Category Archives: Personal

Distraction, “the Attentional Commons” and Birmingham

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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 Station Street entrance to New Street station: a terrible assault on the attentional commons

The Station Street entrance to New Street Station/Grand Central, with its permanent TV screen of advertisements: abuse of the attentional commons

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.

John Lewis, Birmingham: colonizing the attentional commons with a massive logo and an oversized building

Never Knowingly Undersized, John Lewis’s grandiose, vacuous gasometer hiding the wonderful civic architecture behind it.

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)

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Out of place, out of proportion, and in your face: the steel canopy over New Street Station blocking light and assaulting the landscape.

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.

 

Corporate manspreading

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.

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Grand central, seen from the Bull Ring. This is a building that has “f*** you” written all over it. Attention-seeking, narcissistic, and obsessed with dominating everything around it, it’s an architectural psychopath.

More about attentional commons and distraction

New ballet playing card published

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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.

Conference on music and movement as process and experience

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If you’re wondering why there’s been a long silence in the 52 cards project, it’s because I’ve been just too busy with other stuff, such as organizing the Conference on Music and Movement as Process and Experience that takes place tomorrow, 23rd October under the banner of the Institute of Education’s Music Special Interest Group. It takes place tomorrow at the Royal Academy of Dance  who’ve very kindly agreed to host it.

In  a way, this conference is another step along the path that I had in my mind over 15 years ago that, and blogged about in 2005. My thinking’s moved on a bit in various directions since that post, but that’s roughly where it started.

Evenings on Žofin

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Zofin - 01

Žofin island (now called Slovanský Ostrov/Slovansky Island). The building is the Žofin Palace.

One of the most complicated music references I’ve ever had to research was for a piece that I found on an album called Little Pearls of Czech Classics. The piece was called “Poem” by Zděnek Fibich, and we used it for an adage at the barre in the RAD’s new Advanced 1 in 2013. When I tried to find a piano version of the piece (it was in fact originally a piano piece), it seemed that every time I looked, a new reference would turn up. In the end, I settled for this:

“Večery na Žofině” (Evenings on Žofin) from Moods, Impressions, and Souvenirs Op. 41 No. 139 (originally Op 41 No. 6). Also known as Na Podvečer Op. 39, or Poem [Poème] Op. 39a.

To that, you can now add Op. 41 No. 4, which is the title given to it at AllMusic, where you’ll find a concise history of the piece.  For all this numbering, I can’t even remember where I eventually found it – IMSLP have a good selection of FIbich’s works, but not the original piano work (presumably it’s in Volume 4, they only have 1-3).  I’d like to think that the memoral slab on the side of the  Žofin palace puts one strand of the story literally in stone, which is that it was the Czech violinist Jan Kubelik who made Večery na Žofině (Evenings on Žofin) famous by arranging it for violin, but even that isn’t quite right: to be more precise, Fibich arranged and extended Evenings on Žofin  into an orchestral work that he called V podvečer (At Twighlight, Op. 39), from which Kubelik then extracted a bit, arranged it for piano and violin, and called it Poème, whereafter it was catalogued – understandably – as  Op. 39a in the list of Fibich’s works.

Zofin - 03

It was a lovely moment when I realised that this complex history referred to a place that I’d walked past (and on) for so many years on my annual visits to Prague for the International Ballet Masterclasses in Prague. As the Allmusic article tells you, many of the hundreds of piano miniatures in Fibich’s Nálady, dojmy a upomínky (Moods, Impressions and Reminiscences) apparently document the history of Fibich’s late-life love for his one-time pupil Anežka Schulzová (she was 24, he was 42, he was still married to his second wife). There’s barely a part of Schulzovà’s body, or an aspect of their relationship that doesn’t get a musical mention (“Nos. 303-313, however, return to the theme of Anežka’s toes”). As anatomy lessons go, I still think diagrams are probably more reliable.

The more you read about Fibich and Anežka in brief biographies, the greater the sense of misleading moralizing whitewash. Fibich’s first wife died very soon after they married. They had twin children, one of whom died at birth, the other only a few years later. On her death bed, the first wife made her sister Betty promise to marry Fibich, which she dutifully did (or perhaps it was Fibich on whose side the sense of duty lay).  It’s hard to imagine how this could last, and hard to begrudge Fibich the unexpected love he found with the much younger Schulzová, an educated woman, expert in Nordic literature, and eventually librettist for Fibich’s later operas. A site about Fibich refers to these years of his life as “fateful love.” The ABRSM, advertising their collection of pieces from Nálady, dojmy a upomínky describe the works as “highly individual miniatures…dedicated to his mistress.” Anežka surely deserves more than this.

