April 10

Pearls before swine


Imagine having the opportunity to watch and listen to one of the world’s most famous violinists play tunes on a famous Stradivarius violin worth multiple millions of dollars for absolutely free. Would you take it? What’s the catch?, you ask. Ah, it would be from the standing room only nosebleed section of some giant auditorium, right?
Nope, how about a front row seat. How about if you could walk right up to handshake distance to this famous violinists and listen to him play from 3 feet away? And talk to him between tunes. All for absolutely free. Oh, you might want to give him a buck. You would take the deal, wouldn’t you?
Of course you would.
But that opportunity was provided to the drudges that work in our government, the one’s we pay our taxes to employ, and the vast masses of them walked right by without even looking.
As a stunt Joshua Bell, one of the world’s most famous violinists, agreed to play in the Washington, DC metro station like a common busker to see what would happen. He played a few fiendishly difficult pieces as the hordes walked on by without so much as a second glance.
Click here for the Washington Post article complete with videos of the event. Incredible!

HE EMERGED FROM THE METRO AT THE L’ENFANT PLAZA STATION AND POSITIONED HIMSELF AGAINST A WALL BESIDE A TRASH BASKET. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.
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. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L’Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.
Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?
On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as 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?

Read the entire piece and watch the embedded videos. It is brilliant.
I’m sure you’re all saying, yeah, right, Eades, you’re telling us you would have stopped?
I can tell you with absolute certainty that I would have stopped. I would have stopped for no other reason than that – as MD will attest – I stop and listen to every street musician I come across. I also studied the violin for a number of years and I would have recognized the difficulty of the pieces and the brilliance of the playing. And, I’m familiar with Joshua Bell, so I would have probably recognized him as does one of the passersby in one of the videos.
I suppose I should admit that if this were some kind of world famous heavy metal band or rap group that I would have stopped only briefly and would undoubtedly not recognized anyone. But I would have at least stopped for a minute or two to listen. What I can’t understand is simply walking by without a glance.

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  1. “But that opportunity was provided to the drudges that work in our government, the one’s we pay our taxes to employ, and the vast masses of them walked right by without even looking.”

    Slight point of order here, but EVERYONE in Washington is a mindless government drudge?? I had no idea you guys had embraced socialism to that extent! 😉
    In a similar vein I was reading recently that years ago someone copied a chapter out of one of Patrick White’s books (local Nobel for literature laureate) – now I’d agree that some of his stuff is pretty much unreadable, but when this chapter was submitted to every publishing house in Australia, not only wasn’t it recognized, but in every case it was rejected for publication!
    Alright, I exaggerated.  Only 90 percent of them were government drudges; the rest were government vendors.
    If you weren’t a government drudge or a vendor why would you live in Washington, DC?

  2. Honestly, I passed by, i-pod ear buds firmly in place, and didn’t even glance up. In such urban settings the competition for our attention from ads, street performers, panhandlers etc makes it difficult to pay attention to anything, as the goal is to get from point a to b with as little interference as possible.
    I hate the panhandlers and never give them money, but I always stop for the street musicians and usually give them a buck or two. I can play the guitar and sing well enough that if my world collapsed I could probably squeak by as a street musician myself, so I always wonder about the histories of those who are actually doing it.


  3. Looks like to me most people only heard the music for about 15 seconds. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have stopped unless my 15 seconds included one of the more virtuosic sections of the Bach Chaconne.
    Quite a piece that Bach Chaconne. Do you have any favorite recordings of it?
    I don’t have a favorite recording of it–in fact, I’m not a big fan of it.  I tend more towards Niccolo Paganini, Pablo de Sarasate, and Fritz Kreisler in my violin tastes. 

  4. I would have walked by without a glance. I see musicians all the time in the subway. Additionally, even though I was raised with classical music, I never really cared for it. I don’t even know who Joshua Bell is, and my exposure to playing music was one year of flute in middle school.
    So I don’t stop for any street musician.

  5. I would have to confess I’d probably pass by too, or stop for a second if there was a crowd watching. I think something like this is more of a condition of where you live. As a NY’r, while I enjoy the daily music I hear in the subway, I seldom spend time watching unless it something truly amazing (and believe me there’s been some). To balance it out though, my boyfriend who is from Santa Barbara stops for a lot of these performers because he’s just not caught up in the NYC pace. He enjoys seeing the different performers and sounds, whereas I’m just used to it as familiar background noise. I chalk it up to that.
    Though I will confess I used to stop on more than one occasion and listen to the homeless guitarist that used to hang out in front of the Borders on State Street and make up songs about people that would walk by. I’m sure you guys probably remember him 🙂
    Yep, his name was Mason B. Mason, and he was a fixture on State Street and at the farmer’s market.  He died a couple of years ago and is sorely missed.

  6. Oddly, I stumbled across this article because it made the front page of del.icio.us, and I was in its thrall for the duration of time it took to read it.
    It prompted me to start writing an essay on my wiki about social context experiments.
    Hi Bradley–
    I’d like to read your essay when it’s finished.

  7. i saw bell play recently and he blew me away! the passion coming from him and his players, their interaction, their focus, and the sound they created were on a totally different level of experience than the typical symphony performance (at least here in phx) where many of the players seem dead faced and the music just doesn’t have life. i usually find it easy to daydream during a performance, but with bell, my mind and spirit were riveted. i had forgotten that it can indeed be transcendent. bravo!
    Hi Susan–
    And you probably paid for the experience.  Could’ve had it free in Washington and you would probably have appreciated it more than most.

