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Audiences and attention span

February 20, 2011

One of our earliest posts on this blog had to do with the modern listener’s receptiveness to old music in general and lute music in particular.  We mentioned the question of balancing voice and lute, and the relative quiet volume that results in reaching an optimum blend.  Of course, the combination of a solo voice with a single lute was never meant to be heard in a capacious cathedral, nor in a modern concert hall designed for orchestral forces.

Performing old music for modern audiences involves another important adaptive approach to address a pervasive issue – the question of attention span.  How do we effectively engage a listener for the duration of a quiet and subtle song or lute solo that lasts 7 – 10 minutes?  We have to give this question serious consideration especially in view of the cold fact that our lives today seem to be driven by electronic devices that operate at speeds much faster than a caring, contemplative human cares to process a thought.

Advantages of living in our electronic age are abundant. We can multitask to our heart’s delight, embracing a universe of ideas and cascades of random information without having to encumber ourselves with the tiresome steps of considering whether the data are relevant, or even true.  Since Google is always at our fingertips, we no longer need to be bothered with the anachronistic process of committing information to memory, let alone converting knowledge into wisdom.

Irony aside, the electronic age has happily opened amazing lines of communication, allowing us to instantaneously correspond with friends across the globe at any hour of day or night.  If the press is to be believed, the recent liberating events in Egypt were possible mainly due to lines of communication made available through internet social networking sites.  But have electronic devices truly made our lives richer?  As a species, are we happier, healthier, kinder and more considerate?  I think not.

In an editorial in the Sunday New York Times (published February 19, 2011), Maureen Dowd quotes Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.  The following quote caught my eye:

“Researchers say that we need to be quiet and attentive if we want to tap into our deeper emotions,” he said. “If we’re constantly interrupted and distracted, we kind of short-circuit our empathy. If you dampen empathy and you encourage the immediate expression of whatever is in your mind, you get a lot of nastiness that wouldn’t have occurred before.”

I return to our question, “how do we engage listeners today?”  By way of a possible answer, an anecdote.  Last week, we performed a house concert to an audience of around 40 people, most of whom were not previously dedicated fans of early music.  In planning the program, we struggled with the idea of making the music accessible to a general audience and thought we might stick to songs of a short duration (3-4 minutes), and mostly with English texts.  But in the end, we decided to take a chance and perform what we felt like playing.  This included the Dowland lute pavan ‘La mia Barbara’ (over 6 minutes) and Robert Jones’ setting of Sir Philip Sidney’s ‘Over these brooks’ (over 9 minutes).  We detected no signs of unrest in the audience during the concert and we were encouraged by the level of quiet attentiveness.  After the performance, we mentioned to some audience members the length of some of the pieces.  The reaction was surprise – they had no idea that ‘Over these brooks’ lasted over nine minutes.

Performers of old music, we, as empathetic musicians, attempt to engage an audience by first allowing ourselves to be convinced of the inherent quality of the music, and then transparently allowing that music to unfold with a sense of calm or of urgency, depending on what is appropriate to the piece.  These are not new ideas, and are employed consciously or unconsciously by any effective performer.  That is, any effective performer who does not create and depend upon a cult of personality, which places the performer foremost and uses music (or whatever medium) as a mere vehicle in order to draw attention to the personality.

We presume that a member of our audience wishes be drawn into the sound world we create and, by extension, that he or she trusts us to act as a guides through that sound world as we describe the lost aesthetic of a different age.  It is our responsibility to foster empathy by gently reminding our audiences of the rewards of invested concentration, and the value of a rare glimpse through the window of time for a fleeting moment (or ten) of quiet contemplation.

3 Comments
  1. I think it comes down to trust – your audience trusted you to be genuine advocates for your art. Children are very quick to detect a fake, and maybe relatively untutored audiences are too. I (and others I know) have had similar experiences, often with audiences who know little about what you do and why, and have little knowledge of so-called “classical” music. I have also had the “what shall I play? – better make it something simple/obvious” debate and also been delighted when further reflection prompted me to just “go for it” and play what I wanted to play without any consideration of how it might be received. I suspect that it all comes down to commitment and quality.

    Martin

    • Thanks for your reinforcement, Martin. We actually love performing for audiences who are new to early music, and make it a point to do so at every opportunity. In some cases, I like to suggest that lute songs have been wrongly categorized as ‘classical’ music, and fit more appropriately in the ‘singer-songwriter’ genre, only from a different time. It hasn’t happened to us but there is a bit of risk with younger audiences who, in many situations, are apt to get restless after a minute or two, cell phones emerge from pockets and thumbs begin flying. At least that’s the case here in the States. Perhaps that bit of shockingly bad manners hasn’t been exported.

      Ron

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  1. Saturday morning quotes 5.32: Attention span | Unquiet Thoughts

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