Distracting Music

Dylan Robinson


This article focuses primarily on the development of autonomous reception across the arts and music, and the associated assumption that the alternative to this pure contemplation, distracted reception, promotes a disengaged attitude toward the work under consideration. The particular conceptualization of distraction, in the context of this article contrasts the term's standard characterization as lackadaisical or careless, instead using the term in its capacity for critique of tacitly approved systems of reception as processes for uncovering transcendental signifieds. Distraction acts as a counteractive to normative, teleological, and structural regimes of contemplation.

To re-cast distraction as a foil to directed and authoritarian viewing practices, the article provides a historical overview of distraction, tracing its development from the moralistic rhetoric of 18th century writings to the modernist debates on distraction in film and theater. By way of conclusion, the article considers works that employ distraction: John Cage's Musicircuses and R. Murray Schafer's The Greatest Show. In effect, distraction is examined as an act of complication, complicating both the efficiency and primacy of ‘clear communication’ promoted in formalist and structural listening practices, and objectivist discursive traditions. Ultimately, distraction acts as a method for wresting agential power from the artist in order to increase the agency of the spectator, who thereby is able to engage in reception as a continuous dialectic process of examination in which contradiction and polysemy are embraced instead of eliminated.

© Musicological Explorations, School of Music, University of Victoria

ISSN 1711-9235