Monday, January 7, 2013

He Played Real Good (Like a Violinist Should) For Free

Today a friend on Facebook passed along an item about the time the classical violinist Joshua Bell played incognito, without fanfare, in a Washington, D.C. metro station during rush hour.  This was in January 2007; I remember reading about it not too long afterward.  The performance was arranged by a Washington Post reporter, Gene Weingarten, "an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend? " The results were predictable -- only one of the 1097 people who passed Bell recognized him, and very few tossed him any money.  He took in $32 for 45 minutes of playing.

A sentimental detail: hardly any adults stopped to listen to Bell, but "Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away."  Weingarten waxed melodramatic: "The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother's heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too."
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?
As an experiment, this was pretty bad.  As an interpretation of a social experiment, it's worse.  I'm not at all surprised that children wanted to stop and listen to Bell.  Back when I used to play my guitar outdoors, the very same thing would happen, and I'm no Joshua Bell.  But little children have no sense of time.  It isn't "life" that "starts to choke the poetry out of" them, it's social institutions whose purpose is to hammer us into cogs, and who value nothing that doesn't make money.  Schools take at least six years to accustom children to live by the clock, and that's more important than trivia like reading and writing.  As Noam Chomsky says in Understanding Power (Pantheon, 2002, p. 236):
My oldest, closest friend is a guy who came to the United States when he was fifteen, fleeing from Hitler. He escaped to New York with his parents and went to George Washington High School, which in those days at least was the school for bright Jewish kids in New York City. And he once told me that the first thing that struck him about American schools was the fact that if he got a “C” in a course, nobody cared, but if he came to school three minutes late he was sent to the principal’s office – and that generalized. He realized that what it meant is, what’s valued here is the ability to work on an assembly line, even if it’s an intellectual assembly line. The important thing is to be able to obey orders, and to do what you’re told and to be where you’re supposed to be. The values are, you’re going to be a factory worker somewhere – maybe they’ll call it a university – but you’re going to be following somebody else’s orders, and just doing your work in some prescribed way. And what matters is discipline, not figuring things out for yourself, or understanding things that interest you – those are kind of marginal: just make sure you meet the requirements of a factory.
I wonder what Gene Weingarten would say if one of his underlings was an hour late because he or she had stopped to listen to some guy playing a violin in the metro station.  And most of the people who dashed past Bell were probably government workers; do the taxpayers want government workers to loiter around in subway stations listening to some longhair fiddler, instead of sitting down at their desks and doing their jobs?  Most American males, I think, would be more sympathetic to someone who stopped to watch the recap of a pro football game on a TV.  But classical music?  That's for cheese-eating, latte-sipping, NPR elitists.

Instead of blaming the passersby at rush hour, maybe the writer should criticize institutions that are run quite ruthlessly by the clock, in the service of money. (Much is made in the Washington Post article, and in various versions of the story I've read, of Bell's $3.5 million violin, as though it made his music more worthy of attention than a cheap instrument.  I suspect that for Weingarten and many others who've retailed this story, the cost of the violin and of the tickets to hear Bell play in a regular concert hall are more important than the music.)  The people who dawdled to listen to Bell weren't just responding to beauty, they were engaging in tiny acts of rebellion. The next thing you know, they'll be camping out in public parks. And then where will we be?