I don't know what to do with everything I find in my job as an archivist. A few days ago, working thru a large pile of miscellaneous parts from the Tony Martin collection, I found a little strip of paper, not even a quarter of a full page, just enough for a single line of music. On it, someone had written — hastily, in blue ink — two measures of notes. Not even distinctive measures, just a simple cadential formulation, one that could fit comfortably with pretty much any piece in that key. Short of using handwriting analysis to track down the original copyist (assuming they're still alive and remember this one, completely unremarkable copying job), there is quite literally no way to figure out which arrangement this fragment originally went with.
Realistically, this is probably not an important piece of paper to hold onto. It strains credulity to claim that anyone will ever need the notes written on it, that literally any future task would be rendered impossible by its absence. I'm the only person who's laid eyes on it since it was tossed into that box however many years ago, and given the state of everything around it, I doubt the previous filer kept a careful record of everything there. If it weren't for this post, there would be no record of its existence; it would quite literally be impossible for anyone else to know that anything had disappeared if I threw it away.
But I didn't. I filed it, put it in with the other orphaned parts (most actual parts, full pages with titles and instrument indications, but a few that were fragmentary and unidentifiable), and made a little note in the database that the second Tony Martin road case has a stash of miscellaneous parts that don't correspond to any of the arrangements we have on record.
Much of what I'm doing at work involves making things accessible, giving them a chance to exist again. It's no longer necessary to hunt thru two filing cabinets and nine boxes to find all the parts to "Some Enchanted Evening" as sung at the Hollywood Bowl in 1954 — I've gathered them all and entered all the pertinent information into a catalogue that can be searched by someone on the other side of the globe. In cobbling together some order out of the chaos, many things that at first seemed tattered can in fact be made whole.
So much of it, tho, feels like discovering and codifying loss. There are no brass parts for this arrangement. All of the woodwinds for this arrangement are illegible due to water damage. The first ten pages of this manuscript score are nowhere to be found. These things will almost certainly never turn up. Even when everything's there, it's not always all useable: We have all the parts from that 1954 arrangement, but the tape that was used to put them together . . . Well, let's just say it's not holding up so well sixty years down the line. (Other times, it holds up too well, and parts become fused together in a hopeless mess of fossilized adhesive.) Paper succumbs to acid and mold. Ink fades. Staples rust, and contaminate everything they touch. Only a few decades on, and already things are being lost to the ravenous maw of time.
It's tempting, sometimes, to scowl at the people who did this, to lament the carelessness with which they treated these physical traces of an important stream of American musical heritage. But, well, one has to admit they were too busy making it. The trumpeter dog-eared this page so they could turn it in time for their solo. This was a quick arrangement dashed off for a radio show in the 70s — they weren't going to play it again, so who cares if the reed 4 player hung on to their part? Everything I'm dealing with was made to be used, not because it might one day be of interest to scholars or performers seeking to bring past styles back to life.
I've written before about these gaps and losses when it comes to the records of Ancient Greece and Rome, and I can see them forming here and now in the records we will leave for the 4000s. Already, there are holes appearing. Already these physical records are being eaten away. I want to stop this, to fix everything perfectly in its present state. I can't go back and retrieve parts from the middle of the last century, but maybe I can stop things from getting any worse.
This impulse goes further. It runs deeper. The quilt I sleep under is the same quilt I've slept under for years — certainly since high school, but probably long before that as well. It's a lovely quilt, but it's beginning to show its age. The corners have started fading from the sun. It has wrinkles that will never come out. One day, not in the near future, but in the conceivable future, the color will be quite gone, the threads will have decayed, the batting will disintegrate, and it will no longer be usable as a quilt.
I could put it in a moth-proof box, stick it behind UV-shielded glass, hang it in a dimly-lit climate-controlled room, keep it as far as possible from the ravages of daily wear and tear, but this hardly seems better. This quilt isn't precious to me because of its colors, it's precious because of the use I've gotten out of it. Yes, it is beautiful to look at, but it is still very much an object made for use, and it seems wrong, somehow, to deny it that function. It doesn't make sense to abandon the present to leave a more complete record for the future.
Creating something sets it inevitably, inexorably on the path to destruction. Some things — snowballs, spoken words, quesadillas — are gone in minutes or hours, others last years, decades, even millennia. But one day, even the great pyramids of Giza will be ground back to shifting piles of sand and dust. Tempus edax omnium*. Time eats everything.
There are times where I try to thwart this, where I compile every scrap I've doodled ideas on, carefully dated and stored in chronological order. If there are going to be holes cut in it, might as well try to start with the largest, richest, most vibrant tapestry possible, right? So that someday, in the far distant future, something might still remain, some small spark to say "We were here. We lived. We cared about things deeply and passionately. This is what we left behind.".
Other times, tho, I let it go. Creation, it's true, leads the way to destruction, but destruction leaves room for new creation in turn. We don't have every play by Sophocles, but we have new plays, some written only yesterday. Some of the songs Tony Martin sang will never be sung again, but we have new songs to take their place. We can't starve time, can't wire its corrosive jaws shut for good, but we can make sure there's always more for it to eat.
Any number of adages and fables warn of the dangers of holding too firmly to the past, of getting lost in nostalgia and loss and failing to take advantage of what the present moment has to offer. The same can be said of treating the present like it's already the past for a future that has yet to arrive. Life isn't a museum piece, every aspect to be set in amber and handed on with no mark of our curation. The present moment is ours to use, not preserve; we are here, now — let us be good to one another, let us sing, dance, laugh, love, live.
Waves will come, sooner or later, and wash our footprints from the beach. That does not mean we can get no pleasure from the sun and surf and sand.
*Pedantic aside for the Latinists in the audience: I'm well aware that the quote from Ovid (Metamorphoses XV.234) is "tempus edax rerum" and that "edax" is an adjective not a verb. But I don't have to worry about dactylic hexameter or the "omnia" lurking in the next line, and this version is a bit more pertinent to the point at hand, so deal with it. I'm being poetic.