The difficulty of processing large amounts of information as well as the loss of cognitive capacities as described by Wolff, such as the ability to perform deeper comprehension and reflection tasks, together produce a subject whose capacity for paying attention is inferior to the wealth of information that consumes this attention. In terms of the market, the new media and technological affordances that Wolff refers to have been heavily exploited for financial profit. Terranova (2012, 7) warns against the mechanisms of this ‘economy of attention’, where attention is being managed as a currency and as a valuable but scarce resource. What is at stake is how to orient the attention of the users, how to make them focus, and how to make them consume or pay attention to this rather than that.
In the field of classical music, but also of contemporary music, practitioners are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, there is the practice of performance and mediation that is constructed to a great extent upon the principle of sustained attention to and absorption in the musical work. On the other hand, there is a contemporary reality in which, as it seems, it has become increasingly difficult to concentrate. What are the consequences of these developments for the reception and practice of classical music? An object of much debate is how the way classical music is traditionally heard, in concerts or in the privacy of the home through hi-fi systems, seems to be at odds with today’s lifestyle (Abbing 2006; Rebstock 2011; Burland and Pitts 2014; Brown and Novak-Leonard 2011; Gembris 2011; Idema 2012). In these discussions, sociologist Martin Tröndle stands out as one of the most present voices. For Tröndle (2011, 27), the defining element for the success of the classical concert in the last two hundred years has been its ability to mobilise the attention of the audience towards the musical event. Instances of this mobilisation of attention include creating a sensation of acoustic and physical intimacy, centralising the ear of the listener on the performer, or through the crystallisation of a particular expectational structure based on familiar rituals and repertoire. This format does not do well in a society where inattention and lack of formality seem to have become the habitual mode, leading Tröndle (ibid, 14) to speak of a ‘crisis of the classical concert’. The behavioural conventions associated with high art would seem to be particularly dissuasive: young people today are used to a different type of socialisation with live music; for them, the formal rituals of the classical concert are both unfamiliar and rebarbative. It has also been argued that individuals become increasingly used to ‘multilistening’ (as in multitasking) and to the multiple perspectives arising from listening to music through portable technologies, in different environments or inserted in curated playlists. These are all forms of engagement with media that make us more receptive to a diversity of content, but simultaneously more resistant to one-dimensional modes of transmission (Herbert 2018; Elsaesser 2017). Cultural historian and musicologist Ola Stockfelt (2006, 89-90) confirms how media have made us accustomed to hearing music in the most varied and acoustically messy environments, but also in different positions, and while doing all sorts of things: walking, showering, driving, being in the cinema or in the bathtub, climbing mountains, and so on, making the idea of an ideal listening space and mode more abstract.
In this context, absorbed and synthetic listening aimed at the auditory reconstruction of a work have become less interesting than more serendipitous forms that do not follow one direction. Without ‘proper’ attention to the music, however, it is claimed that there can also be no structural engagement with the composition being performed, which might compromise the comprehension of its complexities. Yet, as I describe in Chapter One, the classical music industry is constructed upon this very form of appreciation and understanding of the musical work. As philosopher Lydia Goehr (1992, 18) rightly remarks, since the 19th century it has all revolved around an understanding of the work, understood as an abstract and ideal identity which the performance realises in sound: ‘There were concerts of works, reviews of works, scores of works, musicological and aesthetic theory based on works and so on’. Goehr (ibid, 2) has expanded upon how musical works have progressively acquired metaphysical importance as ‘original and unique products of a special creative activity’, objects that allow listeners to develop their ever-expanding sensibility. Music became the works that we listen to, that we play in concerts, that we talk about, that we surrender to. Musical works became ‘things’ we have come to know and cultivate, that we respect as if they are living beings (Abbate 2004, 517). Thus, listening became a moral obligation towards the work. Musicologist Lars Liliestam (2013) and music psychologist Ruth Herbert (2018) have done relevant work in categorising different modes of listening. What they found is that music-theoretical discourse is still profoundly marked by what Herbert calls an 'insidious influence of autonomy'. Despite an increasing awareness for the new ways of listening as mentioned above, there remained the persistent idea that listening should be oriented towards a structural understanding of the musical work only, without regard for a larger context or the situatedness of the performance and/or the listening event. Liliestam notes, not without bitterness, that modes of listening other than those dedicated to the comprehension of the work, are often described in the literature as inferior, irresponsible or superficial. The ‘right’ way of listening to classical music is the focused, concentrated and absorbed mode. Any deviation from this mode, any distraction, would mean that we are not actually listening to the music: '[C]oncentrated listening is implicitly seen as an ideal, […] listening is of a poorer quality if you do something else at the same time as you listen to music’ (ibid, 5).With attention being so important for some musicians and scholars that it provokes this type of judgement, it is no surprise to see debates on attention occupying the field.
