The curse of the operatic adage
I think I only have about three of these in my repertoire, which is why it was high time I got another. The way that some ballet teachers mark adages, you’d think the world was just full of voluptuous music that went “and one and a two and a.” I guess my worst fear is when you’re thinking of what to play, you settle on something fairly plain that will work, and then the teacher does that inclined head thing, gives you a knowing smile, and says “Something inspiring.” You have to hope they don’t add “…for a change”. This is the stuff of nightmares, because it usually wipes out what you’d decided to play (which is another reason not to decide what to play until the last minute. You never know what tempo or adjective is going to hit you in the few nanoseconds before you play the first note of the introduction).
This aria from Rusalka is just about perfect. The tune really does go “one and a two and a” so there’ll be no fumbling about while the class finds the beat, and half way through, it goes all Maria Callas. I’m afraid I’ve had to do inexcusable metrical surgery on the first part, leaving out a whole 8 bar phrase in order to make it regular, but it’s hard to hear the joins unless you know the aria really well.
You have to have heard this before trying to translate it into piano music. The opening muted strings are hard to reproduce on a piano, and you have to do a lot of work to get the tune out on top, but If you’re lucky, you won’t have to fill it out with semiquavers, though that’s a possibility if you don’t have a very good piano or nice acoustics.
Watching this video is a rather fascinating lesson in how to play for adage well. Listen to the elastic, free, fluid vocal line in the “chorus” bit, and look how the harp accompanies it with almost metronomic rhythmic precision. It must be really precise, because in fact, the last semiquaver that you hear in the bar (part of a single group in my piano reduction) is not the harp (which is silent on the last semiquaver of the bar), but the last note of the pizzicato string figure (quaver, quaver, semiquaver semiquaver) that accompanies the harp.
Pianists tend to be “expressive” and pull the timing around in the bar, but for adage you need to choose your moments very carefully. To provide the right kind of support for a dancer who is doing the equivalent of the vocal line, you have to be as rhythmically solid as that harp and those strings, but at the same time hint at the elasticity of the vocal line. It’s something like the Chopinesque rubato where the accompaniment remains steady while the right hand floats free, but somehow conceptually different. Hard to put into words, but easy to see in this clip.
I’ve put this in “Spades” (Adage) because it’s quite definitely an Adage (see here for an explanation), but on the other hand, it’s about as truly triple metre as metre gets, which is common in some Czech music. Yet more proof that “three” is a big subject in music: so many ways to be triple.
I’ve just finished reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, which I’d happily say is one of the best books I’ve read in the last year. I wonder when the subtitle changed from On becoming an individual in an age of distraction to How to flourish in an age of distraction? The latter, on the UK Penguin paperback edition, makes it sound like a self-help book. The former, which seems to be the American hardcover subtitle, is more accurate because it does greater justice to the philosophical content of the book. On the other hand, Crawford’s whole point is that the idea of individual, autonomous liberty is not necessarily liberating or ideal, whereas connection and engagement with the real world of people and things is. To flourish, you need to radically reconsider the notion of what it means to be individual and free in the first place.
We kid ourselves if we think that we while we are humming along in neutral, our minds are in some freewheeling state where we think and act autonomously. For many of us, the world is full of things that are making claims on our “attentional commons,” eroding our right to live in a world without ubiquitous advertising and clickbait. If you don’t believe it, maybe you haven’t heard marketing people talk about every available space, including the back of your bus ticket, as “real estate” where someone can peddle their wares at you, colonising every object you use and see with a corporate flag.
Still reading “Still writing”
What Crawford is getting at is difficult to imagine, unless you’ve had the opportunity to differentiate between different kinds of attention. I’m now riffing on the book, by introducing another, Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, which I would put near the top of the list of books which have most influenced me in the last year. Although it’s not a self-help book, there is one page which made a huge difference to me. It’s where Shapiro distinguishes between two kinds of reading – the kind that draws you in, and the kind that pulls you away (incidentally, pulling away is more or less what the components of the word distraction mean).
I try (most of the time I fail, but still, I try) to begin my day reading. And by this I do not mean The New York Times online, or the Vanity Fair lying on the kitchen table or the e-mails that have accumulated overnight, and which I open at my own risk. The roulette of the in-box! An enticing invitation to a private online sale of gourmet Himalayan sea salt, a high school nemesis emerging from the ether—whatever it is, it’s the opposite of reading. It pulls you away, instead of directing you inward.
[…] When I start the morning with any one of the dozen books in rotation on my office floor, my day is made instantly better, brighter. I never regret having done it. Think about it: have you ever spent an hour reading a good book, and then had that sinking, queasy feeling of having wasted time?
(Dani Shapiro, 2013. Still Writing, New York: Grove Press, pp. 34-35).
I also try, not always successfully, to do the same. That is, to walk downstairs, without touching a phone or a computer, and pick up a book, and read it. When I do that, I get the same feeling as when I first tried to give up smoking. A visceral twitch that could make you lurch towards the nearest cigarette shop to buy another packet.
But within minutes of picking up a book, just as Shapiro says, you get drawn in, and feel better for it. Her point is that good writing comes from good reading, and that any time you spend reading a well-written book is going to stimulate the writer that you want to be, and other forms of reading – that really need a different term to describe them, since they are so fundamentally different – have the effect of distracting you, pulling you in different directions, until you feel mentally exhausted and vacant.
So this post is by way of celebrating that today, at least, I didn’t do that, I finished The world beyond your head, and —as Shapiro promised—I feel all the better for it.
Birmingham New Street: the attentional commons colonized by commerce
It so happened that while I was reading about a concept of the “attentional commons,” I was staying right next door to a building that perfectly illustrated the problem that Matthew Crawford talks about in The World Beyond Your Head, as I’m going to explain below. But first, let’s take a few moments to deal with New Street Station.
