I’m beginning to feel nostalgic for mnemonists.
To be fair, I have never actually seen a mnemonist perform. So how I would be able to feel nostalgic for mnemonists is beyond me, but I keep thinking about a time when I could see mnemonists work their cognitive magic.
I also don’t actually know much about mnemonists, but I heard about Solomon Shereshevsky a few years back and I’ve been stuck on the idea ever since. Myth and fact intermingle in the life of S, but the story goes that S was incapable of forgetting anything. His talent for memory was first “discovered” by his editor at the newspaper where he worked. In editorial meetings, he would never take notes, just remember everything he needed to know. When the editor confronted him on his lack of engagement, S simply repeated back every detail of his assignment. And then the details of the assignments of everyone else in the meeting. And then the assignments of him and everyone else from a month prior.
The editor, completely blown away, sent him to neuropsychologist Alexander Luria so his brain could get studied. Story has it that tests included people reading S full novels in unfamiliar languages in noisy bars. He would then repeat every word back to the scientists weeks later, along with the words of everyone around him.
The story is wild, but I keep coming back to what happened after the studies: S became a mnemonist. Technically, he was a mnemonist before this (since anyone who can recall large data sets is technically a mnemonist), but he became a professional Mnemonist. He hired a manager for circus acts who booked shows where he would walk on stage, let the audience yell a bunch of stuff at him, and then he would just say it back. People would heckle him, trying to distract him from remembering things or hearing others, and the heckles would just enter into the recitation.
His manager helped boost the act, coaching S on how to be a better entertainer, but that was really all it was: just people yelling things and him repeating it back. Apparently this was all you needed in the 1930s.
To put it simply, S’s act sounds ridiculously unentertaining. But the longer the pandemic drags on, the more I feel the need to be in an audience watching anyone do something on stage. I don’t care what it is. I just want to be in a group of people that can share an experience and become a community through that performance.
I’d pay good money to see a mnemonist at this point, to go back to a place I’ve never been and witness this weird and beautiful act of remembering.
But the more I think about it, the more I realize how unironically drawn I am to this type of act. I never cared for overwhelming aesthetic wonders, performances built through technical wizardry and wild theatrics. I don’t need a top to bottom showstopper, a spectacle beyond my means.
I’d much rather watch someone rattle off an hour’s worth of random words. Still beyond my comprehension but at the scale of the tangible. Still a wonder, but one that slips through your fingers instead of flying far above the audience.
What I want is an intimate spectacle.
As I obsessively replay the story of S in my head, I’ve begun to realize that noise is an incredible genre to produce this exact phenomenon. Sure, some people bring the wonder through technological wizardry (modular synthesizers, video production, etc.), but so much of the music I love in this world exists on a smaller scale, humble gestures that produce endlessly detailed sound worlds and undeniably compelling performances.
Joe Colley’s Claysound pieces provide a perfect example of the intimate spectacle. On his Desperate Attempts at Beauty album, Colley notes that three of the tracks were recorded using “stereo piezo transducers direct to minidisc with no modification.” For two of these pieces, this involved covering those microphones in clay and, if I’m not mistaken, submerging the clay-covered-mics in water. As the clay began to soak up the liquid, a cacophony of cracks and pops emerge.
And that’s it. No need to add anything to the piece, no need to edit things together. A fully composed (and incredibly dynamic) piece built on one small act.
To look at a slightly more involved example, Lucas Abela (aka Justice Yeldham) takes the idea of the intimate spectacle into a performative (and slightly more dangerous) realm. Since 2003, Abela has performed almost exclusively with glass. The artist uses a contact mic to amplify the sound he creates from mashing his face into the material and playing it like a trumpet. He then manipulates the signal to produce a diverse range of sounds.
But the spectacle goes beyond just creating a wide array of sounds out of a pane of glass and a few pedals: usually, Abela bites into the glass halfway though every set and splits the pane in two (or three or more). Sometimes the set ends after this, but more often than not the performance keeps going with a smaller piece of glass replacing the full pane.
It’s not the flashiest performance gesture in the world but watching someone bite through some glass three feet from your face in a dirty basement is still an incredible thing to behold.
But the absolute queen of the intimate spectacle has to be Nummy, aka Milwaukee’s own Gabriella Schwartz. In pretty much every single Nummy set, Schwartz chooses one action to do over and over again. Whether it’s jumping on a trampoline, eating maraschino cherries, or simply staring in a mirror, each set takes that one simple gesture and reproduces it enough times to completely rearrange its meaning and importance. What starts as simply a cheerleader shaking their pom poms turns into a hypnotic visual and audio drone filled with a subdued sense of isolation or maybe terror. That sort of thing.
But for my money, the greatest Nummy set to date happened at the 2011 Milwaukee Noise Fest. In a nearly pitch-black room, Schwartz sat behind a small table, back to the audience, with a hot plate and a pan resting in from of her. A microphone dangled above the pan. In her hand was a small vile of water and a dropper.
And for ten minutes, all she did was squeeze individual drops of water into the pan.
In this small and repetitive act, a beautifully diverse set of sounds came to the forefront. First, as each drop hit the hot pan, it instantly produced an immediate, minuscule, and, ironically, dry sounding explosion. But the pan never reached a high enough heat to evaporate the entire drop. So instead of only producing those dry sizzles, the remaining water slowly gathered across the performance and provided a droning backdrop of boiling pops. And if that wasn’t enough, the horrible electrical situation at the venue combined with the ungrounded hot plate to periodically generate a low pitched and incredibly loud hum that would blast through the PA whenever the hot plate turned on.
Explaining this set to someone on its own terms, something along the lines of saying “I watched a person drop water into a hot pan for ten minutes,” may feel at odds with the description I’m trying to sell you. But seeing the performance live was, without question, a spectacle in its own right, one filled with its own sense of awe and beauty. Anything added on top of the performance, any additional musical or performative gesture or visual or costume or whatever, would only detract from the piece. Instead, the humble sense of repetition combines with the confidence of the performer to generate something far beyond the sum of its parts.
An intimate spectacle, but a spectacle none the less.
Putting noise and mnemonics into conversation, I probably shouldn’t be so hard on people like S. Yeah, the act seems ridiculous, but the truth is I’ve seen way more ridiculous things in my day and loved every second of it.
But it’s not even about what I’m seeing at this point. It’s just about the overwhelming desire to see something. Specifically, to see something with people and experience that moment together. To witness the small or simple or intimate become spectacular simply by witnessing that spectacle with others.
Pretty soon I’ll get to watch my friends put water in a pan again. And it’s going to be incredible.