Nevertheless, as with all transformations, responses from the field diverge. Some insist musicians insist on focus. Just recently, I saw pianist and composer Frederic Rzewski refusing to start a performance because of the noise the air-conditioning system was making. Others conceive performances that place extra focus on deep attention. This was the case in Marina Abramović’s performance A Different Way of Hearing, where spectators were first supposed to attend a preparatory workshop. This included meditation and long moments of silence meant to 'rinse the ears' from everyday sounds before they attended the concert. This took place in the company of a personal supervisor, who ensured that attendees handed in their electronic devices at the reception and remained silent during the entire seven-hour concert. Abramović conceived this project in reaction to the superficial and scripted way live classical music is listened to today, a mode of listening enhanced, or provoked by our hectic lifestyle (‘the tempo of life, thoughts, stress or smartphones’). In the announcement of the project, Abramović (2019) writes, ‘[How] can listening to music take place as an authentic, moving, profound, and transcendental experience? […] In the midst of our busy lives, can we transform how we experience music?’
Yet another strategy is to capture the attention of concertgoers by attracting them to the music indirectly, through a more intense experience of that which surrounds the music. Theatre director and curator Matthias Rebstock (2011), for example, proposes different solutions: ‘auratising’ the performer, for instance by cultivating stardom (ibid, 144); using visualisation techniques to enhance focus on the auditive through sight (ibid, 148); using technology to enhance proximity to the performer or to boost particular basses and other elements likely to have a direct impact on the listener’s body (ibid, 147); or staging the listening experience by presenting concerts at unusual hours and places, using special scenography and listening in unusual positions. He gives the example of concerts in swimming pools or planetariums, or the late-night concerts at the Berliner Radialsystem where the audience can lie down to listen instead of sitting still (ibid).9 When conceiving these strategies, Rebstock was much inspired by the writing of literary theorist Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht, who in Production of Presence (2004) expressed concern for our obsession with content and the interpretation of this content – a message, a book or an artwork. This concern can make us forget the physical affection that the world can have on us. Rebstock wants to revive the conditions for such affection. The strategies he proposes aim to ‘produce presence’ (ibid, 146), meaning they make the listener feel physically implicated and maximise their attention not only toward the music but also toward the event as a whole. Rebstock’s ideas are not without interest for my own work in the sense that they explore physical situatedness and the material impact of the performance environment. However, although various aspects of performance become more prominent in the examples that he gives, they continue to function as a support for the musical works.
