Monday, April 20, 2009

Joshua Bell can't win

Here's a link to an interesting post in another blog about the time people don't take for beauty. In short, Joshua Bell plays in the subway station one morning and only collects thirty-something dollars. Little kids try to watch him, but everyone else hurries on by, missing one of the most popular violinist of the times playing a free concert on a priceless violin.
What's interesting to me is how quickly the comments under the blog catch on the to the flaw - it was rush hour. In the morning. People had work to get to, and schedules to keep. Little kids don't. Also, how many people really like violin music (other than violinists?) Plenty of people have an appreciation for orchestra but hey, violin by itself can be a little high-pitched for the ears. I certainly wouldn't stop for a piccolo player, unless it was to steal their piccolo so they couldn't play it anymore, and the violin pieces I've seen routinely get up into the stratosphere into that shrill dog-whistle range. They're also right about him playing in the subway and people using it as a qualitative marker. The only reason anyone has heard of him was not because he played in the subway, but because he's played the Met. To be honest, I hadn't even heard of Joshua Bell until he lost his damn violin and a taxi driver returned it, which to me was a black mark on him - who loses their instrument? Anyway, I probably would have been the lone person who stopped and listened - I always stop for string players. It's a solidarity thing, even if most of them are snobby.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think I have to play Devil’s Advocate on this one. Although, I tend to really feel this way, so I’m not sure if that actually counts as being the actual advocate or the actual devil.

I just don’t buy it. So a dude and a little kid stopped on the subway and listened to some of the most beautiful music in the world by the best player, that doesn’t make them connoisseurs or better equipped to experience wonder. And, this doesn’t mean that the whole of the known universe in their sad and pathetic New York lives are completely immune to the ‘impact’ of experiencing beauty. I would find a similar comparison in blaming the blind for their completely ignoring a sunrise in favor of a baseball game on the radio.

The fact is that when you’re zooming through the metro in the morning on the way to work you are experiencing so much sensory input that you don’t think to process that one more thing that is added to it. And, the context of experiencing beauty in a subway is so alien that you’d be so completely unprepared for it that most of those people just skipped it completely. Add to that the fact that the subway itself isn’t the best place to experience violin music and I think you have a recipe for also having completely diminished the possible impact of both the virtuosity of the player and the lyricism of the piece (no need for double stops, you can just play the secondary note against the echo of the tonic you just played off of those ugly tile walls).

There is a reason the ticket at the MET is $100. That seat you have there has been scientifically engineered to deliver an experience that maximizes the value of it. What you’ve paid for is to decrease the variables that contribute to disappointment. They went and found the best people they could afford to put on the stage, an engineer built the hall to be acoustically sound; they even lined up some guys to put comfortable foam in the seat so that your ass doesn’t fall asleep during Wagner.

And look, seriously, some people just don’t like classical music no matter how good it is. In fact, probably better than 50% of the people who say they like it actually don’t like it. They just know that it “sounds pretty” and, “ooo, that sounded complicated, so it must be good.” Let’s be honest, there are whole sections of Rachmaninoff that are the classical equivalent of Kenny G (may he burn in a special section of hell clutching all of his stock certificates and thank you notes from Aqua Net). But, I say this to note the fact that this whole test was based on a completely biased notion of beauty along with being placed in the completely wrong context.

One of my most favorite places in the world is the Davies Symphony hall in San Francisco, where I get those awesome seats behind the orchestra. I would pay double the ticket price to sit behind the orchestra, but I’m in luck that those are actually the cheap seats. The Blue hairs and such don’t like the couch seating and they can pay twice as much as I do to see the back of the conductor, but not for me. Context, to me, is everything. I sit behind the orchestra and pretend like I’m playing fifth foot tapper. When it comes to Blues, I don’t want to hear the blues in the Davies. I want to go around the corner down Mason Street to Biscuits and Blues (one of my all time favorite blues bars) where I can order hot water cornbread, fried okra, and listen to blues well into the night tended by saucy and slightly overweight African American waitresses and miss the fact that people don’t smoke in bars anymore. I say this just to note how context can catalyze different manifestations of the experience.

Beauty is just one of those things that is experienced in moments and is characterized by its own special clarity. Most often, it is not something that is even accessible to the cluttered mind. That’s why we turn off our mobile phones in concert halls, to give us focus and provide that for others (another attempt to maximize the experience). Is it possible to experience the beauty of Bach in the subway, the answer is yes. Is it possible for MOST people to experience, I would say the answer is no. That’s what this test proves, in my estimation.