Friday, May 9, 2008

Pearls Before Breakfast

After hearing my laments about returning from Paris, France, to “the speed of life” in North America, my good friend, Margaret, passed on to me an interesting article in the Washington Post; something I’d like to share with you:

In it, staff writer, Gene Weingarten, asked the question: Can one of the nation's great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour?

Weingarten then proceeded to answer it with an experiment, using internationally acclaimed virtuoso violinist, Joshua Bell, who’d agreed to play anonymously as a street performer at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station in Washington DC. It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by; and virtually all of them kept walking.

Bell’s performance, arranged by The Washington Post, was 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?

Bell played masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls. “The violin,” says Weingarten, “is an instrument that is said to be much like the human voice, and in this musician's masterly hands, it sobbed and laughed and sang -- ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.”

Weingarten describes Bell as a heartthrob. Tall and handsome, with a dose of the “cutes”, that, onstage, elides into “hot”, his thick mop of hair is a strategic asset: because his technique is full of body—athletic and passionate—he's almost dancing with the instrument, and his hair flies.” Interview magazine wrote that his playing "does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live."

Bell always performs on the same instrument, and he ruled out using another for this gig. Called the Gibson ex Huberman, it was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master's "golden period," toward the end of his career, when he had access to the finest spruce, maple and willow, and when his technique had been refined to perfection. "Our knowledge of acoustics is still incomplete," Bell said, "but he, he just . . . knew."

Bell began with Chaconne from Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Bell calls it "not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It's a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect. Plus, it was written for a solo violin, so I won't be cheating with some half-assed version."

Bach's Chaconne, according to Weingarten “consists entirely of a single, succinct musical progression repeated in dozens of variations to create a dauntingly complex architecture of sound. Composed around 1720, on the eve of the European Enlightenment, it is said to be a celebration of the breadth of human possibility.”

Weingarten describes what happened: “Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something. A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened. Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.”

Bell had not expected this reaction and was frankly a little dismayed. He says that as he plays he is capturing emotion as a narrative: "When you play a violin piece, you are a storyteller, and you're telling a story…It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . ." The word doesn't come easily. ". . . ignoring me."… ignoring his story…

Mark Leithauser, curator at the National Gallery, suggested that we shouldn't be too ready to condemn Metro passersby as unsophisticated. Context matters. In his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Immanuel Kant argued that one's ability to appreciate beauty is related to one's ability to make moral judgments. Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania, one of America's most prominent Kantian scholars, says the 18th-century German philosopher felt that to properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal.

Would it have been different if people had recognized Bell? Perhaps that is a loaded question; to recognize Bell would be to already have joined a “club” per se and to have no doubt seen him in concert. Moreover, it brings up yet another question about North Americans as a culture: do we need someone else to tell us what is beautiful and worthwhile?

Weingaraten describes the one case of someone who did recognize Bell:

As it happens, exactly one person recognized Bell, and she didn't arrive until near the very end. For Stacy Furukawa, a demographer at the Commerce Department, there was no doubt. She doesn't know much about classical music, but she had been in the audience three weeks earlier, at Bell's free concert at the Library of Congress. And here he was, the international virtuoso, sawing away, begging for money. She had no idea what the heck was going on, but whatever it was, she wasn't about to miss it.

Furukawa positioned herself 10 feet away from Bell, front row, center. She had a huge grin on her face. The grin, and Furukawa, remained planted in that spot until the end.

"It was the most astonishing thing I've ever seen in Washington," Furukawa says. "Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn't do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?"

“We're busy,” says Weingarten. “Americans have been busy, as a people, since at least 1831, when a young French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville visited the States and found himself impressed, bemused and slightly dismayed at the degree to which people were driven, to the exclusion of everything else, by hard work and the accumulation of wealth.” If this had been staged in a Paris Metro, say Châtelet Métro Station, I assure you that the level of appreciation—lack of it, that is—would not have occurred. As I scaled the stairway to the Station lobby, I would have encountered an appreciative crowd surrounding this virtuoso musician, who plays like an angel. I have seen more attention given to a middle-aged local French chanteur (who sang with a so-so voice, but with passion) at Saint-Michel Métro Station in Paris than was apparently shown for young international star Joshua Bell in l'Enfant Plaza Metro in Washington, DC.

Not much has changed since Tocqeville’s visit to America, says Weingarten. “Pop in a DVD of Koyaanisqatsi, the wordless, darkly brilliant, avant-garde 1982 film about the frenetic speed of modern life. Backed by the minimalist music of Philip Glass, director Godfrey Reggio takes film clips of Americans going about their daily business, but speeds them up until they resemble assembly-line machines, robots marching lockstep to nowhere.” See my own post on this movie as part of a dissertation on the speed of life. "Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi word that means "life out of balance."

British author John Lane writes about the loss of the appreciation for beauty in the modern world in his 2003 book entitled Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life. The experiment at L'Enfant Plaza may be symptomatic of that, Lane suggested, “not because people didn't have the capacity to understand beauty, but because it was irrelevant to them.”

"This is about having the wrong priorities," said Lane. And losing one's balance of life.

Weingarten ends with this dark reflection on our culture and cautionary note: “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?”

Much of the text was excerpted from an article by Gene Weingarten that appeared in the Washington Post, Sunday, April 8, 2007. Read the entire article and watch the heart-breaking videos here. Gene Weingarten can be reached at

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

I hadn't heard of Bell. Thanks for this super feature.

sfgirl said...

You're welcome, Jean-luc. He is marvelous. If you have a chance, check out the videos on the Washington Post article--you can hear him there (under duress, of course...not the best setting... :) It's wonderful to watch him in action; he throws his whole body into his playing. Very passionate.

sfgirl said...

...then contrast his fluid elegant dance with the staccato and robotic motions of the metro's patrons... they are worlds apart. As though they existed in two separate dimensions...

James Austin said...

Great post. I would like to think that I would have stopped and taken this preformance in, but I believe that in today's busy world people alot certain time for each priority they set and have to zone out all the other static to get by. Maybe that is the point though. I can't believe he took that precious instrument to a metro staition though.

sfgirl said...

Good point, James... Yeah. That instrument is worth a few million and there he was... Mind you, they'd posted several undercover agents in case a riot happened re people recognizing Bell (which sure didn't happen!)... so both he and his instrument were pretty safe. You also make a good point about the "zoning out" phenomenon as a function of our coping with our fast pace of life. It's no less sad, though...

Princess Haiku said...

This is a fascinating post, Nina. I almost always stop for street performers and wish I was there to throw flowers in his violin case. I have noticed that people don't perceive things out of context and so I'm not surprised that they ignored him. Unfortunately, a lot of people need to be told what is special and what isn't. - Thinking and hearing for oneself is important if you don't want to miss a lot of life.

I have never heard Joshua Bell live, but have three of his CDs and have seen him on TV. He is a great artist.

sfgirl said...

Princess. Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Princess; you grace my sight with your wisdom...Just thinking outloud here... This humbling experience was probably very good for young Joshua too... giving him a new perspective on his fellow North Americans and what our culture is doing to us...