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Saturday morning quotes 5.32: Attention span

December 26, 2015

As another calendar year crashes to a close, we offer a few thoughts on what we see as a major affliction affecting all conscious or unwitting participants in the internet culture.  We mourn the demise of the attention span.  Although we have written on this topic over the past few years, some of our readers may not recall the finer details.  This self-quoted passage serves to provide a bit of contextual perspective:

“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.”

An unhappy side-effect of the erosion of attention span is a collective diminishing of empathy.  We see this daily in public places where individuals are so absorbed with what is on that miniature plastic screen that they are incapable of understanding that they are among others and that basic human decency and courtesy, however outmoded, are required in order to fulfill the terms of our social contract.

“Researchers say that we need to be quiet and attentive if we want to tap into our deeper emotions…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.”

– Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Empathy requires time for introspective thought, and introspection requires an attention span.  If we spend most of our lives in a private bubble concentrating on our phones, there will be no introspection, no empathy, no attention span.

“What kind of brain is the Web giving us? That question will no doubt be the subject of a great deal of research in the years ahead. Already, though, there is much we know or can surmise—and the news is quite disturbing. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.”

– Nicholas Carr, “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains”, Wired Magazine 05.24.10

Modern thought process leaves little time for music that has any degree of intellectual content or subtlety, an unfortunate situation for musicians committed to sharing quiet, introspective or spiritually-moving music with audiences.  However, we see a growing number of individuals willing to enter the realm “where subtlety and elegance trump flash and flamboyance, and content, rather than effect, is primary”, providing welcome encouragement in our efforts to dig deeper into the repertory.

As we explore the music of Jacob Obrecht, we appreciate the thoughtful analysis of Rob C. Wegman.  Discussing Obrecht’s Missa Maria zart, thought to be among the longest mass settings in the repertory, Wegman articulates his conclusions after analyzing the long duos Obrecht inserts in the Gloria and Credo.

“Reading through these sections, it is difficult to avoid the impression that they just go ‘on and on’;  no amount of device-spotting can take that impression away.  For their length seems somehow disproportionate to their content: can two-part writing sustain interest for such a length of time, can a composer afford to do without textural variety for so long?”

“The catch here, of course, is in the words ‘content’ and ‘interest’, for these reflect our own expectations.  Listen to this music for a full hour: our expectations may not have been fulfilled, but the mass does create a special experience, an experience that somehow transforms our perception of musical time.  That is what the score seems to tell us: be still and listen, ask no questions, expect no answers.  Listen.”

– Rob C. Wegman, Born for the Muses: The Life and Masses of Jacob Obrecht, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1994, p. 323.

If you have had an attention span sufficient to reach the bottom of the page, your reward is a download of our recording of the song that was the basis for Obrecht’s mass setting.

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