pearls before breakfast,* a clever article from this sunday's washington post, has been bouncing around the web like crazy this week. on the off chance that i wasn't in fact the last person to read it, i highly recommend it. summary: the post wanted to see if d.c. commuters "[had] time for beauty," so they sent virtuoso violinist joshua bell to play his $3.5 million gibson ex huberman (made by stradivari in 1713) for passerby at a subway station during the morning rush hour. the paper worried beforehand about creating a mob; in fact, over the course of 43 minutes, only 7 of more than a thousand people stopped to listen for more than a minute, and bell earned a little more than $30.
Watching the video weeks later, Bell finds himself mystified by one thing only. He understands why he's not drawing a crowd, in the rush of a morning workday. But: "I'm surprised at the number of people who don't pay attention at all, as if I'm invisible. Because, you know what? I'm makin' a lot of noise!"

He is. You don't need to know music at all to appreciate the simple fact that there's a guy there, playing a violin that's throwing out a whole bucket of sound; at times, Bell's bowing is so intricate that you seem to be hearing two instruments playing in harmony. So those head-forward, quick-stepping passersby are a remarkable phenomenon.

Bell wonders whether their inattention may be deliberate: If you don't take visible note of the musician, you don't have to feel guilty about not forking over money; you're not complicit in a rip-off.

It may be true, but no one gave that explanation. People just said they were busy, had other things on their mind. Some who were on cellphones spoke louder as they passed Bell, to compete with that infernal racket.
the piece is huge, and it covers everything from kant (beauty is colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer) to the cure (on a commuter's ipod; the journalist gets big unrelated points from me for noting that "just like heaven" is a terrific song). one of the most heartbreaking or heartening details, depending on where you're sitting,** is that every single child who passed bell tried to stop (and was hustled off by his/her parent).

i could have been one of the few who stopped, maybe:*** i never, ever use an ipod outside, i rarely use the subway for work (so i have time to dawdle), and i do like engaging artists there (i'm still happy with the drawing i bought under 14th street a few years ago). i think bell would have had better luck in nyc than he did in washington, the latter's reputation as a hard-core company town notwithstanding (busking on wall street is probably pretty rough, too): new yorkers seem primed to discover art on the go. theo eastwind, a guitarist who frequents the bedford L stop, has more or less made a career of performing underground (note that we have a local "subway idol" competition). bedford isn't the best example, given williamsburg's fondness for artists, but performers who make it there find love elsewhere, too: another regular, a skinny african-american man who sounds eerily like a young paul mccartney, also performs in the tunnels under union square. i heard him from around a corner once, on a saturday afternoon - in a duet with someone - and turned to see a (sober!) middle-aged businessman at his side, singing "i wanna hold your hand" at full volume and looking like he was having the best day of his life.

no grand unifying point here, really, but even if i wouldn't have been one of joshua bell's admirers, i think i can at least be the businessman. that's a start, right?

*i think the link requires registration, but it's free and totally worth it. several videos (bell's whole performance was filmed with a hidden camera) accompany the story, too.

**heartening, i say.

***admittedly, for reasons that have little to do with music appreciation.


sara said...

thanks for pointing me to the article. you know me, i lean toward heartbreaking. my reasons though: i know the Bach that Bell played, and it's one of my favorites. also, i'm losing the steinway, so i'm kind of in a musical "cry-me-a-river" mood. these are, indeed, sorry times.

lauren said...

oh, i agree that the whole piece is heartbreaking, but i like the detail that all of the little people tried to stop for him (their parents' hustling notwithstanding). this is how the universe tries to trick me into wanting to have kids (fat chance, universe!): hey, i could cultivate someone who'll never lose their jones for beauty! that's a lie, though: my meticulously raised cats, for instance, are exclusively interested in hard rock.

that really sucks about the piano, though. look at all the joy it's brought you in just the last few months!

lauren said...

bah, trying to tack addenda to the post is making my head hurt. you stink, blogger!

anyway, a few links in re the story:

gene weingarten (who wrote "pearls before breakfast") discussed it on monday.

sawlady, an nyc subway musician, notes in her blog that joshua bell is just a crappy busker.

the full performance is up at washingtonpost.com.

valya said...

what an awesome article. thanks for sharing it, lauren.

i hope i'd be the kind of parent to stop and let a child listen.

enjelani said...

wow, thanks for that. utterly fascinating. and spookily serendipitous too: i just recently played a noontime thing in a mall atrium, followed by a two-set evening stint in a nightclub. context is heavy on my mind.

i've often had the uneasy feeling that i'm one of those hurried passersby, on some level -- that i need good framing to recognize art, or more charitably, that i need a bit of training before i recognize it. seems like the adults who stopped to listen were either amateur violinists themselves or classical concert-goers. i wouldn't give a second glance to an Ellsworth Kelly in a restaurant either.

and all the little kids who stopped and were shooed onward...i'm with all the heartbroken folks on that one.

at the mall that day i fought for every second of slowed gait, every trailed-off sentence. a homeless man ambled forward and left two pennies on the PA speaker. i still have them in my pocket.

wabes said...

i haven't yet read the article, but one thing that DC does have on New York, in terms of hustle, bustle, and acoustics, is the amazing, rounded, cavernous metro stations. if someone is playing at the top of a long escalator on the right kind of day, it is like being swept up in a music storm. sometimes it's an awkward jazz storm, but there was a french horn player who made every exit feel like a processional.

my test for buskers, here and there, is if i inadvertently smile or take a breath or change my pace, they get homey.