  8. The thoughts of a “drudge who works for (your) government.”
    Obviously, you are not a regular commuter in a major city. Time pressure plus stress makes this a non-start. Never mind that he’s world famous in a genre where everyone really important is 100+ years dead. It’s great music, but contemporary celebrities of classical music are, well, not occupying a ton of mind-space among your average American, government drudge or otherwise.
    By the way: As your government drudge, I earn your taxes. And then I pay taxes from your taxes. What’s the point of that? Just pay me the post tax share as my salary and let me go tax free. Everybody comes out cheaper.
    Last thing: I commute too early and don’t use L’enfant Plaza. DOL is on the north side of the mall, better served by Archives or Judiciary. Gotta get to work early to “earn” those tax dollars.
    Hi Max–
    Somehow when I wrote those words I knew I would hear from you. You wrote:

    …a genre where everyone really important is 100+ years dead. It’s great music, but contemporary celebrities of classical music are, well, not occupying a ton of mind-space among your average American, government drudge or otherwise.

    More is the pity. Great music is not great just because it’s a 100+ years old; it’s great because, well, it’s great. That’s why we’re still listening to it 100+ years later. There was a lot of stuff written 100+ years ago that is no longer heard because it wasn’t great.
    As to being a drudge, well, you’re in pretty good company. As one of my heroes Samuel Johnson wrote of himself (also well over 100+ years ago) in his famous dictionary:

    Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the significance of words.

    BTW, I’m all for your tax scheme. Let’s make it work. You can start a movement from the inside.

  9. Dr. MRE,
    I usually come to your site because I am a low carb girl in a high carb world. I take refuge from the naysayers and gather ammunition. But I do enjoy your “off topic” deviations and this one nearly made me cry. What a depressing commentary on American culture (or lack there of) that our clocks and bosses are running our lives rather than our hearts/spirits.
    On top of that, our global reputation does not need further tarnish. I sure hope our international neighbors didn’t bother reading that article.
    Would I have stopped? Man, I hope so.

  10. I don’t use L’Enfant either, but I’m pretty sure I would have at least given a few minutes to listen. Wouldn’t I have been more efficient that morning had I seen him and been “permitted” to stop and listen because I did’t have to “sign in” my time? You know many drudges are drudges because of the office rules (for better or worse). Shouldn’t the equation read: Better life = better work? Anyway, as a “government drudge” in DC, I’m all for Max’s tax scheme!
    Maybe Bell will come back sometime!
    Hi AT22–
    Maybe it should read Better work = better life.
    I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Bell to come back.  It would be a good sociological experiment to have him back again, though, after all the hoopla about this, just to see if it all would happen the same way yet again.

  11. I’m no musician, in fact I really have no talent in that area, but I think even I would recognize Ave Maria and just have to stop and listen!!
    I wonder what the results would have been if he’s played during afternoon/evening rush hour.
    More of the same, I would suspect.

  12. Can’t leave it alone.
    Perhaps the arts problem is an economics problem in a different way. As AT22 suggested, the incentives to stop your morning commute for a piece of music are all wrong. What happens? For me, I miss my workout or start it later. I get to desk later, which means I leave desk later. Then I have to figure my evening commute out of the zone. It has PITA written all over it. If I’m someone who commutes later (I get to work/gym at 6:40-ish), I might be up against a meeting or a supervisory dress down. Lots of upside to being early, not much to being later.
    If I’m coming home, commute variability doesn’t bother me as much. Can get home later, only one bothered is wife, who gets home later than I do, so she probably wouldn’t notice.
    That said, pop music is consumable. It’s like chips. Some chips are very good, some are just time killing bits of carb & transfat. Classical music (or Jazz, 1920 to 1970) is a little less easy to digest. Better value, in general, but generally longer (unless you listen to prog rock’s 20 minute compositions). Perhaps a real rain (in the form of cheaper, easier access and paradigm shift in media consumption) will come and wash all the Pussycat Dolts from the face of the earth and ressurect the fine art of symphony authorship. One never knows, but since smart futurists tend towards commoditization, I’d say it’s a poor bet.
    PS- Perhaps in another 60 years, we will still wax poetic over the Beatles groundbreaking period (Help! through the end, minus Yellow Sub). I suspect, if I live another 70, I will still go ape over the layered guitar sounds of Boston. Not to create false equivalence, but it’s an art. It’s hard to judge impact without an appreciator.
    I agree about the Beatles.  I came to the Beatles late in life.  I lived through them when they were actively performing, watched them live on the Ed Sullivan show, but didn’t particularly like them at that time.  I was always a little different.  While my friends were all eaten up with the Beatles, the Stones, Herman’s Hermits (strangely, Peter Noone (Herman) lives right down the street from us now), etc, I was into Elvis, just to be perverse, I suppose.  And the Kinks, which was more appropriate.  When I was in college and James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, and Bob Dylan were all the rage, I was deep into Hank Williams, Sr. (it’s true) and all kinds of classical music, a bizarre combo, to say the least.  I totally missed the age of classic rock and discovered it only when I met MD and was exposed to her vast trove of recordings.  Now I like it all.
    I had to laugh at your deletion of Yellow Submarine from the Beatles ouvre that you find groundbreaking: that song is the favorite of both my grandsons, who listen to it a fifty times a day. 

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