- my mind is elsewhere
- open the gates!
- a part, apart
Attention, we are told, is a valuable commodity. It’s increasingly clear that my attention, and yours, is bought and sold every day in ways that are invisible to us. What is visible, however, is that most 21st-century “content” (a word that means everything and nothing) exists primarily in order to attract attention, to focus – just briefly – the restless eye. But is our attention really so easily manipulable? Whom are we paying when we “pay attention” in this way? Is there a kind of attention that can’t be sold?
My new string quartet is organized according to the different forms of attention that it embodies or enacts. You could think of its three movements as three studies in distinct kinds of human attention.
The first movement, “my mind is elsewhere,” embodies a state that’s probably all too familiar for many of us: distraction. This is a specific, faintly disturbing kind of distraction that I associate with multiple tabs being open on a computer screen: the mind seems to be on autopilot, whirring away somewhere, quietly spinning its wheels, but the self – at least, the conscious, active self – is not in the building. (Where it goes is a mystery.)
The piece’s second movement embodies the opposite of distraction: an intense, obsessive fixation. (This is much closer to my usual state when I’m composing.) This state brings with it very different dangers from the state of distraction; it’s possible to fixate so hard on a harmonic progression or a rhythmic cell that the musical material overheats. In this movement, for once, I can at least claim that this effect is intentional!
The third movement attempts to enact a state that is neither distraction nor obsession, but rather a meditative focus, a willingness to listen and to let the musical material lead the way.
Writing this piece has been a singular experience: it’s both unnerving and illuminating to focus very hard on the state of distraction! I’ve noticed also that each movement’s essential state has tended to bloom into its opposite by the movement’s end. The first movement’s distracted whirring eventually leads to a moment of awakening: the conscious self returns, realizes it had been asleep on the job, and humbly takes stock of its surroundings. The intensity of the second movement melts into a serene postlude – and the third movement’s medita