Here’s the original orchestral Poème, and further down, a little gallery of pictures from Žofin island, including a view of the National Theatre which you can see from the island. Built between 1868-1881, both Fibich and Schulzová must have spent a long time looking at the building site, and admiring it once it was built from their vantage point on Žofin. The row of impressive buildings on the river bank directly opposite post-dates Fibich’s death I think.

A year of Ballet playing cards: new score published

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If you’ve been following the Year of Ballet Playing Cards, you might have missed a couple of updates, as I’m setting the “published” dates as when they should have been published, rather than the date when I publish them. It’s just easier to keep track of that way. The best thing to do is to either follow the blog, or to bookmark this automatically page of links to the playing cards in date order. If you can’t be bothered to scroll down the page, click here to get today’s update, the coda from the Talisman pas de deux, a nice big waltzy thing.

 

A year of ballet playing cards #21: A gigue by Grétry (8h)

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Image of the piano score of a gigue by Grétry

Click to download the file

I can’t remember why I started listening to Grétry’s music after neglecting him for so long. In the years I’ve hunted for music for class, syllabi, other people’s ballet shows and so on, I’ve stopped at nothing as far as search routines are concerned, sometimes chucking any old search term into iTunes, like “carrot” or “milk” and seeing what comes up – so heaven knows how I might have found Grétry (random search terms can be very productive – give it a try if you haven’t already). Or perhaps it was reading about him in a music history book that led me to discover his catchy music for “Turks” in the Cairo Caravan, and to wonder whether there was more where this came from.

Meter and the gigue

Gigues that have real triple movement in them (as opposed to being marches with a bit of a triplet-y lilt)  as well as being in 8-bar phrases are quite hard to find. Pieces like this are useful for those teachers that set petit allegros which need this continuous, filigree surface. It’s interesting how much you find gigue-like  texture and movement in Tchaikovsky (think of the party scene, see below) which supports Taruskin’s thesis (I’m paraphrasing) that Tchaikovsky was more of a French composer than a Russian one.

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Extract from Act 1 of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” party scene

I was all excited at how much more interesting Grétry’s music was than I had thought it would be when I heard the clip below. Later, I realised that what I was listening to had been arranged and added to by Felix Mottl, as you’ll find out if you compare the two scores at IMSLP (i.e. the orchestral ballet suite, and the vocal score of the opera from which the ballet music is taken).

Rejigging the gigue: arranging as renovation

I happen to love Mottl’s re-hearing of the gigue (sadly, I’ve had to cut some of the best bits for the sake of making it work for class. When you look at Grétry’s original, you realise that Mottl had heard something in the music that needed polishing to summon the genie in the lamp. Perhaps I would not have been so ready to admire Mottl’s arrangement, had I not just re-read one of my favourite passages about arrangement from Peter Szendy’s Listen: A history of our ears. 

As ballet musicians, we are used to arranging (it fascinates me, incidentally, the  sociological implications behind the two terms dance arranger and “composer”) but it is Szendy who dignifies the practice with what you might call a poetics of arrangement:

amazon-szendyI love them more than all the others, the arrangers. The ones who sign their names inside the work, and don’t hesitate to set their name down next to the author’s. Bluntly adding their surname by means of a hyphen: Beethoven-Liszt (for a piano version of the nine symphonies), Bach-Webern (for an orchestration of the ricercar in the  Musical Offering), Brahms-Schoenberg, Schubert-Berio, who else—in short, a whole mass of double-barrel signatures.

Now it seems to me that what arrangers are signing is above all a listening. Their hearing of a work. They may even be the only listeners in the history of music to write down their listenings, rather than describe them (as critics do). And that is why I love them, I who so love to listen to someone listening. I love hearing them hear.

(Peter Szendy Listen: A history of our ears, Fordham University Press, 2008, pp. 35-36)

There’s enough material in this gigue to make your own version – you might not want to begin the exercise in octaves in the bass, but that might be fun half way through, for example. Arrange away, add a fourth or fifth name to the credits.