Slowing Down / Starting Again

Photo by Naomi Jane Photography – https://www.naomijanephotography.com/

At some point, ATTN got away from me. I was writing about too much music, and the site started to outpace the optimal conditions for deep listening. At the time, I didn’t even realise it was happening. After all, the problem is self-affirming; as well as denying myself the time to become truly intimate with each release I wrote about, I failed to pause and reflect upon how my relationship with ATTN was changing. Gradually, more of my energy was directed away from the act of listening – the very practice that ATTN was intended to celebrate – and into the slog of scheduling articles. I started rushing reviews to better align with record release dates, sacrificing the quality of content in order to meet a self-imposed publishing deadline. Punctuality became the priority to which quality had to comply. I’m aware that this narrative is familiar to the point of cliché: the passion project starts to chase validation from the outside, no longer driven by genuine interest, but dragged along by a self-generated sense of obligation instead.

But it’s also the manifestation of a quandary I’ve been pondering for years, which is about how to reconcile my interest in listening with running a website like ATTN. The two are ultimately in opposition to one another. Listening is a process of change. It’s like science; tentative notions are put forth, with some withering under scrutiny and others solidifying over repeat observation. Like scientific experiment, environmental variables have profound impact upon the output. Listening to a record on a walk in the snow will differ drastically from how I hear it while sat on my sofa at home. Yet unlike science, these variances in outcome are the whole point, and we should celebrate this as signifying the inexhaustible potential of listening. There is no objective truth toward which my experience is striving. Listening is never finished.

Writing about sound can often be the polar opposite of this. Declarative. Fixed. A documentation of a record in isolation of its listener. I’ve written for publications where the editorial guidelines discourage the use of first person pronouns, as this shatters the illusion of albums possessing an inherent meaning or quality, placing emphasis instead on the subjectivity of listening. Writing about sound can often manifest as the denial of possibility; a process that bounds together those hundreds of part-formed, often contradictory tendrils of listener understanding, reducing them to a single perspective that feels coherent and collected. So often it pretends to emanate from the most simplistic of circumstances, originating from a single point in time and wielding a coherent grasp of composer intention. Just as the record arrives in the promo inbox as a finished product, the writer’s conclusions are final.

I should clarify that some of my favourite writing on sound exhibits this sense of lucidity and conviction, but my point is that music journalism too rarely evokes the mess of actually listening. I’m talking about the confusion of metaphors, or the process of acquaintance that reframes a seemingly ugly sound into a beautiful one. I’m referring to the endless renewal of the present tense; a writing that catalogues the rich, joyfully naïve speculations of the former now, devoid of any knowledge about how a relationship with a record might change, depicting listening as a journey with no endpoint. A writing that reads like a diary, tracking the process of acquaintance as it occurs, with a blank page always beckoning the addition of another listening experience.

To document listening in this way takes time. It doesn’t lend itself to the immediacy of most modern music journalism, where publications assert authority through the breadth of music covered rather than the breadth of possibilities explored within individual records. In the latter days of ATTN, I wasn’t giving myself enough time to do justice to the experience. Instead, my reviews often became the documentation of the most fleeting interactions, like a painting critiqued from the window of a moving car. I wanted to cover as many releases as possible, spending many listening experiences preoccupied by thoughts of the next (a sensation I’ve heard echoed by those who feel overwhelmed by the eternal recommendations and “up next” features of streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify, whose promise of something else eats away at the current experience). Running ATTN started to make me anxious, which felt ridiculous when I’d always turned to listening as a source of calm. My reviews were rich with speculation and uncertainty. Yet was this the uncertainty of a deep listener, for whom each listening experience modulates understanding and relishes in the fallibility of former conclusions? Or was it the uncertainty of a vague and distracted mind, forever peering over the present tense to glimpse at the fading spectre of the new?

Having spent three months away from ATTN:Magazine, I’m ready to start writing reviews again. Yet with these reviews, I intended to better capture the ever-shifting relationship between listener and record. The reviews will start with a short documentation of the first listening experience. I will then expand on these reviews over the weeks and months to follow, adding thoughts that arise from listening in a whole variety of circumstances. Reviews will be bumped to the top of the website once they are updated, which means that enduring, rewarding listening experiences will take priority over new releases. In this way, I’m hopeful that ATTN can realign itself with its original objective of celebrating listening as a practice of patience and stillness; a rejection of FOMO rather than an agent of it. I’ve always turned to listening as a source of peace and nourishment, and it’s about time that ATTN started to reflect that again. See you soon.