On the Nature of Attention

Last week, DownBeat magazine released its 63rd Annual Critics’ Poll. Topping the Rising Star Guitarist category is a young man named Michael Blum who seemingly topped this chart through email solicitations of all the critics voting. This caused a bit of an uproar, with many musicians, journalists, and others in the community decrying how such a thing could happen. How could such an artist be a rising star when other more deserving musicians aren’t receiving their due praise. I can understand such complaints, but one must understand that situations like these, whether in music or in regard to any interaction is based on the nature of attention. To understand how Blum, a rather rudimentary, if not just plain soporifically pleasant guitar player, could top a list like this, would involve a reconciliation with the key elements of how attention works and how one must navigate it.

Attention is a gift. It is given, it is precious. It is the decision someone is making to spend time, however brief and fleeting or continuous and consistent. No matter its length, it is precious and should never be assumed, for it is a gift. It is always a gift.

It is conditioned in that Chaucerian notion of the intersection of fate and wit. Geoffrey Chaucer’s work focused on how there are indeed forces around us guiding our hand, but what we do in these fated circumstances is what defines our character. It’s hard to beat fate, but one can make the best of it through wit.

Attention is like the mind’s essence of fire. It is the spark and the roaring flames. It’s the mental currency in relation to time, to energy. Its preciousness is why it is a gift, and why that gift can be so easily rescinded, which is why holding it and maintaining it requires wit when chance has gifted it.

Fate may be divine, it may be a random colliding of elements, but fate relies on a physical universe. It relies on juxtaposition. The Apostle Paul spells out this simple fact in Romans— people can only learn what is presented to them, which means the logistics of presentation must be considered. People can’t appreciate what that haven’t heard, particularly if those proclaiming aren’t sent to the people. Attention depends on these simple facts.

The nature of attention is this simple “I am aware and possibly intrigued by this because it is in front of me.” It could be for a moment. It could be revisited. It may never happen at all. The placement is the first part of this, where fate rears its head. What one does with this placement, when the spotlight is on, when the crowds gather, when the eyeballs are glaring, is when wit comes into play. Without placement, there is little use for wit, unless it is to keep it sharp for when the placement arrives. To decry placement for the sake of wit is to argue with fate, and there’s little use in that. There may be the effort to cheat fate, this is to take placement into one’s own hands. Much like good and bad wit, there is good and bad placement. This, too, is worth considering.

All of this is part of attention and its gift-like nature. When it is given, the circumstances of its arrival are just half of the job. Being worthy of the attention given, of stepping up to the gift, is what makes the difference. Whether in the realm of making a career as a jazz musician, an artist, a comedian; whether courting, or meeting with friends, or talking to family; whether scheduling a week, or slingshotting oneself through the most interesting adventures of a day, attention is the fuel for our mental engines, running our bodies into what it thinks is best. Attention measures all these things, even when we consciously aren’t. But it helps when we do.