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16 April 2007

in the last week, i’ve found two or three references to a recent article about world-renowned violinist joshua bell busking in a washington, d.c. metro station. tonight i took a break and read the original article.

it was a stunt. have the best violinist in the nation (one who is paid up to $1000/minute) stand in a busy metro station during rush hour playing difficult and beautiful music on a $3.5 million stradivarius and see just how many people stop. or even notice. when consulted, the music director of the national symphony orchestra surmised that 70-100 people would stop (a small crowd) and 40 or so may know the quality of what they heard. the reality? 27 gave money (a total of $32.17). only 7 stopped to listen. two or three knew the quality of what they heard. and one recognized bell (who is highly recognizable, as he’s something of a classical music heartthrob).

the article is beautifully written and well worth the time it takes to read. the accompanying video clips are interesting to watch. as i read, and watched, i longed to have been there. to have discovered that kind of music being played in a metro station. would i have stopped? i don’t know. it wouldn’t have been the first time, as i often stopped to listen to buskers in both london and boston. and i probably would have dropped some cash into his case before i went on my way. but i know myself. and i know i can get caught up in the stress and busy-ness of life and, while i’m positive i would have noticed, i may have hurried through without much pause.

the article’s questions about context and framing in relationship to beauty are of great interest to me. i’ve been thinking about those questions for a long time. and some of my favorite intellectual arguments with friends have arisen in response to those questions. i’ll never forget the day that started with a conversation about the relationship between context and art/beauty on a bus to stratford upon avon and ended with the most incredible adaptation of 12th night. it was one of those days that stays with you for years, reverberating with thought and laughter and beauty. i enjoyed the article because of its subject and its questioning.

but the thing that made me stop as i was reading was john picarello’s reaction. a fan of joshua bell (though he didn’t recognize him), picarello came off the escalator, heard the music and immediately stopped. he spent nearly ten minutes standing in l’enfant plaza engrossed in the music. having trained as a violinist as a child and teenager, with the aspiration of becoming a professional musician, he recognized the perfection of the playing and the quality of the instrument. he called it “a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day.” he was bewildered by the fact that no one else seemed to recognize what was happening.

this is what really made me stop and notice picarello:

“When he left, Picarello says, ‘I humbly threw in $5.’ It was humble: You can actually see that on the video. Picarello walks up, barely looking at Bell, and tosses in the money. Then, as if embarrassed, he quickly walks away from the man he once wanted to be.”

here was a man who loves music. who once aspired to be what joshua bell is, and who is now a supervisor at the u.s. postal service because he knew he didn’t have the ability to make it as a concert violinist. but he still knew the beauty of what he heard and acknowledged it. this response resonated with me. because i often feel this way in my own work. i love the literature i teach. it’s magical. because it’s not just stories, words conveying set meanings. it’s infinitely complex–always greater than the sum of its parts. the work i do–writing about literature; teaching literature–is a form of homage. a humble acknowledgement of beauty and wisdom and raw humanity of a kind i know is beyond my ability to produce.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 18 April 2007 9:09 am

    I agree that the concept of placing a genius in common places and seeing what happens is fascinating, but I think the way it was done with Bell was more of a stunt. It was the peak of the rush. Even the people that yearned to stop couldnt because of other committments. Do it on a Saturday afternoon, in the same place, and you will have a huge crowd.

  2. 18 April 2007 9:32 am

    i agree jim. had i been one of those commuters, hurrying off to work, i probably would have passed by (though i *know* i would have noticed the music). or i may have been like the man who determined exactly how many minutes he had before he had to be at work (3) and spent those minutes listening.i think the point the article makes that is of more interest to me than whether or not people stopped was its discussion of how beauty must be framed in order to be appreciated. that context, and attitudes/beliefs, shape what we determine to be beautiful rather than it being determined purely by intrinsic value.

  3. 18 April 2007 10:05 am

    Jim–You probably wouldn’t on a Saturday at that particular location, but more people would stop. As far as buskers go, they are at the metro stations almost every day after work, you kind of zone them out. However, at the same time, I do stop if its a musician that’s new and better quality than the rest. I didn’t read all of the article, but I didn’t really put a face to the name until I read the description, and then I knew exactly who they were talking about. He’s cute.

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