Time and Place: Three Songs

I expect a lot of people have songs or pieces of music that evoke a particular time and place. Last night, driving home from an errand, three of them came up in sequence in my playlist, and I thought a little about what these songs evoke for me.  This morning, I decided to search YouTube for recordings (and possibly videos) of each, to augment my understanding by seeing what others saw in these songs.   Here we go.

Le Secret Farida – Yello

Yello is a Swiss electronic group that is best known for the song “Oh Yeah,” as used in Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, which is how I came to own the album One Second. Yello were my gateway into electronic music. Their songs are often atmospheric, with an emphasis on rhythm and heavy use of sampling. This particular track is no exception. The song is named after the singer in the sample, and I suspect the language is Middle Eastern in origin, but beyond that the great Google oracle came up empty.  No matter, the point here is the effect.  For me, this song always evokes a city, lit by neon, at night, with dark back alleys.  It would not be out of place in something like Blade Runner, but to me has a more classic noir feel to it, the vocals calling to mind a femme fatale in a vast, cavernous nightclub, smoke bringing the footlights to life.

Specifically, this song recalls for me one of my early visits to Toronto.  We stayed in the Plaza II hotel on Bloor Street at Yonge, and I remember specifically the novelty of going out, at night, by myself, to pick up something across the street. Yonge Street at night in the 80s was a symphony of neon and light, the seedy core of the safest, cleanest city I’d ever seen, a permissible danger.

Yonge St., 1981

This Yonge St. has now mostly disappeared, as the old dilapidated storefronts are torn down and replaced by shiny condos. But it lives on every time I hear this song.

Time After Time (AnnElise) – REM

Before REM were a huge sensation in the late 80s and early 90s, they’d been the quintessential alternative rock group.  Their second album, Reckoning, was recorded in just ten days, and is full of obscure lyrics (although mostly decipherable, unlike on those on Murmur, their first album) and jangling guitars.  This particular song is built around a droning guitar line (almost bagpipe-like, without really sounding like bagpipes) that largely repeats the same note, while the vocals and the bass delineate the melody above and below.  I have always found the song both driving and hypnotic, although some critics seem to feel that it’s the worst song on the album.  Around that same time, REM made a series of impressionistic videos to go along with the songs.

The first stanza of the song illustrates the obliqueness of the lyrics, but also, to me, evokes a scene of teenagers, in a small town, in one of those boring, endless summers with nothing to do other than to gather together and dare each other to danger.

Ask the girl of the hour
By the water tower’s watch
If your friends took a fall
Are your obligated to follow?

In my final year at Ohio State, I dated a guy from Oxford, OH, and visited his hometown a couple of times, heading west on I-70, then south on SR 127 before cutting over to Oxford.  REM’s Reckoning album was high on my list of driving music at the time, and this song in particular evokes that particular moment in my life.

SR 127, south of Camden. There used to be a Group of Seven-esque lone pine at the top of one of these slopes that I always noticed on this drive.

Oxford, at the time, had a prominent water tower downtown.  The song’s reference to a water tower is, for me, this particular water tower (which I discovered, in my search for an image, was torn down in 1998.).

Oxford, OH, probably in the 80s.

Cursum Perficio – Enya

Enya’s music was a discovery of the early 90s, after I moved to Toronto. “Cursum Perficio” is from her Watermark album, which I think I got in one of my last forays into joining Columbia House and getting a bunch of “free” CDs in exchange for an obligation to buy more in the future.  (I have a great story about the first time I joined, which I’ll have to share in another post).  My first year in Toronto was a real roller coaster of emotion.  I was living my dream of graduate studies in history with the professor whose writing I worshiped–and who turned out to be completely incompatible as a supervisor.  I struggled through my MA thesis, already knowing that for my PhD I’d be moving in a different direction.  After the high of my final two years as an undergraduate–one of the top students in my program, writing a wonderful undergrad thesis with a supportive supervisor, being elected to Phi Beta Kappa–my MA year almost broke my spirit.  It very much triggered my first bout with impostor syndrome.  At the same time, I had met and married my husband, moved out of the graduate residence, and was in the first flush of a tremendous burst of creativity in my first year in the SCA.  It gave me everything my graduate experience was not giving me – a social connection, an outlet for history geekery, and a place to learn and be creative as I learned historic costuming.

Enya’s song is in Latin, which always evokes my academic life for me.  In retrospect, it has much to say about where I was at that time, and where I would go.  It always reminds me of walking home to my first apartment off campus, in a basement in the Annex neighbourhood.

110 Albany Avenue.  We had the basement apartment.

Cursum perficio
Verbum (sat) sapienti
Quo plus habent, eo plus cupiunt
Post nubila, Phoebus
(in) aeternum

…my journey ends here…
a word is enough for the wise;
the more one has, the more he desires…
…after the clouds, the light…

Two versions. Again, not much in the way of actual videos available, but the second of these…well, there are some interesting echoes.  The original:

And this cover, by the Vitamin String Quartet:

This cover strongly evokes elements of the Shostakovich string quartets, particularly in its tonality.  The initial motif played by the cello evokes the first movement of the 8th quartet, the one that starts with the quotation of the DSCH motif.  This is not that combination of notes (D, E flat, B, C), but there is something in the intervals that takes me there.

And with that, my journey ends here.

Until it begins again.