Attention, we are told, is a valuable commodity. It’s increasingly clear that my attention, and yours, is bought and sold every day in ways that are invisible to us. What is visible, however, is that most 21st-century “content” (a word that means everything and nothing) exists primarily in order to attract attention, to focus – just briefly – the restless eye. But is our attention really so easily manipulable? Whom are we paying when we “pay attention” in this way? Is there a kind of attention that can’t be sold?
My new string quartet is organized according to the different forms of attention that it embodies or enacts. You could think of its three movements as three studies in distinct kinds of human attention.
The first movement, “my mind is elsewhere,” embodies a state that’s probably all too familiar for many of us: distraction. This is a specific, faintly disturbing kind of distraction that I associate with multiple tabs being open on a computer screen: the mind seems to be on autopilot, whirring away somewhere, quietly spinning its wheels, but the self – at least, the conscious, active self – is not in the building. (Where it goes is a mystery.)
The piece’s second movement embodies the opposite of distraction: an intense, obsessive fixation. (This is much closer to my usual state when I’m composing.) This state brings with it very different dangers from the state of distraction; it’s possible to fixate so hard on a harmonic progression or a rhythmic cell that the musical material overheats. In this movement, for once, I can at least claim that this effect is intentional!
The third movement attempts to enact a state that is neither distraction nor obsession, but rather a meditative focus, a willingness to listen and to let the musical material lead the way.
Writing this piece has been a singular experience: it’s both unnerving and illuminating to focus very hard on the state of distraction! I’ve noticed also that each movement’s essential state has tended to bloom into its opposite by the movement’s end. The first movement’s distracted whirring eventually leads to a moment of awakening: the conscious self returns, realizes it had been asleep on the job, and humbly takes stock of its surroundings. The intensity of the second movement melts into a serene postlude – and the third movement’s meditative focus leads somewhere pretty intense, after all.
Matthew Aucoin is an American composer, conductor, writer, and pianist. He is both Artist-in-Residence at Los Angeles Opera and co-artistic director of the newly-formed American Modern Opera Company.
Aucoin is currently at work on a new opera, Eurydice, which is a collaboration with the playwright Sarah Ruhl. Eurydice has been co-commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and the Los Angeles Opera.
The role of Artist-in-Residence at Los Angeles Opera, created for Aucoin, fuses his work as composer and conductor. Aucoin has conducted LA Opera mainstage productions ranging from Verdi’s Rigoletto to Philip Glass’s Akhnaten; he has also conducted his own works, including the opera Crossing, and founded a new late-night concert series, AfterHours. In addition, Aucoin coaches the singers in LA Opera’s Young Artist program, and advises the company on new music.
The American Modern Opera Company (AMOC) is Aucoin’s newest project: an ensemble of some of the rising generation’s most exciting singers, instrumentalists, and dancers. In Aucoin’s words, AMOC is “an opera company, a new-music ensemble, a rock band, and a touring theater troupe, rolled into one.” The ensemble has an annual festival at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, and has been in residence at the Park Avenue Armory and Harvard University. Aucoin and AMOC are at work on commissions from the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and San Francisco’s ODC Theater.
Aucoin’s orchestral and chamber music has been commissioned and performed by such artists as Yo-Yo Ma, Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra, Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra, the Brentano Quartet, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, tenor Paul Appleby, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, and Chanticleer. Aucoin’s operas include Crossing (2015), commissioned by the American Repertory Theater; and Second Nature (2015), a chamber opera for the young, commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Crossing has gone on to productions at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Los Angeles Opera; Second Nature has been performed all over the continent, including productions at the Canadian Opera Company and the Music Academy of the West.
In addition to his work in Los Angeles, Aucoin regularly guest-conducts nationally and internationally. This past summer, Aucoin made his Santa Fe Opera conducting debut leading John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, in a new production by Peter Sellars. He has also appeared with the Chicago Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Rome Opera Orchestra, the Music Academy of the West, and Juilliard Opera, among others. This season, Aucoin conducts and curates the San Diego Symphony’s annual festival, entitled Hearing the Future.
Aucoin is a 2012 graduate of Harvard College (summa cum laude), where he studied with the poet Jorie Graham, and a 2014 recipient of Juilliard’s Graduate Diploma in Composition. Between 2012 and 2014, he served both as an Assistant Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and as the Solti Conducting Apprentice at the Chicago Symphony, where he studied with Riccardo Muti.