While artists like Rebstock or Abramović seek to recover and intensify attention to the music, others explore distraction and what I will for now call ‘inattention’ as a creative resource. Indeed, since the desperation or perplexity of the Castorf generation, we have become more used to a downpour of media and to a hyperventilating reality. Many artists embrace this new reality, in which it becomes increasingly difficult to pay attention in a traditional sense. This is not because they necessarily enjoy or approve of these transformations, but because, when faced with a situation that seems irreversible, it seems to them, as it does to me, that it is more productive to try to understand and deal with new modes of attention than it is to resist them by sticking to the old. Take distraction, for instance. Defined in the Online Etymology Dictionary (Harper, n.d.) as ‘the drawing away of the mind from one point or course to another or others’, distraction is commonly and negatively considered to be the ‘reverse’ of attention. It precludes real contact or relationships with someone or something, as well as the effort necessary to synthesise complex data and sequences of events into a coherent whole. Therefore, distraction is often associated with superficiality and a kind of defeat – the subject gives in to the many forces that claim their attention, unable to recentre themselves (hence the ‘subjective disintegration’ of which Crary speaks).10 Seen differently, however, one could also think about distraction as a form of resistance. As Citton (2018, n.p.) suggests, resistance can be seen as a contemporary way of ‘renouncing the authority of the imposed message’. Here, the imposed message is the undisputed way in which sustained attention is commonly considered as something important and good, but also the hegemony of the message itself, whose coherence is taken for granted and never questioned. Besides, at a perceptual level, although distraction eludes synthesis, it may facilitate the making of connections, since the distracted individual will engage with objects or events that someone absorbed in the contemplation of one object would not be able to hear or see. Returning to Castorf, this impossibility of focusing, counter to the ‘habitual mode’, can activate the imagination in unexpected ways. So Lehmann (2006, 84) notes about the mental activity of the spectator in front of multiple stimuli and chaotic stages:
The human sensory apparatus does not easily tolerate disconnectedness. When deprived of connections, it seeks out its own, becomes “active”, its imagination going “wild” – and what then “occurs to it” are similarities, correlations and correspondences, however far-fetched these may be. The search for traces of connection is accompanied by a helpless focusing of perception on the things offered (maybe they will at some moment reveal their secret).
What also seems to be gained, in addition to new connections and despite the helplessness of the individual as the mind transitions rapidly from one sign to the next, is a form of intensity and presence. Lehmann (ibid, 83) speaks of ‘the density of intensive moments’ – the sensation, so rarely felt, of being in the now, arising from the fact that each interruption to the individual’s efforts to focus on one or the other sign, brings them back to the here and now where perception occurs. What distraction and inattention suggest, then, is that we find ourselves in an environment that is multi-layered, with many impulses to relate to; rather than being only disorientating, this can also be potentially rich and stimulating. Owing to how distraction can stimulate relation-making and physical situatedness, artists increasingly see distraction or variations thereof as legitimate and possibly productive modes of engaging with sound. This manifests itself in many artistic proposals to which I will return in Chapter Four, which are being conceived around notions of connectivity and presence rather than synthesis and structural understanding. These include the Rasch series by the artistic research programme MusicExperiment 21 (ME21). Under the pretext of expanding the notion of the musical work, they included in their multimedia performances a variety of materials associated with a musical composition; the Kunsthalle for Music by Ari Benjamin Meyers, in which several works are performed as if in an art exhibition, simultaneously and in different corners of an art gallery; and the Liquid Rooms by Ensemble Ictus, which are informal performances of contemporary works on multiple stages during which the listener can go in and out of the concert hall as they please.
In my own work, concern with attention has from the start been connected with the problematisation of aspects of musical tradition. It is specifically concerned with the habit of performing musical works in closed environments free of noisy sounds – here defined as sounds considered extraneous to the composition being performed and thus potentially distracting, sounds typically unwanted in the concert hall. This concern arose from certain experiences and incidents that have made me reconsider noise as an opportunity, rather than as a disturbance to the attention of performer and listener. I am thinking particularly of a concert with soprano Ingeborg Dalheim in which we performed a duo for piano and voice by Helmut Lachenmann, Got Lost. In the middle of the piece, our performance was interrupted by the sounds of an electric guitar pouring in louder and louder onto our stage. Got Lost is a long and complex piece, and the passage we were playing at the time of the incident was particularly quiet. From the stage, we could feel the tension in the hall. In an unexplainable reflex, communicating almost if by telepathy, Ingeborg and I did not stop playing. Instead, we slowed down emphatically, listening intently as the distortion of the guitar filled our silences. Our performance became more plastic and reactive as we began playing ‘in the moment’, attentive to both the composition and these emergent sounds, and improvising with these sounds. There and then I savoured the interference, yet my rehearsed pianistic gestures appeared theatrical and overstated in this new situation, making me consider the distance between our carefully planned interpretation and the spontaneity of the guitar sounds as they entered the space. Sounds like these, emerging unexpectedly during the performance of classical music, are generally considered noise: disturbing, unwanted and uncontrollable, out of place in the universe of the musical work. Here, however, they brought freshness to our performance and a new freedom in relation to the music as notated in the musical score.