More on Attention

Following on from my last post, a couple more things crossed my radar on attention (yep, caught my attention):

1. Rick Rubin on the Ezra Klein podcast (timed link, about 8 minutes in), talking about the sensitive antenna that artists grow in order to perceive and draw on the world around them. From the show transcript:

Ezra Klein

Let’s talk about that philosophy. And I want to start with something you say very early in the book that seems very important to me, which is you frame artists, and, really, you frame all of us, as translators, as picking up signals from the world around them, that many hear but ignore or maybe many never even hear.

And so you write then that the best artists tend to be the people with the most sensitive antenna. Give me some examples of that to make that grounded.

Rick Rubin

The first example that comes to mind is recent. I just made a new album with Neil Young. And it’s called “World Record.” And the way that that came about was he was hiking in Colorado on a daily basis … And he noticed what he was whistling was interesting, and it wasn’t a song he knew. And he decided to record on his little flip phone, … and he did this every day. And he collected 10 or so of these whistling melodies that if you asked him, he would say he did not write. They just — he essentially channeled them. They just happened.

And he was aware enough to capture them and then aware enough when he had a handful of them to say, you know, I think I can make this into an album. This is interesting. I like these melodies and they’re unlike any melodies that I normally write. So that’s the basis of this album. It came from something outside of himself.

We laughed a lot in the studio about, I’d love to meet the guy who wrote these songs. … So from the beginning — and this is someone who’s been making albums for 50 years — he found an entirely new way to work, not based on him deciding to find a new way to work, not on an intellectual choice he made, but on noticing these whistling pieces are coming through. First step is I’ll collect them. And then, looking back, he’s like, I feel like these are good. This is the beginning of something. So that’s an example of being open to what comes. We recognize — we’ll overhear something that someone says that’s just the phrase we’re looking for.

2. This talk on learning to see things in the world, via Austin Kleon

Again, he pulls out distinct modes of attention, a purposeful kind, where you’re seeking something, and a more ambient kind, where you let the world come to you.

Taking pictures gives you an excuse to pay attention. And photography (and many other creative practices) can help you develop both modes. I also think that both modes can be complimentary, if you do it right. Paying attention with purpose doesn’t preclude a more open kind of noticing, so long as you don’t get too hung up on the goal you’re seeking.

3. This post broadly (and I think intended to be ironically) on how great the 90s were, but also specifically on the idea that as we’ve given over much of our lives to the convenience of the internet, and something we’ve lost is the locating of certain activities in certain places. And the sense that locating a behaviour in a place gives it a kind of solidity that favours attention.

You used to do things and have places to do them. For example, there were record stores. In my hometown in Middletown, Connecticut there was one called Record Express. …

… a record store was a place. And places demonstrate importance; sometimes they demonstrate devotion. You’d go in there and there would be a couple vaguely pretentious staff members and people pawing through racks of CDs and a wall of t-shirts and posters. And they’d play cool shit that you hadn’t heard before, which was one way to discover new stuff. So was flipping endlessly through every CD in a row. When you were there you were Doing Music. Now we’re never doing anything – we’re always getting through something to get to something else to get through, using various time-saving techniques that maximize the amount of time we have to get through things while keeping our attention divided into a thousand things we then get through. When you went to a record store you were intent on music, and sometimes, you’d care enough about a particular artist that you paid for their album, real money, so that the artist got a cut that was more than the .002 cents they get per stream now. Maybe you’d throw in a little incense to burn surreptitiously in your room. And then you went home and, precisely because you didn’t have access to all of the music that ever existed, you listened to the whole album, and then you’d listen to it again, and when you did you were just listening to it, rather than having music on in the background while you repetitively scrolled through other shit on your phone.

Freddie Deboer, It’s So Sad When Old People Romanticize Their Heydays, Also the 90s Were Objectively the Best Time to Be Alive

There’s a well-worn lament in here about how little we value music today because we invest so little in getting hold of it. But there’s also a more interesting idea about how physical places – and the inconveniences of having to go to them – focus our attention, give us space to devote to the thing.

And so we would do music, instead of merely enduring it in the background, on the way to doing something else, in the future.

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