A few years ago I was lucky enough to hear my favorite piece of music – Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 – played by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.  The soloist was a young violin prodigy playing an antique Stradivarius Violin.  The history surrounding the piece is rich – some say when Tchaikovsky wrote the piece in 1878 that it was deemed too difficult to play and it was only actually performed three years later – and the Stradivarius Violin, storied for it’s unmatched quality, was crafted in the early 1700’s, predating both the piece and its composer by over 150 years.

The opus itself is melodic and pure with pleasant build ups and relapses ultimately culminating in a thundering crescendo.

I have a very high level of appreciation for this particular piece of music, which is why I was somewhat upset to find that a little known rapper who crassly calls himself Cunning Linguist had “sampled” the piece and included a dry replay of the just the crescendo behind his rapping.  The crescendo, which is so beautifully built up by Tchaikovsky, seems unremarkable when replayed over and over without the surrounding support.

It is true that the :30 second crescendo is the “best part”, but without the other 17 minutes of the piece it seems rather unremarkable and ordinary.

This sampling of “just the best part” is becoming more common with the prevalence of digital technology.  While traditionally someone had to buy an entire music album, now iTunes allows us to cherry pick just the “best” songs.  With online news we can link directly to the stories that interest us without having to bother with sorting through other less interesting material (as one would have to do with a full newspaper).  Digital video recording allows us to record just the shows we want to see, so we no longer have to watch an entire lineup of shows – or even the commercials.

We keep developing technologies that help us more efficiently jump to “just the best part” – but maybe, as is the case with Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, the “best part,” is really only the best part because of the context of its surroundings.

Just The Best Part
  • Alex

    I agree that the process of distilling content to its essence is troubling, I think you are focusing on only the most recent examples. I would argue that the shortening of the attention span that encourages the distilling of content began in earnest with the TV.

    The format of TV (turn it on and watch something whenever you want) encourages shorter programming because nobody wants to turn on a 2-hour movie 15 minutes in. 30 minutes became the standard unit, and 7-8 minutes of that is commercials. Thus, the media began shrinking to bite-sized portions to fit the format of TV.

    I am not a demographer, but I would estimate that 80% of the world’s population was born in a post-TV world. That’s a lot of short attention spans. Coupled with mobile phones, teleconferencing, longer work hours, and other increased demands on our time, it’s a miracle we consume content at all.

    Have faith though! DVR and Tivo have brought longer programming on TV back into vogue. Many folks watch TV on DVD or On Demand. Storage is trending toward free/unlimited, so there is more freedom than ever to compose longer content. Perhaps we have seen the nadir, and we are in store for a gradual lengthening of content!

    Probably not though.

  • Awesome response.

    I really like the notion you brought up – that the media we see today has been shaped by the media itself (TV fostering short attention spans).

    In essence this idea is being flipped on it’s head with the emergence of digital technology. At one time the media was in charge of what we see, but now with on demand media – WE are in charge of what we see.