Sunday, April 8, 2007

Pearls before breakfast - A world-class musician in the subway

Pardon me whilst I gush.

There's an absolutely brilliant article in today's Washington Post, by Gene Weingarten and a crew of other reporters. It's about an experiment placing one of the world's greatest-ever violinists — Joshua Bell — in a Washington, D.C. subway station, and having him play intricate, difficult, passionate music on his Stradivarius.

What would happen? Would a crowd form? Would people throw money into his hat?

The results of this experiment are documented in this witty, attuned, playfully complex article.

It's an article that has a cast of characters as rich and varied as Les Miserables (Hugo's novel, not the musical).

And I think it's a must-read for every artist, musician and self-styled aesthetic. Then again, maybe it should be a must-read for anyone and everyone who hurries through their day; you never know what you might be missing... or ignoring along the way.

Once I started, I couldn't stop; I read the entire article before even glancing at the videos... Try doing the same, then watching each of the videos scattered down the page in succession.

As I clicked on the first clip, Bell's playing reverberating though L'Enphant Plaza literally gave me a chill. The very last video had me choked up. Yes, those of you who know me know I'm easy, but to see that connection between artist and audience — no matter what the numbers — renews my faith in the power of the arts... especially when the artist is so gifted, and the art so amazing.

The flip side of that coin, of course, is that it's disappointing to see that so few people paid any attention. But, as the article says, context matters.

If I were eligible to nominate an article for a Pulitzer, this one would be on my ballot.


adooma said...

There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article by a NYC subway musician in her blog:
She interprets the situation differently from the Washington Post reporters... I thought you might find it interesting.

Bob West said...


Thanks for the link; I do find her entry interesting... Although I think she's missed the point of the experiment.

Saw Lady is absolutely right when she says Joshua Bell's no Busker. He apparently lacks that particular style of showmanship (or, at least, he could use a little physical amplification). And maybe he doesn't make eye contact enough, or smile enough, or engage in snappy patter.

But it seems to me that the purpose of the experiment was to find out what would happen if a world-class violinist played world-class music in the subway... not to teach Joshua Bell how to be a busker. There's a difference in styles, of course. But I think it's far more valuable a lesson to see what happens when the music is of such stratospheric quality... without the added theatricality. Why should people need flamboyance or dramatic physicality in order to notice great art? Why don't we teach our children -- and ourselves -- to pay attention to beauty? Sure, busking is "an art form of its own". But why should Joshua "busk" when he should be able to simply play to attract attention?

And... I hate to say it, but I think Saw Lady may be just a tad overprotective of her territory. But I might well have the same reaction if I were in her shoes. She knows what it's like to busk on a daily basis. there's nothing like a good busker. I've seen them, and I've stopped to listen to them -- and thrown some dough in the hat -- on many occasions, in many cities, and in several countries. They add so much to life, and receive too little acknowledgement. They're irreplaceable.

But as Terry commented in response to her post, the point of this test was to find out "whether concert-quality performances would be noticed as such when stripped of all context."

One thing I do know is that we're all paying far too little attention to beauty, art and talent around us... whether it comes in the form of a classical musician, or a saw player.