Trading Bars: Mingus and Dividing Our Attention

On Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, the first thing we hear is an introduction by Mingus himself that borders on admonishment:

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. We’d like to remind you that we don’t applaud at the Showplace, where we work. So, restrain your applause and if you must applause wait till the end of the set – and it won’t even matter then. The reason is that we’re interrupted by your noise. In fact, don’t even take any drink or no cash register ringing, etc.”

What is particularly interesting about this banter was that Mingus was not even addressing a live audience. The band is not at the Showplace, where they played frequently before this recording, but at a studio. Mingus was trying to recreate the atmosphere of one of their live sets. He likely had to plea for quiet in the bustling club.

There was a time, for instance, when the crowd did not listen to Mingus’ warning. His temper flared and patience drained. What Mingus decided to do, as the story goes, was flip the script. The audience was treated like a musician in the band. He had moments in the music where the crowd was given time to ring the cash register, take drinks, and chatter away. Band and crowd supposedly traded bars for the rest of the set.

Our first story is an ideal. The need for respectful silence is taken by the artificiality of the recording studio. But then, when the reality of the situation hits, what happens? Mingus not only acknowledges the noise but plays with it.

The divided attention we can give to music is much like the Mingus story. We might be focusing writing paper while music plays in the background. Then we stop and turn our attention to the nuance of the saxophone solo. Back and forth and back and forth. We trade bars like Mingus’ band did with the crowd.

And perhaps it now become a matter of taking this concept of trading bars as a given. Now it becomes a matter of fine tuning this system, giving necessary time to music and other activities within an even keel of time.

John Cage once remarked that doing multiple things at a time was more meditative than sitting cross-legged. Could divided attention lead to musical transcendence much in the same way that undivided attention to a piece once did?

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