Friday, March 12, 2010

Day 55: Attention

I got to hear jazz pianist great Randy Weston play at Symphony Space last night.  Though I was awed by his talent, technical skill, and musical passion, I noticed that my attention kept drifting while he was playing.  At the beginning of each piece, my mind would be sitting there in its chair, paying attention like a good little student, but then it would sneak out the back of the hall to wander down various side streets.  I would suddenly notice it was gone and call it back to listen again, but after a couple of moments it would whisper another "I'll be right back" and take off once more.  I used to feel bad about this when it would happen, like I wasn't being disciplined.  But through the process of learning how to write theater, I've come to realize that it's not the responsibility of the audience to pay attention -- cell phones, crying babies and inappropriate conversation aside -- it's the responsibility of the material and the performers to hold the audience's attention.

The playwright's hardest job is to keep the audience members' minds from getting up and leaving the theater (even if their butts manage to stay in the seats).  The two main questions my playwriting teacher always asks after a scene is read in class are: "what held your attention?" and "where did you drop out?"  I can often dissect what it is about a play that does or doesn't hold my attention, but I've never thought about music in those terms before.  What was it about the performance last night that didn't keep my mind in the room?   It wasn't a lack of energy or expressiveness or skill on the part of Mr. Weston -- quite the contrary -- I believe it was the music itself.

The kind of jazz Mr. Weston plays is the very free-form, exploratory jazz music that uses incredibly complex harmonies and alters melodies so much that it is hard to recognize them past the first couple of bars.  Music like this, that meanders down various paths of the musician's melodic and/or harmonic fancy, makes my mind meander, too -- down its own path.  I just can't follow its arc; I can't hear its story.   When I think of the music I love best -- regardless of whether it is Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century, jazz standards, musical theater, or pop -- I think it always has some kind of arc that my mind can latch onto.

Poetics (Penguin Classics)Obviously this is not completely universal, as many people love that kind of jazz.  And some people love endless hours of electronic dance music that never feels like it has any kind of beginning, middle or end to me either.  But I do think our minds generally hunger for some kind of structure, some kind of form, some kind of narrative to follow.  We like a good story, whether it is in music, visual art, poetry, dance, theater, or books.  There's a reason why Aristotle's observations on the theater still hold true to this day.  All he did in Poetics was observe what it was about certain plays that made people keep coming back to them over and over again; what it was that held people's attention.

I think I'd best sign off before I lose yours.
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