Thursday, April 21, 2011

They call it multi-tasking, I call it counterpoint

A nice column by Kevin Drum on the dangers of multi-tasking, here. It's no surprise to learn that most people, when attempting to perform multiple tasks simultaneously, don't perform those tasks very well. This can be an annoyance — I don't enjoy conversing with someone in person who is social-media-ing away at the same time via one or more electronic devices —, or unfortunate — for the student who is expected to know the stuff on the lecture he missed because he was busy checking his email —, or downright dangerous (cell phone, autobahn.) It's too bad that more people haven't picked up on something that musicians have known for a long while: mastery of counterpoint is wonderful, but rare, and most of us spend our entire lives as musicians working at hearing more. The great contrapuntal virtuosi (say Bach, Berlioz, and Ives, to mention three of the best, but stylistically and formally very different composers) form a preciously small company, and as wild as each could get, each clearly understood the potential — and utility — of highly differentiated counterpoint to either cohere or fall apart. [Maybe we need warning labels: EXCESS COUNTERPOINT: HANDLE WITH CARE.] I understand well the impulse to take in as much as possible — as a teenager, I used to spend evenings listening to the radio with headphones, reading, and usually eating, simultaneously, in the same room in our house where the rest of the family watched TV, and I took in a lot of that, too — but I think that time has taught me the value of eliminating distractions, with the quality of perception gaining considerable value over raw quantity.

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