High the memory: sound and vision

Yes 28th Oct 1977MUSIC is, in many respects, the most fleeting of all art forms. In its live manifestations it exists for a precisely calculated period of time, whether by compositional design or by improvisational exigency. Then it is gone forever, never to be heard in that form again. You were either present to it, or you were not. 

Of course there are various ways of ‘reliving’ any particular musical performance. A recording, professional or otherwise, may capture the notes and their aggregation in varying degrees of approximation, from lo-fi to audiophile. But the full multi-dimensional experience of the concert, and its personal apprehension by each listening individual, can never be reproduced in full. It is singular, and therefore uniquely significant.

In that sense it is appropriate to say that live music, as an act of both communication and reception, depends solidly on the memory of the hearer for its continuing resonance in our lives. At the beginning of chapter ten in my book Solid Mental Grace: Listening to the Music of Yes, entitled ‘Turn Around and Remember’ (which deals with the period from 1998 to 2004 in the band’s recorded history), I quote the distinguished American writer Jodi Lynn Picoult. “If you ask me, music is the language of memory,” she once observed.

In the case of a live performance, that memory is likely to be primarily aural, naturally. “Audiation” is the term musicologist Edwin E. Gordon coined back in 1975 to refer to the comprehension and internal realisation of music; that is, the sensation of a person hearing or experiencing sound when it is not physically present. But since any given musical moment impacts the whole body, not just our ear channels and brain synapses, our ‘concert memory’ will provide us with additional information about the total musical experience which goes beyond merely hearing a recording of it. That information is bound to be roundly corporeal as well as purely auditory (the feeling of a really low bass note hitting the chest, for example). Indeed, if we have sight, it will certainly be visual too (our unique view of the performers), and it can equally be sensate (the temperature or atmosphere accompanying the moment).

Each of these dimensions of musical memory may be repeatedly triggered in a variety of ways. Particular concerts have emotionally charged connotations, for instance. My first Yes concert (at the Empire Pool Wembley, on 28 October 1977), the first time I heard Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony live (at the Royal Albert Hall, on 13 August 1982), and the experience of standing a few feet away from Allan Holdsworth (at the Jazz Café in Camden Town, in May 1993) — every one of these distinct experiences is imprinted on me through a process of recollection which is strongly shaped by an emotional memory of how each musical event made me feel, and continues to make me feel. In that sense, live music may be irretrievably ‘gone’ when it is no longer present, but it is not lost entirely. Through mental activity it is reassembled in rejoinable  but incomplete fragments. In that form it can still continue to exert a powerful influence on us.

Yes 28 Oct 77As it happens, of the three concert examples I have cited above (each of which is especially vivid and important to me), it is only that 1977 Yes gig which is aided in my memory through direct access to a recording and some accompanying images. One of those pictures is reproduced above, and the vinyl bootleg cover is featured alongside this paragraph. (A digital recording is also available here, for those who are interested.) Since progressive rock of the type purveyed by Yes in the ’70s is often visual and somewhat architectural or theatrical in its delivery (as Pete Still‘s photograph illustrates), visual memory can play a notably important part in “bringing it all back”. I find that to be somewhat less so for classical music, for example. And it varies with jazz.

Thoughts about visual triggers for musical memory came to me strongly yesterday, when I finally received my copy of Jon Kirkman’s latest book, Tales from Photographic Oceans: Giants Under the Sun (Classic Rock Vault Books, 2020). This is a visual documentary of Yes from 1969 to 2019, organised in chronological order and featuring images from 11 amateur or semi-professional photographers. It covers some 23 different Yes concerts, four from Anderson Rabin Wakeman (ARW), and solo shows by Jon Anderson (the ‘Song of Seven’ tour), Trevor Rabin (‘Can’t Look Away’) and Rick Wakeman (‘Return to the Centre of the Earth’). There is also a selection of excellent pictures from all the Cruise to the Edge Yes performances between 2013 and 2019, in which Jennifer Fisher excels herself. The work of Doug Curran and Geoff Baillie also stand out for me throughout the book. Each of the concert photo features is accompanied by a setlist and a brief written introduction. The author also includes, at the end, a selection of pictures of his own numerous interactions with the band, and he prefaces the book with a concise introduction to the history of Yes (pp. 18-21). There’s an additional feature from Tony Howard about his Olympus SLR (which appears on the cover, alongside Holly Quibell’s typography). This is a limited edition volume, and I’m pleased to be in its Roll of Honour at the beginning. 

Kirkamn Photos YesWhat particularly interested me about Tales from Photographic Oceans, as I began to work my way through its pages, is that while it is a high quality product, the images themselves very much present a ‘listener’s-eye-view’ of the band, if I can put it that (slightly awkward) way. In other words, they come across as almost conscious adjuncts or prompts to the type of ingrained musical memory I have been writing about here. As Kirkman puts it in his brief introduction to the project: “What struck me was the quality of the images… Of course the ardent Yes fan knows exactly what he or she is looking for, and in almost every photograph in this book, the moment and pure essence of Yes is well and truly captured.”

Well, I’m not sure captured is quite the right word. That essence necessarily resists being pinned down. Music in itself — even when accompanied by lyrics — remains ineluctably abstract. But evoked, certainly. As the author himself continues: “The book covers the years 1969 to 2019, and whilst only a selection of the thousands of shows performed by Yes in that 50 year period are featured here, like me I know you will be amazed… I hope these memories evoke wonderful memories for you all.” Leafing through, they certainly did for me.

Kirkman BailliePerhaps one slight regret is that the wayward but highly talented keyboard player Igor Khoroshev (while mentioned in a list of alumni at the beginning) does not feature visually at all, despite two of the tours in which he appeared being included. It’s not clear whether that was a deliberate decision, or purely incidental in relation to the photographs made available. (It is known that Chris Squire asked Jon Kirkman not to interview Khoroshev for his earlier volumes, Time and a Word: The Yes Interviews and Yes: Dialogue.) But that issue aside, what we have here is a series of quite personal photographic representations of the band in live action — ones which complement, albeit with a slightly different tone and approach, the lavish 50th Anniversary programme book (2018) produced by Doug and Glenn Gottlieb.

In the end, of course, it is the music of Yes which must have the decisive word. But as we have been observing, music is an embodied experience which is inescapably forged by memory in one form or another. As for the wider ‘aesthetics of Yes’ and its role in framing the music… this is something I hope to return to.

Photo acknowledgments: Pete Still, Geoff Baillie, Kornyfone. 

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