April 5, 2011

violinist Joshua Bell, subway, beauty and inspiration


"I draw my inspiration from everything that surrounds me; life is inspiring." Photographer Luis Beltran said this in an interview with liberal sprinkles last week. I agree with him of course, beauty and inspiration are everywhere. But my problem is that I often forget to look when I'm busy or have to much on my mind. Or I just plain forget. I was reminded of a Joshua Bell incident, which I had read about several years ago. It was something I discussed with friends and family then and it is so thought-provoking I'd like to share it, even four years after it happened.

Joshua Bell, if you aren't familiar with his name, is a world renowned violinist. I saw him in concert last year; it was not his best performance but he was still brilliant. Imagine if you were to hear someone with his talent playing while on your way (maybe I should say "in your daily rush") to work. Would you hurry on, would you pause in your steps, would you actually stop and listen?

Bell played six classical pieces on his $3.5 million 1713 Stradivarius for 43 minutes
at a DC metro station entrance in January 2007. It was the morning rush hour at the center of federal Washington. Of the 1,097 people who walked by, all of SEVEN stopped to listen for at least a minute; 27 gave money. Of course not everyone knows who he is and he wore a baseball cap so even if they did, they might not have recognized him. Did that matter, though? Would not the music itself have been a draw? Bell is an international classical music star! He is incredibly skilled! Listen to the man in concert (don't mind the interference).

Joshua Bell plays Beethoven Violin Concerto no.3 rondo allegro
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Tokyo, June 2005

Bell's incognito performance at the DC subway was not impromptu. It was set up by The Washington Post as an experiment to see if genius would be recognised, if beauty would triumph in a banal setting at an inconvenient time. It didn't, obviously. Not only did fewer than 1 percent of passers-by stop, most people walked on without even pausing or turning their heads. It was as if he wasn't even there. He played to near thunderous silence.

The purpose behind the exercise, what happened in those 43 minutes, the analysis and debate in the aftermath are all fascinating. Some dismissed it as a lousy Candid Camera gimmick. Was The Washington Post fair in conducting such an experiment? Was the premise even right? So beauty was a flop in an inconvenient situation. So what? Does it have to mean anything? Maybe the minds and ears of those "oblivious" passers-by were already filled with beauty.

I stopped listening to my iPod or plugging in to my smartphone during my commutes. I didn't do it so I could consciously pay more attention to the life that's happening around me but I have to say it helps - I get distracted more easily (not always for the good). When I'm on the bus or train, I usually read a book - it's easier to put down to observe people and things. I'd like to think I would stop and appreciate beauty when it's staring me right in the eye, but I don't honestly know if I would just walk by, unseeing, if   I   h a v e   t o   g e t   t h e r e   a l r e a d y  !

What would you have done if you'd run into a situation like this while rushing to work or an appointment?

Joshua Bell at the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station on January 12, 2007, from 7.51am

Joshua Bell: Stop and Hear the Music by the Washington Post (on YouTube)
at L'Enfant Plaza subway station on January 12, 2007

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
- from Leisure, by W.H. Davies

Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.
- Pablo Piccaso

* read the article (more videos here): Pearls Before Breakfast (The Washington Post)
* how the event was set up, the debate: Too busy to stop and hear the music (Washington Post Magazine)
* listen to the subway performance: audio of Joshua Bell's full metro performance

Here is Bruce Springsteen busking in Copenhagen in 1988. Very different reaction...because people recognized him, I suppose. Because they were not pressed for time, though why would anyone not stop for Bruce Springsteen at any time if they recognized him?

(for some reason, this was embedded as a larger size video)

Any thoughts? I would love to hear them, please leave me a comment. Thanks for reading. I leave you with another Joshua Bell piece.

Joshua Bell: Voice of the Violin

if you enjoyed this post, why not...
leave me a comment
follow me /  subscribe in a reader / subscribe by email
link back
check out my other posts, my posts on art

Joshua Bell plays the music in The Red Violin, a beautiful movie about the journey of a violin through the centuries.
Stars Samuel L. Jackson.

Related links
Joshua Bell (Wikipedia)
Joshua Bell videos on YouTube
W.H. Davies, selected works at Poets' Corner
Picasso, links to his works at Artchive

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

by liberal sprinkles


Lynn said...

Beautiful music played by Joshua Bell. Not sure what I'd do if I was rushed to go to work. I've been at seminars before and have seen a lone person play an instrument as I rushed to get to the next workshop. I admired them for their courage to play and wished I could stop and listen, but what I was doing was more pressing. Maybe their music hadn't captured me to the point of not wanting to go on. I think I pass up a lot of things that I should be paying attention to, but I do what I can.

liberal sprinkles said...

Lynn, I've thought about this issue a lot, maybe the results mean nothing at all and I've done too much thinking. There's plenty of beauty around us but we all appreciate different things and we can't all love everything. Just as long as we find the stuff that keeps us going :)

Post a Comment