I cannot think of an uglier, more monstrous, pretentious and dehumanizing building in contemporary Britain than Birmingham New Street Station. Not that you’d even know it was there at all now, because it’s been smothered by a gigantic steel tablecloth with all signs of movement, travel, public service, usefulness and even the name of the station itself hidden from view. Being inside it is no better: you cannot use your own judgement and vision to see where the trains are, or any local landmarks to get your bearings. I know roughly where the town hall, the cathedral, the Bull Ring, and the Hippodrome are, and I used to know where the station was, but inside Grand Central (as the place—whatever it is—is called now) there is no geography, no public space, no lines, no corners, no light and shade. It’s like being imprisoned in a light bulb.
The people I pity most are those who live in Station Street, whose buildings are bathed 24 hours a day in the changing coloured lights of the enormous advertising “eye” over the front entrance of the building, where in the past, a moderately sized and lit sign with the name of the station and a British Rail logo should have been. The eye is the biggest insult of all. Whereas human eyes move in order to take in aspects of the environment, this massive advertising screen fixes your stare, and is too big to be avoided by any regular eye movement. High above it, John Lewis’s glass and steel gasometer dominates and obliterates the skyline.Everything of human proportions and everyday use is dwarfed and humiliated in its sight. It’s a kind of Stalinist monumentalism adopted by a department store, except I think a Stalinist would at least have built a park or something to give the building and the public some breathing space.
Giving distraction a name: the assault on the attentional commons
I could not give a name to the visceral annoyance that Grand Central induces in me every time I see it, until I read Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in An Age of Distraction, where he uses the term attentional commons. He begins by emphasising that human attention is a limited resource, continually at risk of depletion by the advertising that increasingly occupies every spare bit of space around us (on the side of buses, tickets, hotel key fobs, on televisions in departure lounges and post offices, for example). Our attentional resources, and the “attentional commons” are being plundered by private advertisers.
Airports are probably the worst example. Just once in my life, I was in the business class lounge at an airport, and experienced exactly what Crawford describes: what you get for travelling business class is the absence of advertising, and the freeing up of your attention for your own stuff. It’s what we used to expect of the outside world as a normal condition, but no longer: in one example cited by Crawford, adverts for l’Oréal in the bottom of the security trays at airports compete for your attention, so that you might easily miss the USB drive that you put in there.
I’ve got another example that involves humans. I have only twice in my life left my debit card in a machine at a shop, and in both cases, it was because at the crucial point where I needed to focus on putting in my PIN and removing the card, the shop assistant started asking me whether I wanted the chance to enter a free prize draw, or get a two-for-one offer instead of the thing that I had bought. In both cases, I was just about to leave the country on a trip, so my attention was already used up on all the other things I needed to do. This is a claim on my attention, with disastrous consequences, and it’s at a point where I think the shop has an ethical obligation to observe what Crawford calls my right not to be addressed. If you’re driving a car, and your passenger can see you’re negotiating a difficult situation on the road, they’ll shut up and let you concentrate. We have an ethical responsibility to be respectful of the limited attentional resources of others—and it’s that responsibility that is increasingly ignored in public life.
The right not to be addressed
Crawford’s point is that we take it for granted that we have a right not to be addressed in this way, but this right is being eroded in the form of advertising and noise (there’s an interesting parallel here with what Bart Kosko says in Noise about things like email spam, which constitute intrusive, unethical “noise”).
I think we need to sharpen the conceptually murky right to privacy by supplementing it with a right not to be addressed. This would apply not, of course, to those who address me face-to-face as individuals, but to those who never show their face, and treat my mind as a resource to be harvested by mechanized means. (p. 13)
And that’s what is so vile about Grand Central. Its enormous tent-like shape hides the station beneath it, and overwhelms and obscures the public space all around it. And as if that weren’t enough it has a permanent TV show of adverts on its eye-shaped screen, commanding and appropriating attention. Inside, everything about travel, trains, stations and information is dwarfed by the shopping centre. It’s the kind of station brilliantly described in a novel I can’t remember the name of where platforms and trains are an embarrassment that the architects have tried to hide away. “Grand Central” is also another example of the insidious privatisation of public space, it’s oversized, inhuman proportions thrust up against the surrounding landscape with the lack of grace of an overweight giant taking over the seat next to you on a plane. It isn’t even elegant: the steel canopy gives up a few feet above the street, as if the designer couldn’t work out how to finish it off. If a builder did this to your house, you’d sue them.
It’s manspreading on a massive corporate scale, but we barely have a name for the rights that are eroded when so much public space is intruded by adverts and demands on your attention. Now we do. It’s a concept of an attentional commons, and the right not to be addressed. I’m not sure what we can do about it, but I hope at least that the residents of Station Street are going to give Grand Central hell until they turn that bloody TV screen off.
More about attentional commons and distraction
- For an explanation and defence of the concept of “the commons,” see Antonia Malchik’s article on Aeon, “Who owns the earth?“
- The author Will Self is concerned about the related issue of the privatisation of public space: see this article in the Guardian from 13th February 2016 (“Author warns of ‘threat to national psyche’ as campaigners rally outside City Hall to protest at corporate takeover of streets and squares”)
- “Distraction is a kind of obesity of the mind” — Interview and samples from Matthew Crawford’s book
I’m publishing my 52 cards on the dates that they should have been published – so you might have missed the latest one, a medley of triple jigs, which I retro-published on the 30th July yesterday (if you see what I mean). If you’re collecting the 52 cards, the best way to keep track of updates is to subscribe to the 52 cards feed, or save a link to the 52 cards page where the various pieces are listed in date order.