circumnavigating a sports hall wearing roller boots, whereas U2’s ‘Bad’ is a passport back to Live Aid and a post-examination summer.
It was novelist Michael Chabon who prompted these reflections. At a Guardian Live event earlier this month, Chabon spoke of the importance of both popular music and the senses to him, on a personal level and in the fictional worlds he creates. This is overt in the record-store setting of his 2012 novel Telegraph Avenue, but equally relevant to books like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Moonglow, his latest publication. Chabon described his favourite songs as a form of time capsule, the music and lyrics contributing but a part of the overall experience.
In Time Travel, James Gleick dedicates a chapter to the popular practice of burying time capsules. The interment of vessels containing contemporary items, artefacts and knowledge are intended for future discovery. It is considered a method for transmitting culture and historical traces into the future, a form of time travel that enables great expanses of time to be bridged.
This is Chabon’s contention for the song and other art forms. We bury packages in the recesses of our minds, comprised not only of impressions caused by sound, images and words but emotions and environment too. Hearing a song again, rediscovering a long-forgotten photograph, returning decades later to a favourite novel, all can have the effect of digging up those time capsules. They open up a treasure chest of memories. A starburst of sensations and recall.
The memories themselves are impressionistic, of course, a fusion of fact and fiction. They are samples rewritten, remixed to fit the story of our ever-evolving selves, our edited and polished personal narratives.
This can happen too with new encounters with cultural artefacts. For example, when I first read David Mitchell’s novel Black Swan Green, I was immediately transported back to the period of my early teens. I was born in the same year as Mitchell, and his description of a thirteen-year-old’s life in 1982-83 felt close to the bone. Not because of the main narrative, but because of the background detail concerning Thatcher’s Britain, the Falklands War and, above all, the soundtrack.
Mitchell’s fiction is filled with temporal motifs and characters who time travel, hopping from one novel to another, from one era to another. In terms of generic hybridisation and formal play, Black Swan Green appears the least experimental of Mitchell’s novels. Yet, for this reader at least, it still has the ability to open up pathways to other time zones entirely. The novelist as DJ, let loose in the archive of the reader’s memories.
When it works, what you get is not a collection of references, quotes, allusions, and cribs but a whole, seamless thing, both familiar and new: a record of the consciousness that was busy falling in love with those moments in the first place.
— Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends
Memory both is and is not our past. It is not recorded, as we sometimes imagine; it is made, and continually remade.
— James Gleick, Time Travel
Memory, even in the rest of us, is a shifting, fading, partial thing, a net that doesn’t catch all the fish by any means and sometimes catches butterflies that don’t exist.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
Addendum: David Mitchell is himself a participant in a literary time capsule project. He has buried an unpublished manuscript in Oslo’s Nordmarka Forest. It will not be retrieved until 2114.