April 17, 2007

"At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished."

"I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change."

I wish I'd linked to this article when it was published 8 days ago. A perverse thing about blogging is that you feel that if something is even a day old, it's too late. And you feel that if something is today, you must talk about it today. Why does blogging feel like a commitment to tie one's thoughts to a chronology set by the news and the news media?

So let's go back to this story of the brilliant musician Joshua Bell who takes his violin into the subway station and plays for the passing crowd as if he were just another street musician:
In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.
If this happens, what else must happen? We must all scurry by everything, constantly. If we can't notice this, what hope do we have of noticing all the subtle beauty that flows around us all the time.

Bell -- stimulated by knowing he was doing something unusual -- experienced heightened awareness:
"At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change." This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.
He found delight in observing himself in a life that wasn't his.

For the others, they believed they were walking through their ordinary lives and -- with a few fine exceptions, described in the article -- perceived nothing special. Yet even on the ordinary day, there is beauty, if we would only perceive it.


Palladian said...

Interesting. I wish I could have seen Mr Bell performing in the subway. Instead, the people I usually encounter "performing" in subway stations, in subway cars or on the streets are terrible.

I do have to defend the commuters, however. Taking the subway, particularly to and from work is a thoroughly unpleasant experience. You just want to get from point A to B (often a difficult proposition). The last thing you want is to have someone's performance forced upon you. This doesn't apply as much to Bell, as he was in a station, but many people who perform on (New York) subways do so in the crowded subway cars, where you can't escape. And, as I said, they're usually terrible. I don't like to be forced to endure unpleasant things, and I'm even wary of good performers because I don't think anyone should be forced to listen to something in an environment where there is at least some expectation that you won't have to listen to a raspy boozer sing "This Little Light of Mine".

Ann Althouse said...

I see lots of street musicians in Madison. I think people give them more regard than they deserve. Some of them are sort of famous local characters -- without even being at all good. In some cases, people like them because of the way they are bad, but in other cases -- notably, blues guitar -- people fall for an image and think that what is quite bad is really good.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

I'm reminded of your recent Halle-Berry-seeking-anonymity post. But this fellow seems more self-aware than Ms. Berry.

peter hoh said...

Leaving a Twins game last year, I joined a crowd that gathered around a couple (or was it a trio) of enthusiastic drummers banging away on some 5 gallon buckets. They were good, and the energy was infectious, but I'd stop short of saying that the drumming was beautiful.

That said, beauty is all around us, if we know how to look.

I, too, find Joshua Bell's experience the most intriguing aspect of the story. Reminds me of the idea expressed in My Dinner with Andre that how we regard the things around us can change us.

bill said...

The Violent Femmes were discovered by Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders when they were playing on a Milwaukee sidewalk. There's your useless trivia for the day.

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

Mr. Bell touches on something important -- the sheer joy of providing some of life's cultured pleasures, even when you can earn money at it.

I grow flowers and vegetables for a living. Like good music it's also a happy business. Were I independently wealthy and never had to work a lick for the rest of my life ... I'd still be doing something pretty similar to what I'm doing now, because of the people, and (as I said) the sheer joy of providing cultured pleasure.

I think that's part of what rang the Bell, as it were, and I suspect he'll do it again.

Ann Althouse said...

Peter: I was thinking of "My Dinner With Andre" when I was writing this post.... especially the key line (from Wally) about how if you could only really see the tobacco shop next door, it would blow your mind.

peter hoh said...

Wally. Love him. That sentiment is expressed much more elequently in Our Town. I wonder how Wally would work cast as the stage manager.

Did I ever mention that I saw Spalding Gray in the role of Stage Manager? I haven't seen or read the play since his death. When I do, I'm sure it will be emotional.

Internet Ronin said...

I thought the most interesting comment I read about this experiment was uttered by a woman who works there. Apparently, she has metro security & DC police on speed-dial on her cell phone because she calls so often to report itinerant musicians, mainly because they tend to repeat the same song over and over. She said something to the effect that "There's something different about this guy," and declined to call and report him.

BellCollecting.com said...

I love the buskers in the NYC subway. I also follow the blog of one of them and she posted about the Joshua Bell article but from her unique point of view. You might find it interesting: www.SawLady.com/blog

MadisonMan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MadisonMan said...

Symphony companies should require their stars to busker occasionally. Think of the great publicity -- I wonder if it would translate into ticket sales.

This was a very interesting article to read. Thanks for posting it.

SWBarns said...

I have seen Joshua Bell in concert and I have been a D.C. Metro commuter.

I would like to think that I would have stopped to listen, called my friends, donated 20 bucks. The fact is a chorus of angels probably would not have made me break stride while commuting.

Ann Althouse said...

"Did I ever mention that I saw Spalding Gray in the role of Stage Manager?"

Cool. I love the part of "Monster in a Box" where he talks about that. "Aren't they waitin' for the eternal part of them to come out clear?"

Just yesterday, I was thinking about the part where he read his reviews and the other actors were shocked and told him you're never supposed to read your reviews. I thought about after reading some comments about me over on Bloggingheads!

Chip Ahoy said...

Caught that article linked on Ace. The link was titled, "The best story about classical music you'll hear all day." Embarrassed to admit not knowing Joshua Bell. The next day, discussed this article at length with a musician friend who remains computerless. Mailed him the article -- turned out to be 15 pages! The article left a lasting impression. I found especially interesting the discussion about children and the philosophical lineup.

Richard Dolan said...

Music in the NYC subway is a mixed bag. Palladian describes the most common category: street people singing a cappella in the subway car between stations. They're rarely any good, but given the disorder of their personal lives (at least that's how I imagine it to be), it always amazes me that they can even carry a basic tune. Most of them can do more than that. I've also noticed 4-man mariachi ensembles showing up in subway cars more recently. They tend to be much too loud for the enclosed space.

The instrumentalists in the stations cover a wider range. I've come across some terrific musicians in the subway. One in particular I recall was an elderly Chinese man playing the erhu; he was wonderful. For all I know, he could have been the Joshua Bell of his instrument. It was a Sunday afternoon and he was playing on the subway platform of the R train in Brooklyn Heights -- not a major music venue even for subway musicians. But there were a few of us not pressed for time listening to him. My two daughters were with me, and as the article notes, they wanted to stop and listen even more than I did. I haven't seen him again since that one time.

You can also occasionally catch some decent playing (or better) at Grand Central. I've come across pretty good chamber music (perhaps Juilliard students?), and solists playing concerto-style pieces against a recorded sound track of the orchestral part. The MTA has a program where individuals or groups can audition and (if they survive the audition) get an assigned place in a station along with an MTA banner of sorts, making their presence and playing semi-official. I guess it's the MTA's way of saying that, if you have the time and interest, this musician or group may be worth a quick stop to listen.

I've also noticed that the MTA tends to assign spaces in areas where people (at least some people) are waiting rather than rushing through. Bell was playing at the entrance to a station, where people were coming off an escalator. Perhaps that accounts for part of his inability to attract an audience willing to stop and listen for a few minutes. I think he would have done better on that score (indeed, on every score) in NYC rather than DC.

One fact that the article mentioned rang true. Bell says that he received $32 in tips, and that he only played for about an hour. For lots of musicians just starting out, that's not bad pay for an hour's work off-the-books. From what I've heard about the NYC subway musicians, they tend to do a bit better if they're any good. (The Chinese erhu player had a few $5 bills in his case, one of them from me.)

lee david said...

I loved the sheer audacity of this stunt/study. It made me laugh out loud, my imagination raced ahead to the scenes that might unfold on this set with these actors, before I read the reality. I even thought, surely he didn't he wouldn't play his Strad in the subway, before I got to the part that said that he did. Sweet, the very idea of a diaguised, world renowned virtuoso playing one of the worlds most famous violins in the train station. I must say that while I was a bit disappointed at the paucity of positive reaction I wasn't suprised. The largest portion of the people who "appreciate" quality art and music do so not because they hear or see and approve but, because they have been told that they should, and don't want to be left behind if they think that that appreciation has a social value that they must posess (to be in the "in crowd"). As the curator in the article says, "a lot of this is about framing". Marketing/buzz anyone. I only wish that they would have arranged this to have taken place in the afternoon rush after work when peoples time would have been their own to give or with-hold. I do think that the result would have been much different.

Relating back to a former post about Joni Mitchell and the subject of this one, sort of. One of her songs that sticks with me is "For Free". It is about a street musician that plays for change while she plays for comparative fortunes. She recognizes that the quality of his playing is as good or better than many who make a very good living from their playing. It sticks particularly hard because I knew the guy from the street scene in the East Village where I lived at the time. His name was Richie. He was blind, a junkie, and a very good clarinet player. He was a fixture in that gritty neighborhood, and one whose music brightened the place despite his sad personal story. We would stop, listen, say hello and talk, and throw in some change, if we had any, knowing full well were most of the money would go.

I always look at street musicians as I pass, just to put a visual with the sound. Most of them are pure tallentless crap, hacking away at whatever the instrument is. To me, it's noise pollution of the worst kind, I'd rather hear a jackhammer. If the player is good, it will make me stop if I have any time at all. It's a treat to hear something unexpected in an unlikely place. I always wonder why a good player is playing in such a setting. There are many possible reasons but I wouldn't ask. I'll look at the quality of the instrument, the dress, the amount of physical emotion being put into the playing and let my imagination do the rest, it's a fun game. I doubt that my imagination would have ever taken me to Josh Bell though. If the music is good I'll throw in, if it's bad I secretly wish that there were some musical vortex that would vaccume the money out of the case, including whatever went in to prime the pump and put an end to the public's pain. In the end, it's just musical pan-handlling for the most part. A sweetly played request is worth something. Value has been added to the atmosphere. I'll buy that.

Revenant said...

Of course, another possible lesson from this is that the average person doesn't place a high value on violin music. He may command $1000 an hour, but that's from a fairly small audience that is not necessarily very heavily represented among subway patrons. The average person, I suspect, never personally spends a dollar on classical or violin music during their lifetime.

lee david said...

Violin music is the sound track to so many movies, commercials, etc and the classical flavor to boot. I can believe that most could refuse to listen and make any evaluation at 8:00 AM but, if you let it in, even just a little bit, I have a hard time believing people couldn't hear the quality of the playing. The two main factors that distort the reaction in this situation are 1) Your time is not your own if you expect to start being paid for your presence in five minutes. 2) People feel guilty about acknowledging the player in any fashion and then not dropping anything in the case.

I hope that these reasons played a big part in the reaction that he got, otherwise I'm going to have to lower my impression of the average D.C dwellers/workers taste and cognitive ability again. It's not too high right now.

Robin Goodfellow said...

The capacity of the Universe to deliver experiences of great magnitude far exceeds the capacity of the human mind and psyche to absorb them. As such it is absolutely necessary to create coping mechanisms just to make life livable. In some ways these coping mechanisms can take the form of turning down the volume on the Universe, at least in how much attention you pay to it. Unfortunately, it's all too easy to let these coping mechanisms get out of hand and become too lax or too severe, with deleterious consequences either way. In this case we can see that many people are probably tuning out too much of the wonder of the Universe, and, like always, could probably stand to smell the roses just a tad bit more often.

Aside from that, an interesting phenomenon that's probably at play here is sensation transference. Often times the setting can play as much a part of perception as the actual thing itself. People expect violin players in subways to be of mediocre quality, and listening for merely a few seconds as you pass by is probably not enough to correct that impression unless you're really paying attention.

Also, to be honest, a lot of people don't really like orchestral music much. Thousands of people may pay top dollar to listen to Bell in a concert hall, but the percentage of the total population who he might count as fans would probably be very low.