First, go read this article, about an experiment the Washington Post conducted on the D.C. Metro.
No, really — go read it. The entire thing, if you can, and watch the video clips. There’s some good stuff in there. Not just the incident they staged, but the variety of things they learned from it.
Have you done that? Okay. Then come inside the cut. I want to discuss this, but not out in the open, where people will be tempted to read my comments before they’ve read the article.
First off, props to Joshua Bell for being willing to conduct an experiment like that — and with his actual Strad, no less. (I wouldn’t have faulted him in the slightest if he’d borrowed some lesser instrument for the less-than-ideal environment.) And he seems to have a good attitude about it; instead of getting in a snit about the way he was ignored, he shifts perspectives to see how a whole dollar becomes a high compliment, how even snaring someone’s attention for a few seconds is an accomplishment.
It makes me sad that we have so few street musicians in the U.S., compared with Europe. We just don’t appreciate them. And I’m as guilty as anyone else, sometimes; I get annoyed with the racket from time to time, though on other occasions the presence of a musician can brighten my day. (Could brighten my day, I should say; we’re generally lacking in buskers, in this town, so I’m mostly generalizing off my experiences in Boston and New York.)
But the thing I mainly want to talk about is the notion of art in context. I watched the video clips, and frankly? The music Bell’s playing isn’t the kind of thing I’d be likely to stop and listen to. Yes, he’s a fabulous violinist, and yes, his instrument is a priceless treasure . . . but the music doesn’t belong there. It’s music you appreciate more the more you understand it, the more you have the leisure to pay attention to it and capture all of its nuances. Right now, iTunes is playing Lisa Gerrard singing “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” I would be more likely to stop in the subway and listen to her than to Bell. Why? Because I know the song — the pleasure of familiarity. It has lyrics that tell a story — the pleasure of narrative. It’s simple in its evocativeness in a way that Bach’s “Chaconne” isn’t.
And that’s where some of the quotes in the article verge on irritating me. The unspoken idea behind some of the praise for the music seems to be, this is great art, therefore it should be great art anywhere. And I’m not sure if I agree with that. I think I’m more sympathetic to the idea that art of any kind derives some of its quality from context. If you play “Chaconne” for an audience that understands its structure, the conventions of its genre, and the subtleties of violin technique, and you do so in an environment where the acoustics complement the performance, and everyone involved is in the right state of mind for the event, then it might deserve the praise that’s heaped on it. But if you play it for an audience that hasn’t heard the piece before, isn’t familiar with the genre, and can just barely recognize a violin on sight, in an acoustically odd environment where everybody’s on their way somewhere else . . . .
It’s a question, I suppose, of purpose. If your purpose is to attract the attention of commuters and give them a moment of musical beauty, I think you could pick better music than “Chaconne” (and everything else Bell played). In that context, maybe Lisa Gerrard singing “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” would be the better piece of art.
To the WaPo’s credit, though, I don’t think their article is intended as a slam on the commuters for being philistines who don’t appreciate Bell playing Bach. (Some people may walk away with that conclusion, and those people, I would disagree with.) I think it’s meant to be a lament for how focused, isolated, and over-busy those commuters (and the rest of us) are, that we can’t take the time to stop for music, or even to notice that it’s there. And I can agree with that, wholeheartedly.
That’s why, even when I used to find myself irritated at an overly-loud busker, even when said busker was maybe not all that good, I was generally glad to see him there. I was glad someone was making music for the public, bringing a little spot of color into the world.