The Music Man

Last week Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post, one of my favorite columnists, wrote about a little experiment he conducted in D.C. He managed to convince Joshua Bell, one of the most celebrated American violinists, to play for quarters in the D.C. Metro. For 45 minutes, dressed in jeans and a ballcap, Bell played some of the greatest Classical music of all time.

Weingarten wanted to see what the reaction of commuters was. He had no preconceived notions. In the end, almost nobody stopped to hear Bell play. Out of thousands, only eight took even a moment of their time to stop and listen to his music.

Weingarten did not intend this to be an indictment of Washingtonians, although he felt the result said something sorrowful about the human condition. Mail poured in. Many were defensive, others replied that they had had a strong emotional response to the piece. I fall into the latter category, and I felt I should write a little about it.

What is the purpose of life? Everyone has a different answer to that question. For me, part of the purpose of life is to create and sustain the good in our time on Earth. Great music is one of those goods. In a way, it seemed like this was a test. Many of the defensive reactions I think stemmed from the same instinctual response — although they argue that it was an unfair test. There certainly is an interesting issue of framing — most people recognize “art” by the way it is displayed. If something is important, you put it in a special place, not in a subway station, right?

I don’t know if it was fair, but I wonder how I would have responded. I like to think I would have stopped. Is that important? I don’t know. I don’t think someone who didn’t stop is a bad person for not doing so. Yet I constantly wonder whether I as a person and us as a society have our priorities straight. Do we make time for the beautiful, the lasting, and the significant in our lives? Or do we let ourselves be borne away by the ephemera of existence? I am not a spiritual man. Yet music comes the closest to generating a feeling of spirituality in me. There is something ineffable about great music — moving, yet intangible; immortal, yet fleeting. Watching the commuters pass by this musician caused me to think of all the opportunities we blithely ignore in our brief walk through this cosmos. We say there are more important things to worry about, but in the end, what is really important?

A few days ago, I went out and bought a Joshua Bell CD. I don’t know why. Perhaps I thought it had been long enough since I had paid my respects as a member of this planet to the greatness of human achievement.


1 Comment

Filed under Culture, Environment, Personal, Psychology

One response to “The Music Man

  1. Fredegar,

    Moving post, and one that reflects some of my own thoughts on this. I agree and well recall my teenage years memorizing the words and notes of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which is one of those songs that, performed well, brings that frisson of excitement at simply being alive to me. My tastes over the years have grown more subtle, but it’s sad that we’re all so inured to beauty that the daily grind is this overpowering.

    I’ve got two observations on Bell affair that, by pure chance, occurred at the same time to me during the last two days, after ruminating on the whole matter for some days now.

    1. Yesterday, due to a medical condition and on the advice of doctors, I gave up caffeine cold turkey. One might ask just what this has to with beauty, music, and the meaning of life. Well, as a lawyer with a demanding brief schedule, court appearances, etc, I’ve been living for several years now on the 6-12 cups of coffee a day regimen.

    That all stopped abruptly yesterday, and I’ve been suffering miserably for it. Grumpy, headaches, and pretty much unable to appreciate anything…

    Which brings me to Joshua Bell from the opposite direction. Sometimes, I realized as I’ve trod through my own foggy existence of the last two days, it’s utterly impossible to appreciate beauty. Try though I might — perception is circumstance driven. Similarly, it’s easy for me to appreciate that the underprivileged, the unemployed, those in tumultuous relationships — so many things can distract us from the beautiful. So can a headache.

    2. Reading law prof Ann Althouse’s take on this today, my second thought occurred. It is, as you say, that we expect important things to be in special places. But not only that: Althouse’s quote, with which she introduced her thoughts on the matter, summed up something else about the whole Bell affair for me. She cited Joshua Bell’s words “At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished.”

    And it occurred to me: it’s also a matter of reciprocal expectations. Concertgoers have certain expectations about performances, and day-to-day metroers have other expectations about buskers. Concertgoers will sit, for the most part, silently, even through the less stellar and even mediocre performances. A few missed notes at La Traviata may result in a damning review, but most of the audience will stay — even despite the “lack” of beauty. (And believe me, I know a good Traviata performance when I hear one.) Movies, even more so — the shlock keeps us glued to our seats — we paid, and we remain.

    And of course the flip side of that, Joshua Bell expected rapt attention. He’s used to it, performing to sold-out theaters, devoted and mostly respectful audiences, and certainly audiences who don’t give up before the stanza is complete. He realized to his and our chagrin that in the daily milieu, sadly, few would take notice.

    Interestingly enough, my choice of the opera La Traviata, as an example, of course, is ironic — it’s about the contrast between momentary pleasure and “true love,” which requires giving up many of those momentary pleasures.

    How many of those metro-ers were, in fact, just passers-by to something even more beautiful? Meeting the love of their life? Racing to prepare for their performance as King Lear at the Kennedy Center that evening?

    We’ll never know, I suppose. But as the poet John Keats said: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

    I guess that’s all we need to know?


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