Can You Hear It?

“He emerged from the Metro at the L’Enfant Plaza Station and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.”

That’s the opening paragraph of an April 8 piece in the Washington Post Magazine that explores how disconnected modern urban American humans are from each other and the world around them. At least that’s my take on what the story’s about. In brief: Joshua Bell, a renowned violinist, went with his Stradivarius to a subway station in downtown D.C. There, he set up as a street musician and over an hour played some of the most celebrated and difficult pieces ever written for the violin. Bottom line: hardly anyone in the 1,100 people who passed Bell as he played seemed to register what was happening. The consistent exception: young children, who when they appeared seemed drawn to Bell and the music. Unfortunately, they were in the company of adults who hustled them on their way — to day care or other appointments.

Great idea for an article, even if the conclusion one is led to is somewhat disheartening:

“In his 2003 book, Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life, British author John Lane writes about the loss of the appreciation for beauty in the modern world. The experiment at L’Enfant Plaza may be symptomatic of that, he said — not because people didn’t have the capacity to understand beauty, but because it was irrelevant to them.

” ‘This is about having the wrong priorities,’ Lane said.

“If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing?”

The Post followed up with a couple more pieces: An online discussion of the experiment and the article and a more optimistic take on what it all means from poet laureate emeritus Robert Pinsky.

Technorati Tags:

6 Replies to “Can You Hear It?”

  1. I’d like to think I’d stop and enjoy the fiddler, Peter Boyle-in-Young Frankenstein-like, but chances are I wouldn’t. A lifetime of overaccessorized gitboxers singing, “City girls just seem to find out ur-lie….” has me numb. Though I DO stop and stay whenever I surf by Citizen Kane or Animal House.

  2. Fascinating. I always wondered how in the 1950s and 60s NYC jazz musicians like Sonny Rollins could get away with practicing for hours beneath city bridges and other random places.

  3. There’s no way of knowing, of course, how many of those thousand people walked away humming or, hours later, couldn’t get a certain song out of their heads and felt lighter for it.
    To paraphrase Saint-Exupery, what’s important can’t be quantified for a news feature; it must be felt with the heart.

  4. Gosh — I’d hope that what’s important can be quantified for a news feature, or at least for any story worth running.
    You’re right that there’s no way of knowing what’s going on in people’s heads as they go about their business in such a situation, but the experiment did try to account for that to some extent. Passers-by were chosen as they left the station for follow-up interviews and were told the subject was commuting. In the interviews, held several hours later by phone, they were asked about what was happening in the station when they passed through. Apparently, few who ignored or rushed past the violinist could recall his playing. Of course, maybe on a subconscious level, something registered.
    I suppose by posting this in the first place I betray my own bias. The story confirms my own unscientific observation of people’s self-isolation in the world. Ignoring a violinist in a public place is a benign example.

  5. It is interesting to speak to Sean’s violinist friends. They, for the most part, felt Joshua Bell was just being full of himself, thinking that people rushing to work would stop–or even slow down–to here him play. But, I know what I would have done. That music would have stopped me dead in my tracks, especially the Bach Partita. I’ve listened to that piece dozens of times and thought it was one the best artistic efforts made by anybody, anywhere. It is up there with the works of Shakespeare or Rembrandt or Mozart when you when think about creativity. I was pleased to read that “JB” felt the same way about it. But I do agree with Sean’s friends that it is asking a lot for people to stop and tune in to this guy playing in a subway. That said, New Yorkers do have a lot of exposure to good “subway musicians” and you see a lot of people stopping to listen to them. I stop all the time and give them a buck or two as well. It is not uncommon to see (hear) Julliard students playing at one end of a platform and a Mexican guy busking at the other. More often than not they are very talented.
    ps…Saw John Adams at Carnegie the other night. That was a great concert.

  6. Dan: my bias is the artistic side of things, and I think most people have a difficult time articulating how they’ve been touched on that plane – especially when they are told that they’re being interviewed about commuting.
    Even I – amd I am one of the more emotive people about this kind of thing, not only able but apt to articulate specifically how something made me feel – I don’t know that I would have volunteered how the music affected me, especially if the focus was commuting. I am almost always running late when I’m in the subway, so even if I like the music, I don’t stop. If I hear a strong player I often say “thanks for the tunes” as I walk by and I’ll give money if my wallet is handy, but I don’t dwell on it.
    I didn’t read the article because reading about it bugged me – I don’t like “studies” that attempt to analyze “the public” and draw comclusions about “how people are.”
    Yes, some people are hardened and wouldn’t appreciate a virtuoso if he serenaded them personally. And many of us are sensitive and feel abraded when someone tries to quantify our qualitative selves. They miss the point.
    However, if an article like this one prompts some of those hardened people to take time to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us every day, then more power to the writer.
    Me, I think only art itself ever moves people to change – repeated exposure to different types and genres of expression affect us, inspire us, compell us. That’s why people will pay $85 to see a symphony orchestra live but more like $25 to attend a discussion about music.
    So, I think a better test would be for Bell to play every day at the same time for a week, then wait several days before coming back. Would people miss him? Would they notice a difference in their commute?
    I think so.
    And they would surely appreciate his return.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *